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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Father Junípero Serra: Saint or Sinner?

  A controversy has erupted over Pope Francis's intended canonization of Spanish missionary Junípero Serra, who spent most of his life working in what is today Mexico and California. This has lowered a cloud over the pope's visit to the United States, which begins on Tuesday.
  Father Serra was a Catalan Spaniard and a Franciscan from the island of Majorca who later founded or took over mission outposts in Baja California and what was then "Alta California" in New Spain (Mexico). There were 13 missions in Baja, and 21 that ranged along the coast between San Diego and San Francisco, in what is today the state of California.
  During his early years in Mexico, Serra worked in the Sierra Gorda, a part of Mexico where the native people stubbornly resisted the colonialist's conquest and conversion. He was appointed Inquisitor by the Spanish Inquisition, and rooted out witches and other evil spirits among Christians colonialists. When King Carlos III expelled the Jesuits from Mexico in 1767, the Franciscans and Dominicans inherited the Spanish missions in Baja and Alta California. Serra eventually became the head of the missions in California, with his headquarters in Carmel.
  He is strongly criticized by Native Americans and others for harsh treatment (whippings and beatings) of natives, and for the destruction of their societies and cultures. In addition, as happened in other parts of North America, many thousands of natives died after exposure to syphilis and other diseases carried mostly by soldiers and other settlers.
  Some critics are openly protesting Francis's decision to canonize Serra during the papal visit to the United States capital next week. The indictments are numerous and convincing.
  Serra's defenders claim he was a mediating influence who opposed even harsher treatment of natives by the ruling Spanish military forces in the region, alongside which the religious orders had to co-exist.
  In July, Pope Francis visited South America, and during his trip through Bolivia -- where Evo Morales is serving as that country's first indigenous president -- Francis begged forgiveness for the Church's sins against indigenous people in past centuries.  In doing so, however, he added this:

  "I also want for us to remember the thousands and thousands of priests who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the cross. There was sin, and it was plentiful. But we never apologized, so I now ask for forgiveness. But where there was sin, and there was plenty of sin, there was also an abundant grace increased by the men who defended indigenous peoples."

  Serra's remains are at the mission in Carmel, California, where he lived. The mission has been restored in recent decades, and is open to the public. The mission continues to operate a museum, a school and a church.

                 (Photo is of an oil painting of the mission, circa 1875, by Jules Tavernier.)

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