California missionary Father Junipero Serra’s canonization is “long overdue,” says a university professor concerned that the priest’s history has been politicized and misrepresented. “When he died, many native peoples came to the mission for his burial. They openly wept. Others of his colleagues and even colonists, believed that he would be made a saint, because of the way he had lived his life, a self-effacing life of a martyr,” said archaeology professor Reuben Mendoza of California State University, Monterrey Bay. “Because of what he had achieved in his life, even then they had talked about his impending canonization,” Mendoza told CNA March 26. Fr. Serra was born in 1713 on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean. He left his position as a university professor to become a missionary to the New World, helping to convert many native Californians to Christianity and teaching them new and vital technologies. The Franciscan priest founded several of the missions that would go on to become the centers of major California cities. The priest’s mission work often took place despite a painful ulcerated leg Mendoza said was caused by a spider bite soon after his arrival in Mexico. He died in 1784 at Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Carmelo in what is now the state of California. St. John Paul II beatified Fr. Serra in 1988. In January, Pope Francis praised the missionary as “the evangelizer of the West” and announced his intention to canonize the Franciscan missionary during his scheduled 2015 visit to the U.S. Mendoza learned from other researchers that Serra was “a very humble man and a man who had a great sense of humor.” He said the “self-effacing” priest would sometimes insist on doing the work of young Indian boys who cleaned the Convent of San Fernando in Mexico City. “He would sweep the halls and pick up the trash and maintain his spiritual stance through work and action.” The priest’s sacrifices and “spiritual evangelization” led to the establishment of the missions that were “fundamental” to California’s history. Mendoza lamented that “politics” had delayed the canonization. “There has been a significant politicization of his canonization,” he said, pointing to opposition from those who feel that “the Church should not canonize a man who ultimately brought the missions to California and changed the lifestyles of native peoples.” Mendoza rejected the possibility that native Californians could have avoided cultural change. “As an anthropologist, I can tell you that all people change. There was already contact between other groups in the southwest and northern Mexico that had already initiated that process of change, and interaction and even conflict.” Mendoza’s own view of Fr. Serra has changed from hostility to appreciation. While both of the professor’s parents had been devoted Catholics, his father “gradually soured on the Catholic faith” and “came to hate the Catholic Church for perceived wrongdoings.” Mendoza had followed his father’s view and his initial research in archaeology, anthropology and history focused exclusively on Native Americans. After the arrival of Spanish colonists, over 100,000 churches were built in a 150 year timespan in the New World. “This is one of the greatest episodes of construction that the world has ever seen,” he said. “My eyes were pretty much closed to these churches.” Mendoza still had a connection to Catholicism. He would sometimes feel moved to pray at the churches, preferring to say the Our Father in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people. His archaeological work in Mexico and California, as well as his marriage to a Catholic woman, helped him see the missionary work in California and Father Serra in a different light. He learned of the stories of Catholic missionaries he described as “good guys.” He cited Fr. Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta of the California mission San Juan Baptista, an early 19th century linguist who cared for native people and led a raid to bring back two young Indian girls who had been abducted from the mission. “He led that raid with Indian warriors at his back,” Mendoza said. The professor began to realize that while it is common to consider the missionaries’ impact on the Indians, it is far less common to consider the Indians’ impact on the missionaries. “Here we see them literally becoming acculturated — learning the Indian languages, even doing their homilies in the multitude of Indian languages that they recorded and saved for posterity.” Mendoza found his perspective further altered when he heard false stories about California history from grade school teachers leading their classes on tours of the mission. They would tell their students, many of whom were Latino and Native American, “horrific tales that teachers were clearly making up as they went along in their efforts to try to explain history that they didn’t understand.” “They would go to features on the mission campus and tell the kids, ‘you see these three kits here with all this iron grillwork and the evidence for fire? This is where the Spanish and the friars would literally torture the Indians with fire’.” “I’m listening to this, and I go, ‘Wait a minute, those are 1930s-era barbeque pits for the yearly fiesta barbecue of chickens. And yet this is what they are telling the children’.” Visitors would confront Catholic priests at the mission and blame them for alleged abuses. Mendoza himself received personal attacks from people claiming to be of Native American descent who said “every brick in this mission represents another dead Indian.” “I began to realize: especially the most malicious comments about Fr. Serra were usually by people who knew nothing about him, who had picked it up secondhand on the internet or on a blog, or who simply just didn’t care for the Catholic Church and its doctrine.” Mendoza said it is clear from Fr. Serra’s writings that the priest would have been “mortified” to hear some claims about his treatment of the native people whom he “truly loved.” The professor discussed the historical context of the missions, noting that the Spanish Empire had officially outlawed slavery outside of the Caribbean. Unlike the slave plantations of the English-speaking colonies, entrance into the California missions was a choice. “You could not be coerced to come in, as was the case with African slaves who were being forced out of their homeland, and forced into servitude.” He compared the missions to religious communes in which the friars were obliged to protect the “body and soul” of mission members. Life outside the missions was difficult as well. Mendoza said that near the San Miguel mission, native people in the Central Valley were starving as a result of drought. “They were beginning to settle around the missions, and when they saw that everybody got three square (meals) a day, everybody was clothed, everybody was housed, everybody was defended, people began to join the mission.” “I don’t doubt that it’s likely that in some of these initial conversions, people didn’t fully understand what they were getting into,” the professor said. But while life in the missions was highly regimented, the work was intended to benefit the Indians and to sustain the mission as a community. “Serra, I think, was mortified whenever native people succumbed to illness or disease. That’s not to say these didn’t exist prior to his arrival in the region, but clearly this had an impact on him.” Mendoza predicted that the controversies over Fr. Serra will subside. “The wide body of scholarship, the growing number of people who are beginning to understand who Serra was, will ultimately change a lot of the way we see him and the mission system overall.” Mendoza particularly praised the book “Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary,” by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz. Their scholarship relies on new translations of documents and letters. He also recommended the history of Fr. Serra by Gregory Orsola, saying he “humanized” the priest. Without efforts to humanize Fr. Serra, Mendoza said, “we continue to see books that literally pick and choose the facts that will support agendas that are clearly antithetical to the Hispanic tradition, to the Catholic tradition, and to the life of Serra proper.”
Catholic News Agency was founded in 2004, in response to Pope St. John Paul II’s call for a “New Evangelization." It is an apostolate of EWTN News.