Whose Saint?

June 17, 2015
Whose Saint?

Last month, after repeated protests from Native American advocates, the Vatican reaffirmed Pope Francis’ plans to canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary and architect of the mission system in 18th century California.

The Pope has sped up the sainthood process for Serra, saying that the power of his faith and evangelizing outweigh the usual requirement that would-be saints perform two miracles. As the Vatican sees it, Father Serra was driven by compassion as well as belief, trying to protect the tens of thousands of Native Americans baptized by the missions from the cruelty of other Spanish colonizers. According to the Vatican Radio website, Fr. Serra should even be considered a “founding father” of the Americas.

NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome:

A Vatican official told reporters that the canonization will give the United States its first Hispanic saint, and it will help counter what he called an “Anglo-centric” view of history.

Some Native American activists, however, find this interpretation of Serra’s work ironic and misguided, accusing him of genocide, and saying that the mission system is to blame for killing indigenous cultures. Steven W. Hackel, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, estimates in an interview with journalist Rosie Scammell for Religion News Service that 60,000 people in the mission system died. The destruction missionaries brought through disease, imprisonment, and abuse motivated California lawmakers to request that Serra’s statue be removed from the U.S. Capitol.

Author Matthew Fox points out in the Huffington Post that the Pope has highlighted the importance of indigenous rights today, but seems to make exceptions for Serra’s mission system. Of its abuses, he says,

This is not love. Nor is it justice. This is colonialism writ large. […] Why canonize someone in 2015 who stands for […] bad intercultural values, utterly lacking the respect and humility that lie at the foundation of interfaith?

The canonization is scheduled for the Pope’s September trip to the United States.