I recently returned from making the rounds in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond, where I gave some talks on my favorite writer. While there, I ventured down the coast a ways to visit the grave of one of the world’s newest saints—and the first saint ever canonized on U.S. soil—Father Junipero Serra. He is buried beneath the altar of the Mission San Carlo Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, also known as the Carmel Mission Basilica.
His canonization should have been a cause for great rejoicing for all Catholics and for the people of California, and, well, for everybody else. Instead, what little publicity it got was much more negative than positive.
Instead of being portrayed as a brave and compassionate missionary, who brought the love of God and many other good things to souls along the California coast, he is being condemned as an oppressor of the native peoples and a symbol of European Imperialism. The portrait is a little unfair. And a little inaccurate. (For those not familiar with irony, when I say “a little” I really mean “gigantically.”)
For most of the last two hundred plus years, this Franciscan priest had a good reputation among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Considered “The Man Who Founded California” the state honored him with a statue in the U.S. Capitol. He founded the first nine of twenty-one Franciscan missions in California, including the ones that eventually became the cities of San Diego and San Francisco. He started the first library in California. The many Serra Clubs across the country are named for him.
But then if you don’t like history, one of the simplest solutions is to revise it. G.K. Chesterton expresses the idea that God alone knows the future, but only a historian can re-write the past. Political agendas replaced the historical record, and Fr. Serra’s great accomplishments were given a coat of tarnish. Without the benefit of facts, he has been condemned as a racist and a slaver, utterly false accusations. At best, what was once high praise has been replaced with the suggestive word, “controversial.”
In the meantime, the Catholic Church made him a saint.
And perhaps the tide is turning back toward the truth. A brand new biography, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary by Robert Senkewicz, tries to correct the most recent misinformation. Senkewicz, a history professor at the University of Santa Cruz, says it is not accurate to paint the Church as a vehicle of European oppression. The European settlement of the Americas was inevitable, and what the Church did was try to influence the process for the good.
If there were problems between the natives and the Spanish, it was largely with the territorial governors and their soldiers. St. Junipero, incidentally, had as much trouble with the governors as did the natives. He did not get along with any of the government officials.
What is forgotten is that Fr. Serra founded the nine missions in California when he was very old and frail. He was also a very small man. He simply does not fit the profile of an oppressor of the natives. The fact is, the people came to him because they were attracted to his goodness and his charity. That is usually happens with saints.
He loved them, and they loved him. On one occasion when he was in what is now Santa Barbara, the natives rescued him from a mudslide. Because he was so small, they literally carried him to safety. This well-educated priest, who could have lived a comfortable academic life in Spain, traveled around the world to live out his days among a people he had never seen. Senkewicz, who insists that he is a historian and not a theologian, says there is a pretty good case for Serra’s sanctity.
The good that the missions did in California is beyond measure. Not only did they care for the hungry and the sick, but they created self-sufficient communities, establishing agriculture and advanced skill-sets such as carpentry and black-smithing.
And they brought Christ.
That is the real problem for some people who look back and want to see a different picture of the past. They don’t like it that a saint founded California. This was demonstrated by one very sad fact that also was relatively ignored in the news. Just after the canonization, the Mission in Carmel was vandalized. The historic wooden doors on the front of the church were spray-painted, as were many of the statues in the courtyard.
Jesus promised this would happen. That is why many saints have died as martyrs. Some continued to persecuted even in death. “If the world hates you, know that it hated me.”
It is not surprising that even saints get negative press, if they get any press at all.
But I will end on a positive note. Positive for me, anyway.
On the day that Pope Francis canonized the new saint in Washington, D.C., the Franciscans hosted a luncheon for him following the Mass of Thanksgiving. They served a dessert wine that came from grapevines that the Franciscans first brought to California more than two centuries earlier. This particular wine was a 1986 Harbor Mission del Sol, made in Sacramento. There are only a few cases of it left.
A few days later I prayed at St. Junipero Serra’s grave, and a few days after that I was hosted at a dinner in Sacramento. The host had managed to obtain a bottle of the same 29-year-old wine that had been served to the Holy Father on the occasion of the canonization. It was really good.
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