Pope Overlooks ‘Cultural Genocide’ In Canonizing Fray Junipero Serra

May 22, 2015

By Mark R. Day

Pope Francis’ confirmation of his plans to canonize Fray Junipero Serra in September has led Serra’s supporters to rejoice, but has ignited strong protests among some Native Californians who reiterate their claim that Serra oppressed their ancestors and was no saint.

The pope made his case for Serra, founder of nine California missions, at a May 2 visit to the North American College in Rome, surrounded by California bishops, including Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who calls Serra his “personal hero.”
Critics say that Francis, who recently called attention to the 1915 genocide against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, has a blind spot when it comes to the brutal Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Vatican officials, faced with criticism from native Californians, assert that Serra was a “man of his time” who had his faults, but who often defended the Indians against the abuses of predatory Spanish Soldiers.

This view is shared by Franciscan Fr. Ken Laverone, who is involved in preparing for the upcoming canonization ceremonies in cooperation with the California bishops conference.

Laverone cites historian Robert Senkewicz, author of a new book on Serra, who writes that Serra was not perfect and that canonizing him is not blessing what happened to California Indians during the mission period.

“One sees qualities (in Serra) that are very consistent with what the church has long held up as indications of sanctity,” Senkewicz said in a recent interview with the National Catholic Reporter.

Laverone told La Prensa San Diego that Franciscans are currently in dialogue with descendants of mission Indians, though he said there were no plans to hold Masses of reconciliation with the tribes such as those that took place under Bishops Francis Quinn of Sacramento and Daniel Garcia of Monterey.

“Don’t jump the gun,” Laverone said. “These dialogues are an ongoing process.”

Not all friars agree with the Serra canonization. Some, like my classmate Fr. Ignatius DeGroot, have mixed feelings.
“Serra protected the Indians in a limited way,” said DeGroot, who serves as pastor of the San Carlos Indian Mission near Tucson, Arizona. “but he was part of Spanish culture that regarded Indians as nothing. If the pope had asked me, I would have said, ‘No, don’t do it.’”

De Groot added, “A saint, in the tradition of the church, is someone the people look up to and imitate. Serra is certainly not that.”

When asked why the strong message of nonviolence preached by Francis of Assisi was apparently lost on the friars during the Spanish conquest, De Groot responded: “It was the Spanish culture that overpowered those ideals. Francis would never have done those things. We see the same thing today. Can you picture Jesus Christ wearing a mitre?

Native leaders insist that despite their good intentions, Serra and his friars were tools of oppression and cultural genocide whose policies led to forced conversions, enslavement and deaths through disease of 100,000 Indians between 1769 and 1821.

“Fr. Serra came down decidedly on the side of violence as a necessary mission strategy,” wrote theologian George Tinker, a member of the Osage / Choctaw tribe. “To excuse violence and brutality as European cultural affectation cannot remove the stigma and pain from native recipients who were used to far gentler ways.”

Tinker describes cultural genocide as “the systematic undermining of the integrity of native culture and values, including religious practices, family structures, food production and social organization.”

San Diego tribal leaders have similar thoughts. “The canonization is a tough call for our people because many are devout Catholics,” said Christobal Devers of the Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians at a Native American graduation ceremony at Cal State San Marcos.

“We have never received an apology for the atrocities committed against our people such as the whippings and the forced marches,” said Devers. “ We are only a small voice, but most of us oppose the canonization of Serra.

Dr. Joely Proudfit, chairperson of the Native American Studies Department at CSUSM concurred with Devers. Said Proudfit, “We need to counter the propaganda regarding this canonization. Right now we are preparing a fact sheet to tell the public who Serra was and what he really did.”

The question is, how can the Catholic Church lift Serra out of this sordid context to pronounce him a saint? And how could Serra, while acting with the best of intentions, not have been aware of the devastation that was taking place under his watch?

Recently, Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribe, sent an open letter to Pope Francis describing the punishments the friars meted out to his ancestors.

Lopez wrote: “Your decision to canonize Serra is a clear message that our reality of poverty, suicide, depression and substance abuse will continue to impact the lives of our members for many more years and perhaps many more generations.”

I spent my novitiate year at Mission San Miguel, but I was never aware of that, in 1799, Fray Antonio Horra who lived there, wrote, “The treatment shown to the Indians is the most cruel I have ever read about in history….They receive heavy floggings, are shackled, put in stocks, and kept days without a drink of water.”

Horra was later declared insane and sent back to Spain.

It is not clear whether or not Pope Francis is fully aware of the deep feelings of many Native Californians on the Serra canonization. But the fact that the ceremony will take place in Washington D.C. instead of California is an indication that the event is controversial here, to say the least.

Mark R. Day is a former Franciscan friar, a filmmaker, journalist, and labor activist. He lives in Vista.

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