19 Jul, 2015 @ 14:00
2 mins read

Junipero Serra: Saint or sinner?

Junipero Serra
Junipero Serra
Junipero Serra

‘ONE man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ is a popular cliche trotted out all too often when discussing global terror. The sentiment, however, has long been with us.

Larger-than-life historical figures have always had their share of detractors, as well as their passionate admirers.

Winston Churchill was voted ‘Greatest Briton’ in a 2002 BBC poll – primarily for his efforts in seeing Britain through the dark days of WWII. To some however, mostly outside of Western Europe, Churchill is perceived as a ‘grotesque, a racist and a stubborn imperialist’.

Similarly, was Christopher Columbus a courageous explorer or a greed-driven coloniser? Even the Adolf Hitler had (and still has) his share of admirers.

This summer that dynamic is set to play itself out yet again – this time involving the present-day Pope Francis, California’s Native Americans and an 18th century Spaniard.

Junipero Serra (1713-1784) was a young Mallorca-born Franciscan friar filled with passionate evangelical spirit. He travelled to New Spain (now Mexico and California) to found the California Mission System.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

The Spanish missions were religious, agricultural and military outposts designed to colonise Spain’s California claims. The system aimed to establish literacy, educate Native Americans and, primarily, to ‘bring the gospel’ to the New World.

Outposts that later became San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco were among the 21 centres established by Junipero Serra.

Most accounts portray Serra as genuinely respectful of the locals. He was successful in educating and converting them and establishing efficient agricultural systems which, on balance, protected native populations from warring neighbours, famine, drought and abuses imposed by the Spanish authorities in Mexico City.

Junipero Serra’s legacy is so venerated in California that his statue adorns the state capital and many highways, hospitals and schools are named after him. August 29 (the day he died) is a statewide holiday there and commemorative stamps have been issued in his memory.

In 1988, Serra’s fame spread when he was beatified (‘made blessed’) by Pope John Paul II who stated that: “He sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the momentous changes wrought by the arrival of European settlers in the New World. It was a field of missionary endeavor that requires patience, perseverance and humility as well as vision and courage.”

This September, Pope Francis will formally canonise Serra as a saint during his first visit to the United States. Serra will be the first Hispanic American to achieve formal sainthood (notably, from the first Hispanic American pope). However, the visit promises be anything but seamless.

Native Americans and vocal academics plan to condemn the event loudly and publically. They point to the harsh conditions, forced conversions, disease, imprisonment and devastation brought to California’s Native American culture by Spanish colonisation. Many descendents of those Native Americans are also bitterly opposed to Serra’s sainthood.

Was Serra a well-intentioned humanist genuinely concerned for his subject’s spiritual welfare? Or was he yet another coloniser bent on greed and spiritual conquest? When Pope Francis visits the U.S. in September we will likely hear impassioned arguments from both sides.

Terrorist or freedom fighter? Saint or sinner? Perhaps the message here is that good and evil has long struggled within the soul of all of us. Junipero Serra was probably not perfect… but humans rarely are.

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