Junipero Serra.jpg

Why Is Pope Francis Conferring Sainthood on This Brutal Missionary?

Bill Berkowitz Sep 24, 2015

"I heard the mission bell, and I was thinking to myself, this could be Heaven or this could be Hell…"

– Hotel California, The Eagles

During his July visit to Bolivia, Pope Francis “apologized for the ‘grave sins’ of colonialism against the native people of the Americas,” USA Today’s Bill Theobald recently reported. “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” the pope said. Why then is Pope Francis canonizing Junípero Serra, the embodiment of crimes committed against native peoples in California?

Why is Pope Francis conferring sainthood on a man whose actions led to the destruction of native peoples in California? Sainthood for Serra, a man who founded missions where native peoples were imprisoned and tortured, and where thousands died? At the time of the announcement, it seemed that Pope Francis, who seems to be a man with a great yearning for social justice, might be unfamiliar with the complete Serra story?

In January, when Pope Francis announced plans to canonize Serra, it opened deep and old wounds. On Wednesday, however, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Serra, who the pope called an “evangelizer of the West,” will become America’s first Hispanic saint.

Serra the “evangelizer,” was also an agent of colonialism, death and destruction.

Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar who is seen as one of the founders of California, set in motion the establishment of a string of missions in the region starting in 1769 with the founding of one in Baja California. As San Francisco magazine’s Gary Kamiya recently pointed out, “Every schoolchild knows that California Indians at Serra’s missions were taught the Gospel, fed and clothed; few know that many were also whipped, imprisoned, and put in stocks.” Serra’s mission, “to convert pagan Indians into Catholic Spaniards resulted not only in the physical punishment of countless Indians, but in the death of tens of thousands of them – and, ultimately, in the eradication of their culture."

The missions were also designed to bring native peoples a new way of life “centered around farming and ranching,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carl Nolte recently wrote. Nolte pointed out that “By the end of Spanish and Mexican rule in 1846, [60-+ years after Serra’s death] the native population was half what it had been when Serra first saw California.”

Critics of Serra’s sainthood abound: Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and whose ancestors were at Mission San Juan Batista, told Nolte that “the missions were hellholes,” “They brought suffering, destruction, death and rape,” to the natives.

“I felt betrayed,” Louise Miranda Ramirez, tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, whose people occupied much of northern California before Serra’s arrival, told Gary Kamiya. “The missions that Serra founded put our ancestors through things that none of us want to remember. I think that the children being locked into the missions, the whippings. … That pain hasn’t gone away.”

Supporters of Serra’s sainthood tell a different story. They see him as a man who gave up everything to dedicate his life to saving souls, regardless, it should be added, of whether or not they wanted to be saved.

It seems to me, a non-observant but definitely culturally identified Jew, that in his two-plus years as pope, Francis has become a man for all seasons. He's loosened things up a bit at the Vatican, has moved the church towards an openness that his predecessor assiduously avoided, and has tried to affect a lifestyle of a regular guy, that is, if a regular guy could be a pope. His support for the Iranian nuclear deal, his helping guide the way for a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, his critique of capitalism, his position on Climate Change, and statements like "who am I to judge" when talking about gays and lesbians, have put smiles on the faces of even the most skeptical of Vatican watchers and lapsed Catholics. We also understand that there will not be any doctrinal changes regarding abortion, same-sex marriage or allowing women to be priests. And we know that there hasn't been any significant move to punish priests and their leaders for the child sexual molestation scandal that has rocked the church over the past two decades.

All told, however, Pope Francis has been the best public relations man the Catholic Church has known in many years; distancing himself from divisive issues, while attempting to grow the church.  

Interestingly, in order for candidates to be considered for sainthood, they are normally required to perform two miracles. The record shows that Serra “healed” a St. Louis nun of lupus, but with no evidence of a second recorded miracle, Pope Francis decided to waive that requirement.

San Francisco magazine’s Gary Kamiya asked the question that is on the minds of many: “Why did Pope Francis, the most progressive pope since John XXIII died in 1963, choose to canonize this deeply problematic figure?”

And, the National Catholic Reporter’s Jamie Manson asks: “Why would Pope Francis, champion of the poor and suffering, demonstrate such a strong desire to canonize a man who, history strongly suggests, opened the floodgates to so much abuse and oppression?”

Steven Hackel, history professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of a 2013 biography of Serra, said “There's no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform Native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native. He really did want to eliminate many aspects of Native culture.”

Hackel also put an interesting spin on the pope’s decision making. “I think the issue is the treatment of immigrants in North America,” Hackel said, referencing Spanish settlements in Florida, Texas and California. “I think their hope is that if Americans understand that they move toward a more sympathetic and embracing immigration policy,” he said.

Jamie Manson writes that “Speaking to seminarians at the North American College in Rome in May, Francis praised Serra as ‘part of a missionary corps who ‘went out to all the geographical, social and existential peripheries’ to spread the Gospel. “Such zeal excites us," Francis added.

In the late 18th century, it was the kind of unbridled “zeal” embodied by Serra, that was responsible for the death and destruction of California’s native peoples.

This article originally appeared at Buzzflash at

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