Pope Francis’ decision to canonize the Franciscan friar has received criticism due to controversial historical records

Junipero Serra(1)

Natalie O’Brien/Daily Nexus

If you were raised in California, chances are you did a California mission project in the fourth grade and learned about Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan friar who founded the first nine of 21 Spanish missions dotting the Alta California coast. But with Roman Catholic Pope Francis’ announcement in January to fully canonize Serra’s sainthood has come a new historical twist — a controversial response that could lead to the re-evaluation of key historical curricula in California’s public K-12 education system.

Groups outside the church, particularly Native Americans from California, have raised concerns at the announcement, claiming that their ancestors have suffered tremendously at the hands of the Spanish missionaries that U.S. history books currently praise. This announcement has also come as a shock to some within the church, as the Pope waived one of the two miracles necessary to become a saint.

The Pathway to Sainthood

Normally to become a saint, a person must have performed two miracles in his or her lifetime. According to archives from the Catholic Church, Junípero Serra is recorded to have only performed only one — allegedly curing a St. Louis nun of lupus after she prayed to him in 1987, which lead to his beatification by then-Pope John Paul II in the same year. But the Pope is no stranger to waiving certain credentials for sainthood, as he recently dismissed the five-year waiting period after a person’s death to begin the canonization process for the still-living former Pope Benedict XVI, or Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, who resigned from the papacy in February 2013.

Religious studies professor Ann Plane said the pope has discretion on including or excluding certain requirements in the canonization process, including the miracles requirement as it currently applies to Serra. This same liberty was exercised in mid-January of this year for Joseph Vaz, a 17th-century Oratorian missionary to Sri Lanka.

Pope Francis. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“[The] Pope can use his judgment and waive that [the miracle] for someone he thinks should be canonized,” Plane said. “The pope apparently wants to celebrate Catholics who were known as great evangelizers … this, of course, is just what many Native Americans resent, that is, the efforts made — sometimes forcibly — to convert them to Christianity.”

Second-year undeclared student Gerald Caligaris and member of Isla Vista Roman Catholic student community service group SERVUS, or Service, Evangelization, Reconciliation, Veneration, Unification and Salvation, said he believes the pope has waived the requirement because of difficulties in fully assessing Serra’s life according the historical record.

“This process actually started in 1949 where they started gathering and analyzing his documents. That’s part of the difficulty in determining miracles,” Caligaris said. “I think one of the reasons they’re waving the miracle is because it’s just impossible to evaluate his life thoroughly.”

Becoming a saint in the Catholic Church involves undergoing a four-stage process internal to the church typically beginning five years after the death of a possible candidate. The canonization process usually begins at the regional administrative level with the local Catholic diocese presiding over the candidate’s burial place. The presiding Bishop of the diocese agrees to open a church investigation into the life and actions of a proposed candidate, who is then referred to as a Servant of God after sufficient information has been collected on the individual.

If initial investigations yield evidence the person possessed four Cardinal Virtues — prudence, justice, temperance and courage — and three Theological Virtues — faith, hope and charity — the person is designated a “Venerable” by the Vatican, which allows Catholics to pray to that person in hopes of a miracle.

Years of looking at primary sources, including letters and documents written by and about the person, are collected and presented to medical professionals at the Vatican who determine if a miracle has taken place based off examination of those materials. If one miracle is determined to have taken place, that person goes through a process called beatification, the third stage in the process to sainthood, which can only be performed by the Pope, and earns the title of “Blessed.” Those with this title may be honored with feast days, which are days of religious celebration dedicated to a particular saint in regions where they are particularly venerated. If a second miracle is determined to have taken place, the blessed individual undergoes canonization and becomes a Saint of the Catholic Church.

Re-Examining School Curriculum
The canonization of Serra has sparked controversy regarding California’s public education system, particularly concerning the mission unit and mandatory mission project for all fourth-grade students in California public K-12 schools.

Only California Indians get their entire history rewritten or erased and never get the chance to tell people what happened. – Washington and Lee University English professor Deborah A. Miranda

According to Washington and Lee University English professor Deborah A. Miranda, a Chumash Native American, the establishment of missions during Spanish colonization is portrayed as a harmless act in California history books but in actuality is representative of the death and displacement of tens of thousands of Native Americans at the hands of Spanish missionaries. Miranda said the fourth-grade mission project is an insensitive portrayal of events that many Native Americans allege as genocide and compared the project to building dioramas of gas chambers.

“What if your child came home with a project sheet [that said], ‘We’re going to start our unit on concentration camps’?” Miranda said.

Miranda said the mission units in California public schools rewrite the history of California to exclude suffering faced by indigenous Californians in favor of history’s victors — the Spanish.

“It gets into a hyperbole, but the thing is that we don’t teach this about any other ethnic minority,” Miranda said, “Only California Indians get their entire history rewritten or erased and never get the chance to tell people what happened. And it starts with children in fourth grade who get this misinformation and they grow into adults who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Chicano/a studies and anthropology professor Gerardo Aldana, said California textbook history comes from an Anglo-American perspective that can negatively impact children who identify with cultures historically marginalized in the U.S.

“The rest of them are just being marginalized as a foil against the Americans,” Aldana said. “If you recognize a lot of your own personal identity as the group who’s always been represented as the vanquished, it becomes a problem. How do you develop critical thinking skills on either side of the public school system?”

Aldana also said the pope’s decision to canonize Serra is rehashing a historical rhetoric that favors Spanish imperialists over indigenous people.

“Look at the demographics of California,” Aldana said, “What kids are learning about missions and what that has to do with the canonization of Serra … that’s an important question.”

Indigenous people should point to the side of history that is being erased by the canonization. – Chicano/a studies and anthropology professor Gerardo Aldana

According to Aldana, government-funded schools should be more critical of Serra’s canonization as a historical figure rather than a religious figure.

“Indigenous people should point to the side of history that is being erased by the canonization,” Aldana said. “They were impacted by a historical figure and that person’s reputation reflects on them … People should say whether or not someone is historical figure but when it comes to whether or not that person is a saint – that’s not our business. We don’t have a vote.”

Father Ken Lavarone of the Santa Barbara Mission said he supports the Vatican’s decision to fully canonize Serra and has sent many documents from the mission’s archives to the Vatican to help Serra’s case.

“Serra [is] recognized by [the] Catholic church as one who possessed the determination of the call of the gospel — he put the gospel to all nations,” Lavarone said. “He proclaimed the gospel to the new world.”

Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded 1786.

Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded 1786. Photo Courtesy of Santa Barbara Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Caligaris also said he thinks the full canonization of Serra is appropriate despite the opposition to it.

“It made it to this stage in the process where he’s going to be canonized,” Caligaris said. “It makes sense to carry through with it. It’s not popular and canonization is not done by a mass vote. Popular concept is no relevant to prove God’s decision.”

Native American Room Mentor at the Student Resources Building (SRB) Jorge Valiente, a fourth year film and media studies major, said he opposes the canonization and the idea of saints are for “attracting people to convert to Catholicism.”

“For lack of better terms, the amount of saints they have are like Pokémon. And they each have a specialty — there’s a saint for a farmer, saint for a teacher and a saint for a dog. There are enough saints to fill two calendars,” Valiente said, “This is what I learned from past history courses. Ever since I learned that, I realized it’s just a way of just attracting people to religion.”

According to Miranda, Serra’s canonization is not just based on a religious opinion but also reflects on discriminatory secular attitudes toward the mission era.

“[As a descendant of] someone who just barely survived the missions … I think it’s a bad idea because it gives the world this impression that gives the Missions of California an official stamp of approval from a very powerful institution,” Miranda said. “The Vatican is very powerful. The last thing we need in California is what I call Mission Mythology – misinformation of the impact of the indigenous in California.”

Defending Serra’s attempts to bring Christianity to California, Lavarone said people can only understand Serra’s canonization if it is examined from an 18th century perspective instead of a 21st century one.

“Serra did not give up — he persevered and founded nine missions,” Lavarone said. “Serra’s primary purpose was to bring the gospel to the “savages”, which was a term for anyone who was unlike 18th century Europe.”

These stereotypes are institutionalized not because they’re true, but because people can hold power over others with him. – Chicano/a studies and anthropology professor Gerardo Aldana

According to Aldana, Native Americans were viewed by the missionaries as the least rational human beings in the framework of European social hierarchy.

“There’s this hierarchy of adult males who are the most rational, then there’s women who are not as rational as men, and children who are not as rational as women,” Aldana said. “Then you’re left with the natural slave category. People will never be as rational as an adult male, so it’s better for them in their life to be under the guidance of someone who is a rational adult male.”

Aldana said that it is dangerous that this antiquated mentality has formed a trajectory into the 21st century.

“These stereotypes are institutionalized,” Aldana said, “not because they’re true, but because people can hold power over others with him.”

According to Miranda, Serra’s canonization would perpetuate a lot of misinformation about the missionary, which she said may directly lead to personal harm to Native Americans in California.

“I feel if the facts are not fully known, we face all kinds of difficulties in our contemporary lives like trying to face issues of historical trauma, educational opportunities, economic opportunities and being seen as human beings like the general public,” Miranda said.

Serra, the Civilizing Mission” and the Destruction of Native Cultures
Although deemed uncivilized by 18th century Europeans, according to economics lecturer Lanny Ebenstein in his forthcoming book on the history of the university, the Chumash Native Americans were tremendously advanced for their time.

“The Santa Barbara area has been a focal point of cultural and intellectual advance since the time of the Chumash, who were the most technologically advanced and numerous Native American tribe in California,” Ebenstein writes in his book. “The Chumash possessed a complex cosmology and were among the earliest users of products made from petroleum, which washed ashore in profusion from the natural seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel.”

In Catholicism we believe in harsh discipline. Serra treated the Native Americans as their father and to protect them from the outside world. – Father Ken Lavarone of the Santa Barbara Mission

Additional controversy surrounds the conversion of the natives over whether the Catholic church said baptism was voluntary and labor was reasonable, according to pro-church historians, or whether baptism was forced and the labor grueling, as primary historical sources suggest.

According to Lavarone, Serra brought culture and discipline to the Native Americans and defended them from persecution by the Spanish government.

“In Catholicism we believe in harsh discipline,” Lavarone said. “Serra treated the Native Americans as their father and to protect them from the outside world. There was an uprising in San Diego from the local Native Americans where many missionaries were killed. However Serra told the Spanish Government not to punish them, which is one sign that Serra only wanted them [to] fall under Catholicism.”

According to Miranda, punishments for the Native Americans for minor infractions that would be dismissed in Europe, if committed in missions would merit serious injury or even death at the hands of the missionaries.

“As far as that idea of suffering for God, Serra chose that for himself,” Miranda said. “He chose to beat himself. But Indians couldn’t choose. They would get 50 whip slashes for stealing a piece of chocolate. Women were being put in stocks that went around their feet so they could work with their legs together for women who they [the missionaries] thought were promiscuous.”

Statue of Junipero Serra. Photo courtesy of Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons.

Statue of Junípero Serra. Photo courtesy of Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons.

However, according to Lavarone, Serra and the Native Americans he administered to cared about each other.

“Its one sign that Serra only wanted them fall under Catholicism,” Lavarone said, “When he died at Carmel Mission, the Indians surrounded him wailing in tears, which in Native American culture, is symbolic for the bridge to new life. They saw him as a respected figure.”

According to Miranda, Serra ‘s participation in the Spanish Inquisition was “horrific and inhumane” and he was numb to the inhumanities inherent to and perpetrated by Catholicism at the time.

“He knew about all those torture techniques,” Miranda said. “And I think he was numb to human suffering because he’d seen and experienced so much. And Catholicism at that time was pretty masochistic — the way that you proved your love for God was to suffer. Serra would beat himself with a rock while he was preaching or beat himself with a whip. A lot of people say he was a ‘man of his times.’ I think that’s a falsehood.”

Alumnus Timothy Vizthum, a Choctaw Indian, said he is against the canonization of Serra because his actions as a missionary contributed directly to the destruction of native cultures.

“Whatever the intent or the motivation of Junípero Serra was, the fact is that where a mission was set up, tribes stopped existing,” Vizthum said. “Disease was a big part of the decimation, but so was cultural assimilation. Indians that survived the disease were Catholicized and Hispanisized and tribes lost their cultural and linguistic significance … where he was a good man at heart or not, his legacy is lost cultures.”

The Vatican and the Rest of the World
The canonization of Serra also raises questions about the Pope’s authority and whether the Vatican is responding to forces outside the Church.

Lavarone said he believes in the Pope unconditionally and that the Pope does not have to answer to anyone.

“The Pope can do whatever the pope wants, first of all,” Lavarone said.

However, Miranda said the Pope waived the second miracle for Serra in order to reverse damage done to the church by numerous clergy sex scandals that have rocked its reputation in recent years.

“The Vatican has changed the rules to suit themselves which says a lot about their motivations,” Miranda said. “They are coming out of a horrible [scandals] of the priest molestations in the Church and what they really need is a hero. They’re sort of fast-tracking Junípero Serra and some ex-Popes to boost their image when their own rules say you need to have all this homework done and have two miracles. And letting it go for not very religious reasons.”

Many California Indians are Catholic, so this is a really heart wrenching conflict. Do they choose their indigenous ancestry or do they choose a church that they’ve been brought up in? – Washington and Lee University English professor Deborah A. Miranda

According to Miranda, the Vatican wants to canonize Serra because they knew it would receive overwhelming support from California.

“This is a political move playing on public sentiment because of all the ways the missions have been mythologized in California, of course there’s going to be public approval for Junipero Serra, he practically already is a saint to some people — the patron saint of California,” Miranda said. “The Vatican is playing to a group of people who are already on their side which is why they’re not getting any pushback from it.”

Aldana said the church can also do anything they want, but it is up to those outside of the church to learn how to deal with the canonization of Serra.

“If they want to take someone that the rest of the world thinks is horrible and make them a celebrity, then we can’t say anything about it because we are on the outside,” Aldana said. “That’s fine. Where it gets problematic is how it becomes problematic to the rest of the world.”

Miranda said the change in Serra’s status within the church threatens particular groups, especially Native Americans who were “supposed to be extinct.”

“California Indians got a really horrible deal when it came to reservation land,” Miranda said, “Many people are very fearful that we do exist and we become too powerful. We will acquire huge chunks of land and drive away the rich people from Carmel. Like yeah, right.”

Aldana said he is sympathetic toward the Native American struggle and strives to encourage students to remember the other sides of the historical figure and “not let the sainthood erase the other side of his history.”

“When it comes down to the impact of the canonization, maybe its more of an inspiration to reevaluate how we look at the missions and how we reevaluate them in our public education,” Aldana said.

According to Miranda, the canonization of Serra is controversial for many, but is especially difficult for Catholic Native Americans.

“Many California Indians are Catholic, so this is a really heart wrenching conflict,” Miranda said. “Do they choose their indigenous ancestry or do they choose a church that they’ve been brought up in? Not only is it upsetting to Native Americans, but it’s upsetting for different reasons. And that breaks my heart.”


A version of this story appeared on page 5 of the February 5, 2015 print edition of the Daily Nexus.