The Catholic University of America

Nov. 20, 2015

Saint Junípero Serrra: An Interview with Father Ford

  A mural of Serra was displayed on the side of the Basilica for the canonization Mass.

The Canonization Mass of Blessed Junípero Serra was celebrated by Pope Francis at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Sept. 23. It was the first canonization on U.S. soil. Rev. John T. Ford, C.S.C., Professor of Theology and Religious Studies and Coordinator of Hispanic/Latino Programs in CUA’s School of Theology and Religious Studies, provides history and insight into this new saint.

Who was Junípero Serra?
Father Junípero Serra, often called the “Apostle of California,” was born in Petra on the island of Mallorca (off the east coast of Spain) in 1713. As a teenager, Serra entered the Franciscans in 1730 and after his ordination to the priesthood in 1737, he served as a professor at the Llullian University in Palma de Mallorca for a dozen years. In 1749, his superiors granted his desire to go to the “New World” as a missionary to Amerindians. After serving as a missionary and teacher in Mexico for two decades, he was appointed the first presidente of the missions that the king of Spain, Carlos III, wanted established in what is now the state of California. Serra was instrumental in founding the first mission at San Diego and eight other missions before his death in 1784. A dozen other missions were subsequently established in California by his successors.

What was the purpose of the missions?
Using a missionary strategy that had been developed in Mexico, Serra envisioned the missions as centers of evangelization for the Amerindian population of California. The missions were established as Christian communities, where Amerindians could learn and practice the Catholic faith. In addition, the missions provided Amerindians instruction in a wide variety of arts and crafts — ranging from carpentry to making musical instruments.

What did the missions look like?
Ordinarily the term “mission” refers to the church and the attached buildings, which included the covento or residence for the handful of Franciscan friars on the staff; lodging for hundreds of Amerindian catechumens and converts; workshops and kitchens; granaries and storage facilities, etc. Each California “mission” also included an extensive amount of land that was used for orchards and crops such as corn and wheat, as well as ranch land for raising cattle, sheep, and goats. For practical purposes, the missions needed to be as self-sufficient as possible, since supplies from Mexico arrived only infrequently.

How is Serra regarded in the United States?
Serra is somewhat unique in being regarded not only as a religious figure, but also as the “Founder of California” — a pioneer of pioneers. For example, California selected Serra as one of two persons to be honored by the state with a statue in the U.S. Capitol. In addition, many locations in California — such as schools and streets — bear his name.

What is the significance of Serra’s canonization?
Serra’s canonization is a recognition of his personal holiness: he was a person of prayer and penance; his entire life was dedicated to preaching the Gospel and calling people to a life of holiness. His apostolic work was undertaken not only at great personal sacrifice, but with considerable suffering: he not only walked from mission to mission, but walking was also painful for him: shortly after arriving in Mexico, his left leg was infected by an insect bite that never healed and caused him to limp the rest of his life. Simultaneously, Serra’s canonization is a recognition of the centuries-long contribution of Hispanics to the Catholic faith in the United States — a contribution that is symbolized in the names of many cities in California: San José, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc.

Why did some people protest Serra’s canonization?
In the months following the announcement of Serra’s canonization, three basic accusations against Serra surfaced in the news media: cultural deprivation, disease, and enslavement. Rarely mentioned, however, was a fourth aspect: the protests against Serra often replicate the “Black Legend” — a prejudice against the Spanish-speaking world in general and Catholicism in particular; this legend has recurred in various forms since the middle of the 16th century. In a way, the protests against Serra’s canonization exemplify what has been called “the last respectable prejudice in the United States in the 21st century” — a prejudice against both Hispanics and Catholics.

What was meant by the accusation of “cultural deprivation”?
Whenever two cultures meet — in this case the colonial Spanish and the Californian Indian — one culture usually dominates. For example, bows and arrows were simply no match for swords and guns; such domination would have occurred regardless of the group — British, Russian, or American — that came to California. On the one hand, the missions provided the California Indians with opportunities for survival in the face of a rapidly changing cultural situation. In contrast, with the “Gold Rush” in the mid-19th century, many of the “Forty-Niners” exterminated any Amerindians who got in their way.

Why did many Amerindians die at the missions?
Both the Franciscans and the Amerindians who lived at the missions were aware of the frequency of deaths. However, the death rate was much higher in the 18th century than it is today; for example, in Mallorca, where Serra was born, one out of every three infants died before the age of one. In addition to the general lack of medical knowledge and treatment in the 18th century, Amerindians had no immunity to many common European diseases such as measles, influenza, and small pox. When an Amerindian contacted one of these diseases, it quickly spread — often with fatal results similar to the recent Ebola epidemic in Africa.

Were the “Mission Indians” really “Mission slaves”?
Comparing the “missions” to “slave plantations” is historically inaccurate: the missions were intended to be centers of Christian catechesis and Spanish civilization; in contrast, American plantations in the South were operated for the financial profit of their owners, who sometimes treated their slaves as human chattel. In contrast, the Franciscan friars at the missions considered the Amerindians “children” who sometimes needed to be disciplined; the policy of “spare the rod, spoil the child” continued in the U.S. down to the 20th century.

If every saint has a spirituality, what was Serra’s?
As Pope Francis pointed out in his homily at Serra’s canonization here on campus: “A Christian finds joy in mission: so go out to people of every nation!” Serra certainly dedicated his entire life to doing that; his motto was: siempre adelante — ”Keep moving forward!” — certainly provides ample encouragement for the “new evangelization” needed in the 21st century.





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