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    Junípero Serra: Hero of Evangelization

    Msgr. Francis J. Weber 4/1/2015

    One year before he beatified Fray Junípero Serra in 1988, St. John Paul II made a pilgrimage to the grave of the Franciscan priest at Mission San Carlos Borroméo in Carmel, Calif. Standing on the site of Serra’s former missionary headquarters, the pope reflected on the historical impact of the friar’s Christian witness.

    “At crucial moments in human affairs, God raises up men and women whom he thrusts into roles of decisive importance for the future development of both society and the Church,” the pope said. “We rejoice all the more when their achievement is coupled with a holiness of life that can truly be called heroic. So it is with Junípero Serra, who in the providence of God was destined to be the Apostle of California.”

    In January, Pope Francis announced that he will canonize Serra during the Holy Father’s visit to the United States in September. As the Church prepares to celebrate this event, it is an occasion to rediscover the life and mission of a great pioneer of Catholic evangelization and to address some of the controversies concerning Serra’s legacy.


    Before spending the second half of his life in New Spain, Junípero Serra spent his first 35 years on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Born to a family of farmers on Nov. 24, 1713, Serra was raised in the village of Petra and attended the local Franciscan school. At age 18, he joined the Franciscan Order and took the name Junípero, after one of the first companions of St. Francis of Assisi.

    Aware of his talent for teaching, Serra’s superiors singled him out to be a professor. He was ordained at age 25 and became a theology professor five years later at the Lullian University in the Mallorcan capital of Palma. His eloquence and fiery earnestness soon won him many listeners in churches and classrooms alike.

    During his academic training, the young friar had been stirred as he read about missionaries in the New World. At age 35, Fray Junípero responded to a call that lay smoldering in his heart for years and asked permission to become a missionary. In a matter of months, Serra was on a ship bound for Mexico in 1749. Disembarking at Vera Cruz, he chose to make the 250-mile trek to Mexico City on foot. On the way, his leg became swollen from an insect bite, a wound that would plague him for the rest of his life. After a painful journey, he arrived at the capital and celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

    Serra then received intensive missionary training and was sent to the Sierra Gorda missions in the mountains north of Mexico City. Having learned the native language, he translated prayers and the catechism, and also taught the faith through rich liturgical celebrations. During this time, he worked hard to improve living conditions among the Indians by introducing farming, crafts and trades. Serra would follow these methods — already in use for two centuries — in founding the California missions. By the time he was recalled to Mexico City eight years later, most of the Indians had become practicing Catholics and their economic prospects had improved. For the next nine years, Serra served as an administrator and preached missions throughout the country, traveling more than 5,000 miles on foot.

    In 1767, when King Charles III abruptly expelled the Society of Jesus from Spain and its colonies, Serra was named president (administrator) of the orphaned Jesuit missions in Baja California. Soon after arriving, he was informed of Spain’s plans to safeguard the Alta California coast by establishing missions from San Diego to Monterey. It was an opportunity Serra had longed and prayed for — to plant the faith on untilled soil — and he immediately volunteered “to erect the holy standard of the Cross in Monterey.”


    In early 1769, Father Serra set out in high spirits, though his leg was infected and he had to be lifted onto his mule. Upon arrival in San Diego, the site of his first mission in Alta California, Serra was jubilant. The immediate outlook, however, was bleak. Two dozen sailors and soldiers had died from scurvy and provisions were short. Serra wrote, “Let those who are to come here as missionaries not imagine that they are coming for any other purpose but to endure hardships for the love of God and for the salvation of souls.”

    For the remaining 15 years of his life, the tireless friar continued to live out his motto: “Always forward, never back.” Between 1769 and 1782, Serra worked in tandem with the Spanish military authorities to establish the first nine of 21 eventual California missions: San Diego, San Carlos Borromeo, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara and San Buenaventura.

    In principle, “cross and crown” were to work in harmony for the evangelization and civilization of the Indians. In practice, however, Serra clashed repeatedly with the military governors over the mistreatment and exploitation of the Indians.

    In a particular way, Serra showed himself to be a defender of the Indians’ human rights in 1773, when he journeyed from California to Mexico City to personally present to the viceroy a Representación. This document, which is sometimes termed a “Bill of Rights” for Indians, was accepted and implemented.

    Two years later, 20 captured Indians were sentenced to death after an Indian attack on Mission San Diego left one friar dead. On this occasion, Serra immediately wrote to the viceroy and reminded him of his prior request “that in case the Indians, whether pagans or Christians would kill me [or other friars], they should be pardoned.” The viceroy consented again, and the Indians were set free.

    Serra poured out the better part of his life on behalf of Native Americans — having baptized over 5,000 and confirmed 6,000 more.

    “In California is my life,” he once wrote, “and God willing, there I hope to die.”

    Lying beside the foot-long crucifix he had carried with him since his arrival in the New World, Fray Junípero Serra died at Mission San Carlos Aug. 28, 1784.


    Though Father Serra died with a widespread reputation for sanctity and has been praised for more than two centuries by religious and secular leaders alike, his achievements have also been called into question. In the 1980s, some critics protested his beatification, and similar voices today are contesting his canonization. Among the more controversial claims are that Serra was guilty of “cultural genocide”; responsible for the premature deaths by disease of thousands of Indians; engaged in forced conversions; and brutalized Native Americans through corporal punishment.

    Regarding “cultural genocide,” such a charge irresponsibly conflates Serra’s missionary work with the misdeeds of Spanish colonialism, and thus may be seen as a contemporary form of the Black Legend. Some historical perspective is in order. Given the explorative patterns of the time, the colonization of California in the 1760s was inevitable. The missionaries were not unmindful of history; they voluntarily became part of the process in order to Christianize and to cushion what they knew would be a major cultural shock.

    Junípero Serra, for example, did everything he could to keep the military from having direct contact with the Indians. In many cases, he and other friars concentrated their energies on doing what they could to alleviate a difficult situation. In short, the natives were destined to change for better or worse; the missionaries strove to assist them in changing for the better.

    It is sometimes assumed that the Indians in California had been living in some sort of idyllic lifestyle, akin to that of Eden. Contrary to this and related myths, the Indians were attracted to the food and quality of life that the missions provided, when compared to their original state.

    With regard to the death rate, the Indian population of Alta California did decline dramatically after 1769, mostly through syphilis, smallpox and measles introduced by soldiers, sailors and settlers, but this is not something for which the missionaries can be blamed. There is no recorded case of any friar serving in the area between 1769 and 1840 ever having suffered or died from any of those diseases.

    Serra’s detractors also claim that he sanctioned forced conversions and kept baptized Indians on the missions against their will. An accurate understanding of how the missions operated is necessary here as well. Attracted to the missions by the friars, the Indians lived as catechumens until they were ready for baptism. During this period, they were taught the elements of the faith, were fed and clothed, and were taught to work and to follow the routine of mission life. If, after several months, they learned the catechism and desired to become Christians, they were baptized.

    Freedom, as all catechisms and manuals of Christian doctrine teach, is a precondition of baptism. In addition, the missionary handbook Itinerario para Párrocos de lndios, which occupied a place second only to the Bible for the friars, stated that “enforced baptisms shall be considered null and void.”


    According to the reasoning of the Franciscans, reception of baptism by an Indian was an irrevocable manifestation of religious conviction, and therefore a baptized Indian freely agreed to live permanently on the mission. This did not mean, however, that he or she was restricted from leaving the missions once baptized, and monthly visits to relatives outside the missions were allowed. On the relatively few occasions when an Indian ran away or failed to return after his monthly excursion, other Christian neophytes were sent after him with a warning that chastisement would follow if the offense was repeated.

    It is true that corporal punishment was a standard means of correction used by the friars. We have to be very careful, however, not to fall into the fallacy of judging the past with present attitudes. While corporal punishment is relatively uncommon in modern times, the use of the lash, stocks and shackles, for example, were commonplace among civilized people in many parts of the world in the 18th century.

    The attitude of the friars toward corporal punishment can only be properly understood within their overall relationship as “guardians” of the natives. Serra understood this in terms of education within a family, recognizing that a friar was to treat the Indians “as a tender and prudent father.”

    When corporal punishment was applied, it was at the hands of an Indian supervisor, and the punishments themselves were calculated to cause smarting pain and embarrassment, rather than lasting injury.

    Still, Serra was certainly aware of possible abuses in this area. In 1780, he wrote, “I am willing to admit that in the infliction of the punishment we are now discussing, there may have been inequalities and excesses committed on the part of some of the priests.”

    Three days before St. John Paul II visited Fray Junípero Serra’s grave in 1987, he met with Native Americans in Phoenix. Like Serra, John Paul II admitted that “not all members of the Church lived up to their Christian responsibilities” during the colonial period.

    “We are called to learn from the mistakes of the past,” he said, “and we must work together for reconciliation and healing, as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

    At the same time, he also singled out the “many missionaries who strenuously defended the rights of the original inhabitants of this land” and held up Fray Junípero Serra for particular praise.

    So, too, even while acknowledging the “mistakes and wrongs” of the past, we also recognize and celebrate the heroic sanctity and good works of this holy friar, who was so instrumental in bringing the Gospel to the New World.


    MSGR. FRANCIS J. WEBER is archivist emeritus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the author of several books on Junípero Serra and the California missions. He is a member of San Buenaventura Council 2498 in Ventura, Calif.



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