Why the Serra Canonization? Part I

The goings-on in the streets of America and beyond has been an education for white people, especially to wake up to the reality of 500 years of racism and colonialism in America. 

A statue of Serra by Douglas Tilden, formerly installed in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco before it was removed during the Black Lives Matter protests. Photo by Burkhard Mücke on Wikimedia Commons

In response to my writings in the DM on the truth of the role of Junipero Serra and the missions he founded in California, more than one reader has asked me to elaborate on “Why did Pope Francis canonize this man who did so much harm to native peoples?”  I will attempt to address that question here and in tomorrow’s DM.

There were two efforts to canonize Serra, one under Pope John Paul II that failed. It was strongly resisted by California tribes (I spoke out strongly about it at the time when still a Dominican priest in good standing, and many Indians felt that one of the reasons I was silenced was that I did speak out against it).  When Pope John Paul II backed off, we thought we had won the battle. 

Sadly, Pope Francis, the first South American pope, brought it up again.  Again, there was resistance–even stronger and louder than before–with scholars of the missions like Elias Castillo; Native American leaders like Valentin Lopez, an ex-Franciscan who is a journalist; Steven Newcomb, scholar of the Doctrine of Discovery; and many others resisting. 

“Elias Castillo at Revolution Books on Father Junipero Serra. WHY WAS THIS A GENOCIDE? 9-22-15” (clip) Uploaded to YouTube by Revolution Books, Berkeley

I joined them and managed to contact a friend of the Pope who told me there was considerable debate about it going on in the Vatican.  I told him what indigenous leaders told me: “If Pope Francis goes through with this canonization, he will be making war on indigenous peoples the world over.”  That is how seriously native peoples felt about the issue.

I learned that the big push was from monied Spaniards who wanted a Spanish Saint declared in the Americas.  Maybe the Spaniards ought to take more responsibility for the ravages their empire wrought on indigenous peoples, rather than push for their own saint to make their souls feel righteous. 

Portrait of the missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas by José y Vicente López de Eguídanos. On Wikimedia Commons

Why not look into canonizing the Dominican Bartolomew de las Casas who fiercely defended the Native peoples of the Americas and declared that their culture was superior to the Spanish (and Catholic) culture that was destroying them?  Isn’t Saint Oscar Romero of Spanish ancestry?

I believe canonizing Serra was the biggest mistake and sin of the current papacy – a papacy that in many other ways has presented a more authentic face to the world – and I believe the Pope will regret it deeply. 

He has done some very good things such as his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, and, ironically, the Pan-Amazon Synod last Fall that welcomed the voices of indigenous peoples of the Amazon (though its refusal to allow married indigenous priests was a complete copout).

Pope Francis and indigenous people from the Amazon took part in tree-planting ceremony Oct. 4 in the Vatican Gardens on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Uploaded to YouTube by Catholic News Service.

There is also his canonization of Archbishop Romero; and his speech in congress celebrating Dorothy Day, MLK Jr, Thomas Merton and Abraham Lincoln.  And his blunt talk about cannibal capitalism that earned him Rush Limbaugh’s wrath, calling him a “Marxist.”

Behind the debacle of canonizing Serra a saint is the destruction of the canonization process itself under Pope John Paul II.  We will examine that in tomorrow’s DM.

See Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Post-denominational Priest, pp. 192, 224, 443f.

Matthew’s website archives his articles, blog posts, talks, and letters supporting indigenous resistance to the canonization of Junipero Serra. See an internal search listing HERE.

Banner Image: Blessed Junípero Serra, ‘Apostle of California’, is depicted in a mosaic above the north arch of the East Portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception nearby Pope Francis’ seat at the Canonization Mass for Serra. Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. on Flickr.

What does hagiography, canonization of saints mean to you?

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8 thoughts on “Why the Serra Canonization? Part I”

  1. Avatar

    Please not Bartolome de las Casas. Didn’t he suggest using Africans for hard labor, that they were much better suited for it than the native populations?

    1. Matthew Fox

      Dear Carol,

      It is true that Las Casas’s understanding and criticism of enslavement of Africans did not at all match his courage and enlightenment about the indigenous peoples. I frankly don’t understand it (but I am not a scholar about his life either). I would just say that he should get credit for what he did fiercely oppose; and criticism for what he did not. Nor, given that horrible mistake, should he be declared a saint–but what I was talking about was Spaniards themselves looking to their history for authentic holy people and not people like Serra. So they could get distracted from pursuing Serra and learn something from Las Casas’s defense of the Indians. Which was real and profound and courageous.


  2. Avatar
    Anne Marie Raftery

    Dr. Matthew Fox: Thank you for bringing to light and explaining the tragic
    colonial history of devastation to the Native Tribes as well as the Enslavement
    of so many African generations in the USA. Indeed, it was a sad day for
    Christianity when Emperor Constantine (313?) legalized the “People of The Way” ,
    and brought their leaders into the John Lateran Palace. The airing of the Truth
    of our History will hopefully be purifying and give us clear vision for moving ahead.
    Thank You, Matthew.

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for revealing yet another corruption in the RC Church , and it is true that the question behind every large action is, “cui bono”. It is refreshing for you to call out Spain to face up to its corporate sins as well. Not being of that faith, I have never really understood the need to put “special” people on an “official” pedestal, because being a human being is such a fallible business. Maybe it was needed in past centuries? I believe simply in the priesthood and the sainthood of all believers.

  4. Avatar
    Margaret Nuccio

    Thank you Matthew, for shedding more light on the shady sanctification of Serra, but this makes it even more horrifying!

  5. Carol Kilby

    I admire your honesty, Jackie. Yes, it is very difficult relinquishing the stories that have shaped our lives.

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