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Father Serra’s Sainthood: Sanctifying a Legacy of Domination

On January 15, 2015, during a flight from Sri Lanka to Manila, Pope Francis declared to reporters: “In September, God willing, I will canonize Junipero Serra in the United States.” In other words, the pope intends to make Serra a Roman Catholic saint. Speaking of Serra, the pope said: “He was the evangelizer of the West in the United States.” The same institution that brought us the Crusades, a Borgia Pope and the Inquisition is now going to sanctify Serra’s legacy.

How are we to understand the context of Serra’s founding of the “evangelizing” Spanish Catholic mission system in 1769, in what Spain then called “Alta California”? In his comprehensive book A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (1992), theologian Luis Rivera-Pagán, says: “Truly the Spanish conquerors of the Americas were driven by their quest for God, gold, and glory. But it was the language related to God—theology—that served to rationalize avarice and ambition, not vice versa.” (p. xv) He continues: “It was religion that attempted to sacralize [make sacred] political domination and economic exploitation.” (Ibid)

The word “evangelization,” used by Pope Francis, traces to “bringing the good news of a military victory.” That a war analogy and a bid for “conquest” is apt for Serra’s era of evangelism is documented by a joint statement made in California in 1773 by the Dominican and Franciscan Orders of the Catholic Church. In his book The Missions and Missionaries of California, Vol. I, (Mission Santa Barbara, 1928), Father Zephyrin Englehardt quotes the joint Dominican-Franciscan statement. It opens by invoking the names of the founders of their religious orders, whom they called “our holy Patriarchs, Dominic de Guzman and Francis of Assisi.” Assisi, of course, is the Catholic religious figure and saint, whose name Pope Francis chose for his papacy.

As the document continues, the religious orders talk of “finding ourselves in this corner of the world of Old and New California, occupied with the spiritual conquest and the conversion of the infidels…” (p. 524). The word “conquest” is accurately re-expressed as “domination.”

A genocidal system of violent evangelism and domination was the means of achieving what the Mexican scholar Manuel Serrano y Sanz called “Spanish domination in America.” (Orígines de la dominación española en América, Madrid, 1918). This historical reality informed the title of the 1987 book The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, by Rupert Costo (Luiseño) and Jeanette Costo. It was published as part of the fierce debate that took place over the proposed beatification of Father Serra in the 1980s.

The Catholic Church worked to achieve the spiritual conquest of infidels by means of temporal political domination of Church and State, the Cross and the Sword, over “the infidels.” Such domination is what Pope Francis’s predecessor Pope Alexander VI laid the path for with his papal bull documents from 1493. Those documents called for “the propagation of the Christian empire” and for non-Christian “barbarous nations” to be “reduced” to the Catholic faith and Christian religion. A papal bull from May 3, 1493 declared that the Spanish monarchs were authorized to take over any lands, discovered and to be discovered, that were not under the domination of any Christian dominator (“sub dominio actuali temporali aliquorum dominorum christianorum constitute non essent…”).

Junipero Serra’s efforts at evangelization were undertaken in furtherance of the objectives set forth in papal documents of the Holy See. Evangelization was one means of extending the religio-political Spanish Catholic system of domination into the lands and territories of the original and independent Native nations of the continent and the hemisphere throughout “the Americas.”

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Pope Francis is a member of the Jesuit Order. A biography about Father Juan Salvatierra, who was also a member of the Jesuit Order, sheds light on the nature and legacy of the Spanish Catholic system that Pope Francis is celebrating by declaring Father Serra to be a Catholic saint. The book’s title is Juan María de Salvatierra of the Company of Jesus, Missionary of the Province of New Spain, and Apostolic Conqueror of the Californias, by Miguel Venegas (Arthur H. Clark Company, 1929).

The book was originally published in Spanish in 1754. Marguerite Eyer Wilbur provided the 1929 English translation. As expressed in English, the original title page of the book reads in part: “Written learnedly and in detail by Father Miguel Venegas, Professed of the four Vows, of this same Company [of Jesus] and condensed into a brief compendium by Father Juan Antonio De Oviedo, Rector of the College of San Andres in Mexico, and Censor for the Holy Inquisition.”

The original title page in Spanish reads: “Quien La Dedica A Maria Santissima Madre de Dios, Reyna de todo los Santos, Senora de los Exercitos, y Conquistadora de nuevos Reynos en su Sagrada Imagen De Loreto.” This translates in English as follows: “By whom it [the book] is dedicated to the Most Holy Mary Mother of God, Queen of all the Saints Lady of Armies and Conqueress of new Kingdoms in her Holy Image of Loreto.” (pp. 48-49)

Pope Francis’s decision to grant sainthood to Father Serra by canonizing him celebrates the genocidal legacy of the Spanish Catholic mission system of domination. Pope Alexander VI unleashed that devastating system on our Original Nations shortly after Cristobal Colón made a successful voyage from Spain to the Caribbean and back. The pope’s decision to canonize Serra constitutes a celebration by the Holy See of the empire of Christendom, and its efforts to achieve the “spiritual conquest” (domination) of our “infidel” ancestors, in the name of “the Prince of Peace.”

Robert Jackson, in “The Dynamic of Indians Demographic Collapse in the Mission Communities in Northwestern New Spain (1990),” gave a grim sense of the devastation of the Spanish Catholic Mission system: “Finally, more than 90% of the children born in the missions died before reaching age ten.” In his sampling of the Baja and Alta California missions, Jackson stated: “In other words, the population of the seven Baja California [mission] establishments experienced a mean rate of 83 percent [population] decline, and 90 percent in the Alta California missions.” The life expectancy at birth, he said, was 7.4 years for the seven Baja California mission[s], and 4.5 years for…20 Alta California establishments.”

Given the unsaintly and deadly toll that Father Serra’s Catholic mission system had on Native Nations and families in Alta California, it is a cruel irony that Pope Francis will finalize his canonization of Father Serra during the World Meeting of Families, in “the city of Brotherly love,” in the territory of our Lenape Nation.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.