Saint Junipero Serra: A Second Thought

In canonizing Father Junipero Serra in Washington, D.C. on September 23, Pope Francis signaled that the Vatican believes the founder of the California mission system did his best for Native Americans. Serra's defenders say it is unfair to judge the 18th century Franciscan missionary by contemporary standards. Even though thousands of Indians suffered through forced labor and coerced conversions, and died of European diseases in the missions, all of which brought Native American protesters to the ceremony. No one knew any better, church officials said.

And yet, there were Catholic missionaries in the New World who did know better -- a hundred years before Serra set foot in California. Some of these experiences have captured the imagination of novelists and film makers.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jesuit missionaries in North and South America were criticized in Rome by the Franciscans and other conservative orders for introducing Christianity while allowing indigenous people to retain many of their customs and animist beliefs, as well as to pray in their own languages. Their efforts were dramatized in the novel and film Black Robe, set in French Canada.

Those Jesuits who went to live among the Guarani Indians of Latin America founded successful, cooperative agricultural settlements, called reducciones, in the jungle highlands near the modern borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. When Portuguese and Spanish authorities subsequently seized the collective farms -- which were fundamentally different form Serra's California missions -- some Jesuits died defending them, an incident dramatized in another film, The Mission.

In that film, the late actor Ray McAnally, who portrayed the Pope's representative, ordering the recalcitrant missionaries to abandon their charges, notes the "Jesuit contempt for the authority of the state." Later, the Cardinal, resigned to the injustice he has been a part of, observes that "the paradise of the poor never pleases those who rule above them."

It is difficult to imagine that Junipero Serra, a former college professor who corresponded regularly with Church officials in Mexico City and Spain, was unaware of the work of the Jesuits regarding Native Americans. And yet there is no evidence that Serra incorporated their progressive views in his own ministry along the California coast.

On July 11 of this year in Asuncion, Paraguay, Pope Francis - a Jesuit and an Argentine - praised his fellow Jesuits and their utopian reducciones. "There the Gospel was the soul and the life of communities which did not know hunger, unemployment, illiteracy or oppression," Francis said.

"This historical experience shows us that, today too, a more humane society is possible." He added, "Where there is love of people and a willingness to serve them, it is possible to create the conditions necessary for everyone to have access to basic goods, so that no one goes without." None of which kept the Vatican at the time from selling out the Jesuits to Spanish and Portuguese colonialists. Nor has it kept the pope from canonizing Junipero Serra.