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Rick Kennedy

Saint Junípero Serra

The mission to California.

Pope Francis announced early in 2015 that, in September, he will elevate to sainthood Junípero Serra, the 18th-century missionary who is "California's Founding Father." The pope plans to bypass the normal requirement of two miracles verifiably attributed to the intercession of a prospective saint—Serra only has one—because he wants to encourage global evangelism, and Fr. Serra was "the evangelizer of the West in the United States."[1]

For the California residents this is big news. It is a right of passage for every fourth grader in California to learn about Fr. Serra and his mission system. In many public schools throughout the state, boys and girls are required to pick a mission, write a report about it, and make a model to display to the class. When I was a kid we made our models out of shoe boxes and clay, but now companies sell pre-fabricated kits over the Internet. Our state officially represents itself in National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., with two statues, one of Junípero Serra and the other of Ronald Reagan. The highest peak of the coastal Santa Lucia Mountains is named after Junipero Serra, as is a freeway leading into San Francisco, not to mention hundreds of local schools, streets, and parks throughout the state. The San Diego baseball team, whose mascot is a Franciscan friar, is named after our founding Spanish missionaries. Junípero Serra is big business in California. US Senator Barbara Boxer has long promoted the use of federal money to help renovate the Roman Catholic missions—this even though she is normally against mixing federal money with faith-based organizations. "California's missions," she has declared, "impart valuable lessons about our state's early days and also provide many communities with valuable tourist dollars as more than 5.5 million visitors from around the world are drawn to the 21 missions in the system."[2]

Pope Francis knows well that by elevating Junípero Serra to sainthood he will get a lot of bang for his buck. The biggest bang will be a very public triangular discussion about the relationship between evangelism, cultural imperialism, and rights of indigenous peoples. Three recent biographies of Junípero Serra will help bring clarity to the discussion. There have been many over the last fifty years who have oversimplified the history of the California missions and created cookie-cutter images of Serra, the Spanish, and the Indians. These three biographies reveal a much more complicated situation, and the story they tell is consistent with the pope's desire to promote global evangelism in more sophisticated, more culturally sensitive, and more effective ways.

Serra was a highly thoughtful and complex man who lived in the midst of a complex time in California. The Serra story is not fodder for knee-jerk polemics. In the 1770s and 1780s, the west coast of North America was perceived to be a type of last great final opportunity for good people to implement the highest values of the Pax Hispanica. The greatest challenge was to set up public policies and institutions that Indians would voluntarily embrace. Ideally the Indians would be the winners both religiously and politically. They would gain heavenly salvation, while on earth they would keep control of most of their land, continue to be the dominant population, and be fully engaged in the self-governing civic life in their corner of the Spanish Empire. Serra and the early governors of California knew that in the history of Mexico many mistakes had been made. California was a second chance for the church and Spain to do things right.

Of these three biographies, Steven Hackel's is the most academically stoic. His book is solid and respectable if maybe a little befuddled by the notion that eternal salvation might be a real and worthwhile thing. Hackel upholds the traditional title of Serra as "founder" of the state even though Serra was always paired with imperial governors. The government, for its financial resources, drew heavily from a church evangelism endowment called the "Pious Fund of the Californias," and the chain of missions founded and organized by Serra was the economic and cultural backbone of the colony. Of the three books, Hackel's also presents the widest range of information about the eventual effects of the mission system on Indians while keeping Serra's time distinct from the massive dyings that happened decades after Serra's death and the repression and dispossession of Indians when the United States took over California. Hackel gives Serra his due and declares that it is important "to get right" the story of Serra because in him is "embodied a history of Indian-missionary relations nearly hemispheric in scope."

Gregory Orfalea's biography is more lively with Roman Catholic sensibility. Orfalea appreciates Serra's missionary zeal and presents him appropriately as a great adventurer willing to suffer and die for the cause of Christ. At the same time, Orfalea weaves a sense of the tragic into his story as he asserts that "salvation was not the real reason" Spain sent the Franciscans into California. He has Serra, in despair, cling to Matthew 10:16: "Be prudent as serpents and simple as doves."

The deepest and most well-researched biography of the three, however, is Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz's volume. The authors say in their introduction that they want to redress an imbalance in Serra studies by helping readers see through his eyes—both himself as an 18th-century missionary priest, and his relationship with the native peoples he encountered in America. They do this mostly by letting Serra speak for himself in many long quotes from his letters. It's easy to pull prickly snippets from Serra's letters and characterize him as obstinate, even harsh. It is also easy to get caught up in narrating the bureaucratic issues he faced. It is harder to submerge readers into Serra's mind. Beebe and Senkewicz go deeper than any previous study in helping readers see from his point of view. Although Hackel's and Orfalea's biographies are excellent in their separate ways, Beebe and Senkewicz's book will stand much longer than the others as a sober and religiously sensitive commentary on Junípero Serra as a thoughtful missionary.

All good biographies of Serra have to start with recognizing that, among the Europeans, Serra was the most intellectually sophisticated, interculturally astute, and zealously motivated person involved in the founding period of Spanish Alta California. As a young university professor on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, he held the chair of Scotistic Theology at the Llullian University. Scotistic theology as Serra taught it was largely founded upon an all-consuming vision of God's love. Duns Scotus believed that God loves all humans so much that God would have become human even if Adam had not sinned. The music, art, and architecture of the California missions manifested this Scotistic emphasis on the power of love and aesthetics in evangelism. Serra was also highly influenced by the thought of Ram"n Llull, one of the most innovative medieval students of the complexities of intercultural communication. The Llullian University where Serra was educated and where he taught did not impart to its Franciscan students a naïve approach to missions. As for Serra's zeal, his job teaching formal logic and scholastic rationalism did not hamper him from sharing in the widespread belief of his day in that God was targeting for evangelism the North American southwest. Serra was excited by stories of Sister Maria de Jesús Agreda, a nun who was preparing the way for missionaries by miraculously bi-locating, simultaneously living in Spain while also living among the Indians in America. In Spain she spread the news that American Indians were anxious to embrace the love of Christ.

As an adventure story, the facts of Serra's life are easy to tell. At age thirty-six, he abandoned his thriving academic career to lead a group of former students, called his Los Condiscipulos, across the ocean to the mission field in northern Mexico. There he began an itinerant career—sailing, walking, and riding a mule—and eventually founded missions among many "robust, complex, and resilient" Indian cultures. Barely over five feet tall, Serra faced all sorts of dangers with courage and intellect. Beebe and Senkewicz give examples of Indians who responded favorably to Serra's impassioned preaching and acts of love. They are especially good when showing what Serra learned from being an inquisitor at a witch trial in northern Mexico. Beebe and Senkewicz note that Serra learned in this situation to take "a hard line against Spaniards and other settlers, but that his approach to the indigenous peoples themselves would have to be flexible and provisional if it were to have any chance of succeeding."

After twenty years in Mexico, anxious for an opportunity to go where Spanish settlement had not yet undermined missionary effectiveness, Serra, at age fifty-six, was tapped by the Visitidor of New Spain, a man with the king's authority, who sent him and his condiscipulos to establish missions at San Diego and Monterey, two places identified on maps as deep in highly populated, but very hard to get to, Indian territory. Serra, hampered by his bad leg, mostly walked the thousand miles that took him up through the desert into Alta California. There he planned to exceed his orders, build a string of missions, and eventually die in service to Christ's command to evangelize the whole world.

Serra's life truly was an adventure story, but the challenges he faced were intellectual as much as they were physical. Serra, along with his condiscipulos and others from the island of Mallorca, carried Scotistic and Llullian principles into Alta California while the Spanish government—embodied best in Governor Filipe de Neve—was implanting its own new kind of enlightened civil rights. The two intellectual systems were not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the contest between the two on the southern coast of California is a type of parable for evangelism in the modern world. The mission emphasis on family structure and reciprocal responsibilities—the slow education of citizens of both heaven and earth—was in tension with a new civic emphasis on individual freedom and relations based on trade and labor—a sink-or-swim system of "equal opportunity" where the equality was often ficititious.

Governor Neve held many of the highest enlightenment principles of cultural imperialism. Both Serra and Neve believed that Spain could create in California a society in which Indians would be full participants, a good Christian society for the betterment of all. And Neve and Serra agreed that all the missions should be regarded as temporary institutions: a first step in a larger cultural process. Ideally, Serra's missions would appeal to Indians and serve as large ranches where Indians would convert to Christianity while being introduced to Spanish life and worship. Like a modern foster-care facility, missions would offer a Spanish model of family-life and fellowship along with training and education for economic success. Over a number of years, so the dream went, the missions would work themselves out of a job as Indians took up their land while gathering into self-governing pueblos. The civic ideals of Neve were the goal, but it would take time, longer than Serra initially expected, to do this well. Beebe and Senkewicz show how Serra saw in northern Mexico how destructive it was to Indians for them to be pushed too quickly into mere trade and labor relations with the Spanish.

Governor Neve agreed with Serra about the role of missions and the need for a period of patriarchal education; however, he didn't see this as essential for all Indians, nor did he see it as something that should take too long. Neve was anxious to phase out the first coastal missions and start new ones further into the interior of California. Serra, on the other hand, wanted to enhance and expand the coastal missions, where the work was only beginning. Serra was fired by the Scotistic desire to create ranch-like extended foster-families rooted in divine love, nurtured by slow Llullian methods of strengthening communication. Neve, on the other hand, had great faith in the politics of town life dominated by a central plaza upon which stood the town's church. Town life in California was the goal, and it was his job to jump-start it despite Serra's warnings.

Neve insisted that each mission have the Indians elect two alcádes (mayors) and two rigidors (councilmen) from among their ranks. This, he believed, would speed up the process of teaching the Indians the practice of representative government and negotiating skills. In concert with his superiors in Mexico, Neve established the first two free-standing pueblos in California: San Jose and Los Angeles. Both were to be models of inclusive citizenship gathered together in a church where the priest had none of the extended powers over land holding and trade that the missionaries had.

The conflicting methods of Serra and Neve were especially clear in the founding of Santa Barbara. In spite of Serra's insistence on establishing a mission, Neve instead founded a presidio (fort) among the Indian villages there. Political friendships were supposed to develop and prevail as Indians retained their village lands while being paid for their labor as they helped build a fort in their midst that would protect them all from Russia, England, and France. For Neve, trade was the foundation of a mutually beneficial relationship. Of course Christian conversions would come, but for Neve that could come later. A mission would not be built in Santa Barbara until after Serra died.

Serra understood that his methods were being undermined by Neve's even though the two men shared the same ultimate goal. In Hackel's biography, Neve comes off as commonsensical while Serra comes off as power-hungry. Orfalea throws doubts on Neve's motives while writing that Serra "was being paternal in both the good and bad sense of the term." Beebe and Senkewicz quote a letter from Serra in which he frustratedly complained that Neve was "acting as a missionary" on his own terms and would, himself, provide "a method for how to be a missionary." Beebe and Senkewicz give Neve's alternative method its due when they note that Neve engaged in "systematic diplomacy" with Indians when establishing Los Angeles, and that he presented himself as godfather at the baptisms of dozens of Indians who were given "de Neve" as part of their Christian names. "Two were even called Felipe and Felipa." Neve modeled a different type of missionary method and brashly declared that he would be happy "to teach the Franciscans how to be real missionaries."

The story of California's Spanish founding, especially the late 1770s and early 1780s, is not simply a story of military conquest but rather a story of rival paternalistic good intentions in tension: a family-style evangelism and a more expansive cultural imperialism. Because the story is largely intellectual and focused in the intentions of the president of the missions and the most farsighted of the governors, it is best told biographically in the relationship between Serra and Neve. Both men had Christian intentions; both hoped to establish among the Indians of California the rights and privileges of Spanish-Christian citizenship on earth along with the hope of salvation in heaven.

But what did the Indians want? Although during the 1770s and 1780s the vast majority of Indians in California were unaffected by Serra's and Neve's coastal development of ten missions, four presidios, and two pueblos, all three biographies are clear that the Indians who were affected were embedded into a violent and coercive colonial project—even if Serra and good governors such as Neve wanted non-violent and non-coercive relations. By intervening in the Indians' lives, Serra and Neve alike were helping to set in motion consequences over which they had no control.

A telling issue that all three biographies discuss concerns flogging Indians. Serra, raised in European family life, a voluntary member of a religious order, and a believer in the redemptive suffering that Christians share with Jesus, did not blink at flogging. For Serra, when an Indian voluntarily entered the mission as a neophyte, the Indian accepted the culture of flogging as a form of paternalistic punishment. Governor Neve, influenced by glimmers of a new enlightened culture, insisted that flogging be restricted for more narrow political purposes—such as persuading an Indian to testify against another Indian in a judicial case. Indians, for the most part, had no cultural acceptance of flogging for good purpose. Flogging merely antagonized them and undermined the goals of both Serra and Neve.

As honest biographies, these three books do not naïvely present the Indians as beneficiaries of Serra's and Neve's good intentions. On the other hand, they appreciate the fact that during Serra's life he received many indications that individual Indians were ready to join him in creating what Beebe and Senkewicz call "a new area of 'Christendom.' " The two transcribe a letter from Serra in which he describes Esselen Indians from an area in the Salinas Valley called La Solidad approaching him. "They make it clear that they would be pleased to have Padres on their land. They see the church, which is clean; abundant cornfields; many children; and other people like themselves but who are clothed and who sing who have plenty to eat even though they work. All of this, together with the way Our Lord God touches their souls—who can doubt that He will win their hearts."

By elevating Serra to sainthood, the pope raises for discussion many thorny questions of evangelism, cultural imperialism, and indigenous rights. The choice of Serra is a good one, not because it offers answers to these questions, but rather because it opens up their complexities. These kinds of complexities immobilize some, but the pope wants to mobilize others by encouraging evangelism that is fired by the kind of love and intercultural awareness that called a university professor to leave his cushy job in order to spread the gospel on the far side of the globe.

Books Discussed In This Essay:

Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2015).

Gregory Orfalea, Journey to the Sun: Junípero Serra's Dream and the Founding of California (Scribner, 2014).

Steven W. Hackel, Junípero Serra: California's Founding Father (Hill and Wang, 2013).

1. Catholic News Service, January 15, 2015, http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1500192.htm.

Rick Kennedy teaches California history at Point Loma Nazarene University and is the author of The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, just published by Eerdmans.

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