Culture Ethics Institutions

Vatican pushes ahead with sainthood for missionary priest Junipero Serra

This statue of Father Junipero Serra was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by California in 1931.
This statue of Father Junipero Serra was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by California in 1931.

Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol

This statue of Father Junipero Serra was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by California in 1931.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Despite growing resistance from some Native Americans and U.S. Catholics, the Vatican on Saturday (May 2) will host an event to celebrate the life of Junípero Serra, the Spanish missionary priest whom Pope Francis plans to canonize during his upcoming American tour.

The Pontifical North American College, the American bishops’ elite seminary in Rome, has joined with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America to host the “Day of Reflection,” which includes an appearance by the pope.

The event has the highest backing within the Roman Catholic Church, with organizers announcing the pontiff will celebrate a Mass for supporters of Serra, an evangelizer who helped establish the mission system in 18th-century California.

The pope’s appearance has been eagerly anticipated by Monsignor James Checchio, rector of the college, who described Francis’ participation as “the highlight of the day.” It’s also a very public sign that Francis does not seem bothered by the controversy that Serra’s sainthood has sparked.

Checchio drew on the importance of Serra to the Catholic Church ahead of the planned canonization on Sept. 23 in Washington. “He obviously showed great heroic (valor) and sacrificed himself in the name of evangelization and Jesus Christ,” Checchio told Vatican Radio on Monday.

But the seminary’s view — and that of the Vatican — stands in stark contrast to the opinions of some Californians.

Oil painting of Father Junípero Serra from the 1700s.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Oil painting of Father Junípero Serra from the 1700s.

In his role as a Franciscan friar, Serra is seen by the Holy See as playing a key role in bringing Christianity to the colony known as “New Spain,” which included California. But his detractors argue that Serra oversaw a brutal mission system, which ultimately led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Native Americans.

Steven W. Hackel, professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and author of “Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father,” said Serra led an “aggressive” campaign to secure mission territory for his fellow Franciscans.

Missionary rivalry aside, it’s the high death rate among the mission inhabitants for which Serra is most controversial. Serra died in 1784 at age 70, and the system he helped create saw around 80,000 Native Americans baptized in the missions between 1769 and the mid-1830s. By the latter period, around 60,000 of those had died, Hackel said.

“Even though he never killed anyone and would never have promoted that, there’s no question that the system that Serra creates is culturally and biologically lethal to native peoples,” he added.

Some California lawmakers have proposed removing Serra’s statue in the U.S. Capitol — one of two representing state heroes — and replacing it with one of the late astronaut Sally Ride.

Many ancestors of Native Americans who survived the missions share an entirely negative view of the soon-to-be saint. Ronald Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, said there is “nothing positive in the history of Serra.”

The upcoming canonization is a “strictly political” move, Andrade said. “You will see how far modern tribes are away from the church. The (Native American) culture is reviving; that proves to me that they are moving away from what Serra had wanted.”

Andrade accused Francis of orchestrating the canonization “to get some publicity” and revive Catholicism in California. His view was echoed by Elias Castillo, who wrote the book: “A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions.”

“This is nothing more than a PR move by the Catholic Church to entice more people to become Catholic,” he said, calling Serra’s reign a “devastating period” and the pope’s plans to canonize the Franciscan “disgraceful.”

“Either he doesn’t know of what happened in California in the mission period or he doesn’t care,” he said, calling for the Catholic Church to apologize to Native Americans.

But the narrative of Native Americans as passive victims has been challenged by Tracy Neal Leavelle, associate professor of history at the Jesuit-run Creighton University and author of “The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America.”

“There certainly was oppression and coercion — the missions didn’t work without native labor — but native peoples and communities also figured out how to make the missions work for them,” he said.

Native Americans were able to use the missions as “backup” when facing the pressures of seasonal cycles of subsistence, Leavelle said. Their communities were nonetheless decimated by disease due to the missions, with Serra becoming “a symbol of that traumatic period.”

Arguing that the Spaniard’s role was not different from other missionaries, Leavelle said he was surprised the pontiff had chosen to canonize Serra.

But for Hackel, the way Serra approached his work gives a vital clue to understanding his path to sainthood.

“From a very young age he had studied narratives and chronicles written by or about missionaries that had come to the new world, some of which had been canonized, and takes their lives as a blueprint for his own,” he said.


About the author

Rosie Scammell

Rosie Scammell is a British journalist with extensive experience reporting for leading international news organizations. She has been based in Italy since 2012 and covers the Vatican for RNS.


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  • How can Fr. Serra be responsible for the death and diseases he is accused of today? What revisionism! Here was a Catholic priest doing what all missionaries hoped to do at this time…bring the Faith to the ignorant. How dare we judge him by the standards of today. He was out to save souls, he was not a Conquistador.
    His sainthood lies in the sacrificial work he did for God.

  • @NDN lover,

    “No racists are agents of God”

    I hope you are including the most famous racist of all:

    “Don’t waste….on the people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs!” – JESUS (Matthew 7:6)

    I’m always baffled when people speak about peace and humanity out of one side of their mouth – then they bring up Jesus or God or Allah from the other side of their mouth.

    Humanity and decency won’t stand a chance if we keep celebrating these horrible (fictional) Gods.

  • You lived near a Serra mission in the 18th Century? Wow, you’re old.
    If Serra is to be maligned, then all European Americans are equally maligned….do not tell me he acted worse than your average Joe in the pioneer days.
    Revisionism. Stupid, ignorant “history”.

  • A little knowledge (of the Bible) is a dangerous thing (when possessed by an atheist.) Dangerous to the atheist.

  • James Carr, are you really saying that genocidal racism conducted by European Americans was ok because they all were doing it? Wow..where did you learn your ethics? Don’t tell me, Catholic school. And btw, one doesn’t have to live in the 18th Century to be close to a Serra Mission–there’s a bunch of them. I was born in one of the Mission towns.

  • That Francis can honor past racists actions that had hideous effects on California tribes made slaves to ambitious Mission padres wanting to impress their Spanish rulers anxious to gain that gold those natives had, and all that land that looked so similar to native Spain, that Francis can do this is also how he can support modern European racism that European Jews are conducting against the native population of Palestine. American “Manifest Destiny” i.e. Europeans conquer and rule over native peoples translated into its Jewish version of “Eretz Iisrael” and they both smack of “Third Reich” horror stories to their victims.

  • The tribe I used to work for for years was composed of descendants of survivors of the Indian Island Massacre that so few Americans know about because the Civil War news obscured the European-American racist genocidal California Indian War period where California State supported white settler death squads murdering Native Americans. Over 200 women, children, and old men, were axed to death by white death squads as the native able bodied men deliberately left the village thinking even white people wouldn’t kill innocent women, children and old people so they removed themselves to protect their villagers. This was just the tip of the genocidal war period, atrocities that make Auschwitz look like child’s play, babies put in gunny sacks and drowned, ndns thrown overboard to drown after being taken off shore, rapes, murders, forced marches where most died, all their culture, even language taken away with no backup population as had the Jews, Armenians, all the larger ethnic groups had.

  • @Richard Sneed,

    “A little knowledge of the Bible is a dangerous thing when possessed by an atheist.”

    Then why use it to try to convert Atheists?

    Know what I think? I think you don’t know your Bible – nor your religion.
    I think you have created a sweet Jesus in your mind who does nothing cruel and is waiting to bring everyone to heaven when they die.

    But if you actually read the Bible you would discover that Jesus is one of the most vile, sinister characters ever invented – a compilation of the worst nightmares anyone ever had.

    I’m glad the Jesus stories are just legends. It is an enormous relief.

    “Bring my enemies to me and execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    Is that nice?
    Is that good?
    Is that not worth questioning?

  • Sorry, don’t buy the genocidal maniacs history that you profess. Junipero Sera was bringing the word of God and the concept of civilized behavior to the native peoples of California.If it looks “ghastly” today, then that is because we judge the past by a standard unknown at that time. The intent of Fr. Sera was good, good enough to be canonized a Catholic Saint. The Church is not stupid enough to raise a questionable soul to Sainthood, it’s investigation into a person’s life is exhaustive and lengthy.
    Perhaps the Native Americans should stop moping over stories that are some 200 years old and get on with reality.

  • The verse you quote is a from a long parable.

    I have been a student of the Bible since 1983, Not a few of my acquaintances call me a “scholar.” I have been a teacher and a missionary. I know, as much as anyone of my abilities may know, from whence I speak; yet I still study every day and not just because it’s fascinating. I am not a religionist but a spiritualist, just as Jesus is. I believe that most churches get “it” wrong. I hope, this is enough of a defense of your personal attack.

    It is good to know that you are trying to acquaint yourself with the word but you are wasting your time. One may not begin to understand the Bible until after one has had a personal encounter with Jesus; the “Born Again” experience.

    Please explain the reasons for your hatred of Christ and his word. I should enjoy hearing your motives… r

  • @Richard Sneed,

    “ are wasting your time…”


    Jesus’ despicable Parable of the Minas (luke 19:20) is used as an argument for the Parousia. It is a vile parable about punishing disobedient slaves. The method used by ‘The Nobleman’ (not so veiled reference to Jesus himself) is to hand the assignment of slaughtering the disobedient slaves to…The Obedient Slaves. Jesus gets to keep his hands clean! Disgusting.

    The so called ‘Love of Christ’ is a primitive theory of love based on unquestioning devotion and worship of a ruler. This is not love, but the seed of fascism this world does not need.

    You have every right to your beliefs – just as you have the right to smoke or buy a beer. But don’t expect me to call it pious or good. Jesus is nonsense.

  • PS There is one book in the Bible that you may understand: the Gospel of John.

  • @Richard Sneed,

    Religion is Compulsory and Fascist:


    “Believe or be condemned” – JESUS (Mark 16:16)

    Show me where
    Stalin, Franco, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Hirohito & Chairman Mao did not say the same thing.

    Atheism is not a religion. It is not Compulsory.

  • James,

    I find your comment willfully blind. “Perhaps the Native Americans should stop moping over stories that are some 200 years old and get on with reality.”

    The Native side of the story is a part of reality.

    We don’t have to demonize Serra (he was after all carrying out an expected pattern of behavior–everything he had ever learned told him it was the right thing to do) to recognize the negative outcomes of a system he helped establish.

    As far as the vetting Catholic saints go through…

    Padre Pio slipped in, even though his conduct with women penitents was questionable, his stigmata likely generated through the application of acid (which, I’ll admit, he could have deluded himself into thinking was “just keeping the wounds disinfected”).

    St. Ambrose of Milan had some incredibly nasty anti-Semitic comments which general “Lives of Saints” will omit.

    etc. (Church history is much more complex and revealing of the human experience when you read…

  • Lauren, I appreciate your comment , but have read about the Pio investigations and He comes up clean on all accusations. In a way, the bureaucratic Church persecuted him more than venerated him during his life to prevent the faithful from possibly following a fraud.
    Antisemitic remarks….?…common among all Christians throughout time, the old Mass said prayers for the conversion of the Jews, and included derisive language about them in the reading of the Passion. Times changed,though.
    As far as the native side of the story, yes, it exists, but most of it has come out recently along with the slant that the system was hated and ruined a lifestyle that should have been left to endure. To me, it is revisionism, it does not reflect the reality of the time in the context of the time.

  • The thing I don’t understand is why in the world an “atheist” would waste his/her time commenting on a Religious New Website! You’d think they would spend their valuable time on this earth thumping the Progressive Strategy Handbook on secular sites.

  • “How dare we judge him by the standards of today”

    Please remember that when you want to use Bronze age and 1st Century notions as a model to follow in the 21st Century. After all the morality of such times was much rougher and less enlightened than our present day. 🙂

  • Junipero Sera may not be a demon in light of the actions of his day, but he hardly should be considered a saint today. Who the church beautifies in the here and now is seen as an endorsement of them. I would say its about a century too late to be able to do it without drawing ire.

    Its really funny when Christians talk of “having a moral compass” (and usually accusing others of lacking one) and appreciation of absolute morality (while demonizing moral “relativism”) but then refute it when inconvenient. Obviously they are the last people to take seriously on such subjects.

    So you are saying that moral thinking is dependent on your era. Relative to everyone around you. All that talk of being Christians make about being above the considerations of your culture and era being so much nonsense.

    Good to know.

  • Forced conversion, ethnic cleansing and active destruction of the culture was all part of “Bringing God to the ignorant”. It may have been excusable in his era, but canonizing him now, reflects on the morals of people today. The Church has raised questionable souls to sainthood on a regular basis. Beautification is as much a political process as it is a religious one. As with pretty much anything related to the Catholic Church.

  • Greg,

    “I don’t understand is why in the world an “atheist” would waste his/her time commenting on a Religious News Website!”

    Religion is like Alcohol and Smoking – it is usually dangerous and harmful to some degree, especially in the hands of politicians.

    Some Atheists, such as myself, study religion as a doctor studies cancer.
    We wonder why we ever believed in it – and we see it as an affliction we have been cured of.

    Though religion is a large part of our society, these ancient philosophies are at war with each other and with humanity itself.
    Religions threaten our minds and our culture.

    I follow religious news as rabbit studies foxes.

  • GREG,

    I’m not wasting my time if you saw the word “ATHEIST” today.
    And I’m winning extra points if you actually had to type it.

  • Yet, the word “atheist” still retains a negative image of a person, or institution. Not much progress there, eh?

  • Now let us burn down Mount Vernon and its slave quarters. And let us ban honors toThomas Jefferson who fathered children by his slaves (Were they raped???)

  • Greg,

    I was a Theist for 44 years. Because of indoctrination.
    It would take actual proof of God to change me back into being a theist this time.

    Otherwise your claim that God exists is dangerous nonsense.

  • “the word “atheist” still retains a negative image”

    Because you don’t know….

    Paul Newman was an Atheist (donated $375 Million to charity)
    Jonas Salk was an Atheist (donated the Polio vaccine to humanity saving a billion lives)
    Charles Schulz was an Atheist(creator of Charlie Brown)

    The problem isn’t Atheism.
    The problem is you don’t know.

  • Belief in Jesus is a gift. It is required for salvation but it is not something I do. It is something done to me. In this sense I do not consider it fascistic. You would be right if a decision to follow Christ were a personal choice. (Ephesians 1:3-2:22)

  • It’s coming A-theist; the world is beginning to shape up just as it has been written about, as well as the way the mystics of the Church have proclaimed it. I like what Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) had to say, “In the center was an abyss of darkness. Lucifer was cast into it, chained, and thick black vapor mounted up around him. This took place by the Divine Decree. I heard that Lucifer (if I do not mistake) will be freed again for awhile fifty or sixty years before the year 2000 A.D. I have forgotten many other dates that were told me. Some other demons are to be freed before Lucifer, in order to chastise and tempt mankind.” (Life of Christ Vol 4 p. 355. )

  • The pope said Junipero Serra “was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States” at the May 2 event and earlier he said the canonization in WashDC during his US visit would be a “national event.” Joining the pope at the Pontifical North American College in Rome were Cardinal Raymond Burke, American Opus Dei prelates Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and Newark Archbishop John Myers, along with Francis’ friend and Opus Dei member, Guzman Carriquiry, appointed by the pope as Vice President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, a rare honor for a layman. The supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson gave the closing talk. The Knights have invested millions in the Church’s war against women and gays.

    The pope refused to rescind his appointment of Juan Barros as bishop of Osorno, Chile, even after there was a near riot at his ordination because Barros not only witnessed clerical sex abuse but later covered-up for the pedophile priest.

    The pope is so…

  • Or better yet don’t treat him with religious reverence associated with Jesus and Apostles. Don’t officially celebrate him as a spiritual figure to be honored with holidays, festivals or as the mystical patron of something.

    Catholics are supposed to take sainthood seriously. These are people practically being deified or given divine reverence in death for their acts in life. The standards should be high in this regard.

  • I forgot that Christians are seers that can look into the future and act in accordance with an unknown societal ideology. What bunk. We can only be judged within the timeframe that we exist. Slavery had been in existence for mucho thousands of years as an unquestioned status in society….a necessity, even. Only 3 Centuries ago, did it start to be viewed as immoral and dehumanizing. Now should all slave owners since the Big Bang be considered monsters and inhuman people?

  • @Richard Sneed,

    “it is not something I do.”

    Oh please.
    So now you have no free will – Jesus was branded on your brain from birth?

    Yet you say my ‘rejection’ is a free will decision?

    Oy. There is no way to predict what the religious people will say next.

  • So by your argument, we can ignore all of your yattering about the Biblical based immorality of things such as marriage equality, abortion, and secularism. After all you are using old outdated standards to judge modern issues. According to you all moral judgment is rooted in its time in a relative sense.

    Because slavery was always evil. Just because something is accepted doesn’t mean its moral. Some acts were always wrong and always will be. Just read accounts of those enslaved. As is mass murder and purposeful destruction of cultures. I thought you guys believed in “set in stone” absolute morals? That is what you guys keep saying in public when you want to make fun of others.

    Issues of conscience only exist when bakers want to discriminate against gay customers? 🙂

  • Wrong again. Almost a perfect record.

    There are intrinsic evils that will always be evil. Murder, rape, abortion, heresy, theft, lying…..
    Slavery was a part of societal evolution, as was feudalism, serfdom, foreign colonization. It’s morality lies in the use of it. Jesus asked slaves to obey their masters, and told the masters to
    respect their slaves. He made no statement about
    ending slavery, for He acted within the mindset
    of the 1st Century. Child labor was all too common up to the 20th Century until society saw
    the wrongness of it.

  • @James Carr

    “Slavery was a part of societal evolution”

    Then why didn’t God say that? Instead he commanded enslavement!


    “The slave will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it…..” – JESUS (Luke 12:47-48)

    Why doesn’t Jesus just say it is wrong to own humans? He says other things are wrong – why not slavery?

    If owning humans was not a sin in the days of Jesus, why are you pretending it is a sin today?
    What other commands of Jesus were not really meant to be taken seriously?

    You have no clue what a can of worms you have opened up for yourself!
    All of these legends are primitive nonsense.