Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What Would Father Serra Think of Being Made a Saint?

While reading the article, Junípero Serra, saint or not? from the National Catholic Reporter @ http://ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/jun-pero-serra-saint-or-not , the above question hit me.

Having studied the man, I honestly believe he would bow his head at hearing the news, express his obedience to the will of the Holy Father, and plea that the decision be revoked. I do not think the man ever felt himself free from sin and went to his grave believing he failed to fulfill his directive to spread The Word of God to the Gentiles and expand Spain's control of California.

The scars upon his back attested to that. He spent endless nights on his knees begging The Lord's forgiveness for what he saw as his sins, often flagellating himself to the point of blood flowing down the thin flesh upon his back.

He would plea that his children, those who came to the missions to accept baptism and confirmation, not suffer in later years because he somehow did not secure their futures.

I can imagine the tears rolling down this cheeks at watching what the Mexicans did to the missions and what the Americans did to the Gentiles by exiling them to reservations with none of the support the missions had provided them.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the above-cited article:

Who was Serra? What should we think of him?
For answers, I went to Robert Senkewicz, professor of history at Santa Clara University and an expert on early California history. He is the author of a number of books on early California, including the just-published Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, which he wrote with his wife Rose Marie Beebe.

What was the purpose of the missions?
They inevitably had a double purpose. Under the Spanish system, the missionaries were paid by the government, so missionaries were both church and state functionaries.
From the point of view of the church, the purpose of the missions was to spread the Gospel to those who had not been baptized.
From the point of view of the state, the missions were institutions aimed at assimilating the native peoples, making them citizens of the empire. That meant, among other things, learning European-style agriculture, becoming a Catholic, and living in a congregated pueblo-type arrangement, just like people in Spain.
A great deal of the tension in the mission system stemmed from this double purpose, for these two aims did not always coexist easily with each other.

(And Father Serra constantly struggled with the military authorities over the purpose of the missions and how they were separate from the military)

Why did the Indians actually go to the missions?
Native people entered the missions in California for a variety of reasons. No doubt some were genuinely interested in Catholicism. Others presented their sick children for baptism in hopes that the priest might be able to cure them.
Some came because there was food at the missions. That was important because what was going on in California was that the Spanish military and missionaries brought large numbers of horses, mules, burros, sheep and goats with them. These animals inevitably and quickly destroyed the plants, acorn and berries that had sustained a traditional way of life for centuries. They also drove away the game the native peoples had traditionally hunted.
The presence of the Spanish colonial enterprise very quickly rendered it almost impossible for the traditional native ways of life to be maintained. So, some people came into the mission system because their traditional ways of life and sustenance was being destroyed by the  colonial invaders.

Did Serra realize this?
Probably not.

Would you say then that the Indians were enslaved by the missionaries?
Coercion and force were part of the mission system, but I wouldn't say that they were enslaved. Slavery is a specific legal system. To use it in an American context equates with the way Africans were treated in the American South, and it was a very different kind of situation. Indians were definitely regarded as inferior. But they were regarded not as property, but as people.

What was Serra’s attitude and behavior toward the Indians?
His attitude and behavior were frankly and explicitly paternalistic. Along with probably 99 percent of the people in Europe at the time, he thought that non-Europeans were inferior to Europeans. There was a big debate in the early Spanish empire about whether or not the native peoples were fully rational beings or not.
By the time Serra got to the New World, many Spanish thinkers believed that the native peoples of the Americas were in a state of "natural infancy," that they were children. Serra shared that view and he basically had a paternalistic attitude towards them.
That paternalistic attitude could, at times, result in a behavior which anybody today would find very hard to justify. If people left the mission without permission, they were pursued and hunted by soldiers and other Indians. If they were brought back, the normal punishment was flogging. What the Spanish military and missionaries thought they were doing was punishing children to make them understand how they should behave.

Did Serra like the Indians?
As we were researching the book, we came to the conclusion that Serra himself was personally a much more complex individual than either his proponents or his detractors acknowledged. He could be very conflicted.
On the one hand, he really enjoyed being with native peoples who were not baptized because that was the reason  he had come to the New World .
For instance, he kept a diary of his journey from Loreto in Baja California up to San Diego in 1769. For him, one of the most emotional days of his life was in a place in Baja California where a group of native unbaptized people came out of the woods and presented themselves to the priest. This was the first time in his life that he had personally encountered a large group of unbaptized Indians. He was overwhelmed.
In his diary he said, "I kissed the ground and thanked God for giving me what I have longed for so many years." It was really a tremendously emotional experience for him. After 19 years in America, he was finally going to get to do what he came to do: preach to the unbaptized.
I think that some native peoples that he met could pick up that he really wanted to be there. He really enjoyed being with native peoples because he felt that his identity as a missionary was the most important thing for him. 
After all, he had been an extremely popular teacher and preacher. He probably could have become Franciscan provincial of Mallorca. He gave it all up because he found that the academic life wasn't giving him satisfaction. He wanted to do direct pastoral work. He was excited and happiest when he was doing that.
It is always extremely difficult to intuit the thoughts, motives and genuine behavior of native peoples through the writings of colonial officials, but I think it is reasonable to surmise that some native people, especially in the area around which he spent most of his time, Carmel, understood and appreciated him. He was a man who was happiest when he was out there directly engaged in pastoral work.
He was most unhappy when he had to deal with soldiers and governors. Serra never met a military governor that he liked. He dealt with three of them and disliked each one more than the previous one.

At one point, Serra complained about all this: "I'm spending half of my life at a desk writing reports." He was clearly upset at all of the effort he had to put into such activity.

What made him happiest was being a missionary among unbaptized people. What made him especially happy was when he could do that directly one-on-one with native peoples. When he described that  human interaction, he tended not to acknowledge the fact that he was part of a larger colonial system that could be, at times, very brutal and very bloody.

Did the Indians like him?

Some of them certainly did. The California native culture was not a written culture. It was an oral culture. So scholars try to infer how the native peoples are reacting through obviously biased reports of Spanish writers. Even with that, I think that some of them really did like him, and they were fond of him. They kept calling him Padre Viejo, the old priest.
He kind of liked that. He was considerably older than most of the other Spaniards or Mexican the natives were encountering. He was also shorter and more frail than most of them. I think some of them sort of adopted him almost as a mascot.
In December 1776, for instance, he was traveling through the Santa Barbara area, and there was a huge rainstorm. So the small party that he was with had to leave the beach where they were traveling and go up to the foothills because the waves were coming in. They got bogged down in the mud.
Suddenly, and out of nowhere, a group of Chumash Indians appeared. They picked Serra up and carried him through the mud so that he could continue his journey. They stayed with him for a couple of days, and he tried to teach them to sing some songs. That was the kind of thing that he just loved.
Other native peoples, for instance the Kumeyaay  who in 1775 led a rebellion in San Diego that destroyed the mission and killed one of the priests, clearly didn't like the mission system at all. In fact, after that episode, Serra wrote to the viceroy and asked that, if he were to be killed by an Indian, that Indian ought not be executed but forgiven.
So, some did like him, and some thought that he was somebody who was destroying their way of life. The native response to the Spanish occupation of California was similar to the native response to many other incursions of European colonialism in the Americas. Definitely more negative than accepting, and complex and mixed.

There is much, much more to this article and I think it gives a fair evaluation of Father Serra, the mission system, and how the friars treated and thought of the Gentiles – as they called the natives.

Again, I ask the question – what would the Reverend Father think of his canonization?

He would most certainly feel unworthy of it.

More about Reverend Father Serra in the next post.

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