Blessed Junipero Serra’s love for the natives of California extended even to those who killed one of his friends and fellow missionaries, the Archbishop of Los Angeles has said in a summary of an early argument against the death penalty for a native Californian.
“In his appeals, he said some truly remarkable things about human dignity, human rights and the mercy of God,” Archbishop Jose Gomez said in Kansas City, Kansas July 29.
The archbishop reflected on the Franciscan missionary’s actions in the wake of a 1775 attack by California natives on the San Diego mission.
“They burned the whole place down and they tortured and killed one of the Franciscans there, a good friend of Fray Junipero,” Archbishop Gomez recounted.
While the Spanish military wanted to arrest the natives and execute them, Father Junipero Serra repeatedly wrote to urge them to spare the accused.
Father Serra, a Franciscan missionary, helped found many of the Californian missions that went on to become the centers of major cities. The California natives who joined the missions learned the faith, as well as the technologies and learning of Europe.
Pope Francis will canonize Father Serra during his U.S. visit in September.
“In his writings, we find deep love for the native peoples he had come to evangelize,” Archbishop Gomez said of the missionary.
The Los Angeles archbishop reflected on one episode of the missionary’s life in his keynote speech at the National Diocesan Pro-Life Leadership Conference.
Father Serra asked Spanish authorities to spare the lives of the California natives who had attacked the San Diego mission, even though they had killed several people.
In a Dec. 15, 1775 letter to the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursua, the priest said, “let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here and the reason for forgiving him.”
The priest’s letter went on to encourage not execution but rather what he characterized as “moderate punishment” to help the killer understand that he is being pardoned by a law “which orders us to forgive offenses and to prepare him, not for his death, but for eternal life.” The letter is translated in the book Junipero Serra by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz.
Father Serra said that one of the most important things he himself requested was that “if the Indians were to kill me … they should be forgiven.”
Archbishop Gomez suggested that Father Serra was “the first person in the Americas – and maybe in all of the universal Church – to make a theological and moral argument against the death penalty.”
He said Father Serra and his fellow missionaries showed “a passionate commitment to human life and human dignity.” For Archbishop Gomez, Father Serra was “a defender and protector of the native peoples,” especially women, from the “systematic violence” of the Spanish military. Though many Europeans denied the natives’ humanity, Father Serra drew up a “bill of rights” that called for justice and the promotion of human development.
Archbishop Gomez drew a lesson from this, encouraging pro-life Catholic leaders to “follow in the path of the missionaries and saints of the Americas and to proclaim the Gospel of life, which is the heart of the message of Jesus.”
Political correctness has vilified Reverend Father Serra and his fellow Franciscans for many things they never did.