Battles over historic symbols can get heated, as Congress learned this summer in the Confederate battle flag fight. But a little controversy isn’t stopping Pope Francis from weighing in on the debate over one of California’s key historical figures — a frontier-era priest whose statue is prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol.
On Wednesday, the pope will canonize Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest — revered by Catholics and reviled by some Native Americans — who founded nine of the state’s 21 missions in the 1700s and brought Catholicism to the new world.
To supporters — including the pope — he’s a saint, despite the church’s subjugation at the time of California’s native peoples. Some historians say it’s unfair to judge Serra through the lens of modern morals and standards. When indigenous tribes were viewed as subhuman by Spanish settlers, Serra saw their “intrinsic dignity,” said one supporter.
Critics point to the darker side of the legacy of Spanish colonialism that destroyed the culture of Native Americans and enslaved those they tried to convert.
Sainthood is a bridge too far, they say.
But sainthood is happening, in a ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Michigan Avenue in Washington on Wednesday. And detractors are left with little recourse.
Before the national backlash against Confederate symbolism after the massacre of nine church parishioners in Charleston, S.C., in June, the California Legislature was advancing a bill to replace Serra’s statue in Statuary Hall (each state contributes two statues in the collection) with one of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, a brilliant scientist and a lesbian.
The bill’s sponsor, Ricardo Lara, a Democratic state senator and member of the California Legislative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, whose district includes much of Long Beach, maintained the move was based on Ride’s achievements and the example she sets for young girls.
But the timing was conspicuous. Lara announced his intentions just weeks after Francis announced plans of the canonization. And it seemed to be a thumb in the eye of a religion struggling with its views on the LGBT community.
“That was an interesting one, in that Sally Ride being put in his place was probably equally controversial,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose district includes Mission San Juan Capistrano, the last intact place of worship where Serra celebrated Mass. “It was not based on her being the first [U.S.] woman astronaut in space and so on; it was based on her being a lesbian.”
The bill’s momentum stopped after Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat and a Catholic, told Catholic News Service the statue would stay in the Capitol. “It’s done as far as I’m concerned,” Brown said.
But the controversy’s not going away, despite the pope’s decision to confer sainthood. A Lara spokesman told CQ Roll Call on Sept. 18 the bill would be revisited in January.
Issa said he didn’t think Ride’s achievements, while noteworthy, would stand the test of time like Serra’s. “We only get two statues and they shouldn’t be changed based on the Legislature’s whim,” he said.
“But,” Issa added, “I do share the concerns that Native Americans have for the canonization of this priest, based on a mixed message it sends to the Native Americans who were, under his tutelage, knowingly brought into captivity and many of them dying there because of it.”
Therein lies the legacy’s complexity.
“Clearly it’s a mixed bag,” Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, a California Democrat, said of Serra’s legacy. Sánchez, whose district intersects narrowly with Lara’s, said there isn’t a clear consensus in her constituency on the Serra legacy, but said she personally didn’t have a problem with the statue.
Monsignor Arthur A. Holquin, pastor emeritus of the Mission San Juan Capistrano Basilica, said sainthood is not about being perfect. It’s largely about living the “heroic virtues of life.” Serra left his home in Spain, his family and a promising future as a theologian to come to the new world to preach the gospel.
Holquin points to the fact that in July, Francis apologized and asked for forgiveness for the crimes committed by the church against native peoples. Holquin said canonization is not a blessing of colonization, but a recognition of Serra’s tremendous efforts to share the gospel of Christ.
But Teresa M. Romero, chairwoman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation — the original inhabitants of the region — called the canonization “unacceptable” and said that focusing on Serra’s proselytizing is merely “positive spin.”
“That leaves the impression that we had a choice,” said Romero, pointing to the fact that indigenous people were punished if they tried to leave the missions. “And that wasn’t the case at all.”
Not all Juaneños oppose the canonization. Nathan K. Banda celebrates his family’s 12 generations of Catholicism and credits the detailed record-keeping of the Spanish settlers as a way to learn about his heritage. Banda said he doesn’t deny the negative aspects of the history, but prefers to focus on the positive.
“If I was to focus on all the negative stuff,” Banda said, “I really wouldn’t have time to find all the positive things about my culture.”
The pope is set to preside Wednesday afternoon at the Serra canonization Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Michigan Avenue Northeast.