Steven Newcomb: Church plans to sanctify a legacy of domination

A statue of Junipero Serra with an Indian boy. Photo by Anatoly Terentiev / Wikipedia

Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute discusses the announcement by Pope Francis to bestow sainthood upon Junipero Serra, the founder of the Indian mission system in California:
On January 15, 2015, during a flight from Sri Lanka to Manila, Pope Francis declared to reporters: “In September, God willing, I will canonize Junipero Serra in the United States.” In other words, the pope intends to make Serra a Roman Catholic saint. Speaking of Serra, the pope said: “He was the evangelizer of the West in the United States.” The same institution that brought us the Crusades, a Borgia Pope and the Inquisition is now going to sanctify Serra’s legacy.

How are we to understand the context of Serra’s founding of the “evangelizing” Spanish Catholic mission system in 1769, in what Spain then called “Alta California”? In his comprehensive book A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (1992), theologian Luis Rivera-Pagán, says: “Truly the Spanish conquerors of the Americas were driven by their quest for God, gold, and glory. But it was the language related to God—theology—that served to rationalize avarice and ambition, not vice versa.” (p. xv) He continues: “It was religion that attempted to sacralize [make sacred] political domination and economic exploitation.” (Ibid)

The word “evangelization,” used by Pope Francis, traces to “bringing the good news of a military victory.” That a war analogy and a bid for “conquest” is apt for Serra’s era of evangelism is documented by a joint statement made in California in 1773 by the Dominican and Franciscan Orders of the Catholic Church. In his book The Missions and Missionaries of California, Vol. I, (Mission Santa Barbara, 1928), Father Zephyrin Englehardt quotes the joint Dominican-Franciscan statement. It opens by invoking the names of the founders of their religious orders, whom they called “our holy Patriarchs, Dominic de Guzman and Francis of Assisi.” Assisi, of course, is the Catholic religious figure and saint, whose name Pope Francis chose for his papacy.

Get the Story:
Steven Newcomb: Father Serra’s Sainthood: Sanctifying a Legacy of Domination (Indian Country Today 1/17)

Also Today:
Junipero Serra, Ready for Liftoff (The Santa Barbara Independent 1/18)
Decision to canonize Father Junipero Serra draws divided reaction (The Los Angeles Times 1/17)
"There's Nothing Saintly About the Atrocities": Native American Chief Blasts Decision to Canonize Junipero Serra (NBC Los Angeles 1/17)
Father Junipero Serra: California hero or villain? (The Los Angeles Times 1/16)

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