As CNN reported on Wednesday, Pope Francis took the opportunity to expound on his views concerning both global warming and religious liberty at a White House welcoming ceremony. However, the biggest political controversy the pontiff may have stepped in involves his desire to canonize a 18th Century Franciscan Friar named Junipero Serra. According to NBC News, the intent to make Friar Serra a saint is rubbing Native Americans the wrong way.
Serra was involved in creating the mission system in California, what was then the northernmost part of the colony of New Spain in North America. For some reason, the Spanish Empire in the 1700s was not able to attract settlers to the west coast and thus set out to make the indigenous population into good Spanish, Catholic subjects of the King. For this purpose, Spain established missions up and down the California coast. The missions were part religious centers, part military garrisons, part plantations.
The locals were attracted to the missions by gifts of food and other goods. They were baptized, taught Catholic doctrine and the Spanish language, and then set to work in the fields. However, the Native Americans were not paid or allowed to leave. If they tried to leave, they were captured, brought back, and whipped. For all intents and purposes, their lives were not that much different than that of African Americans in the ante-bellum South. It did not help matters that the white man’s diseases, particularly the measles, decimated the local population.
According to Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, Junipero Serra was a beast, inflicting torture and other depredations on his charges. He is certainly not deserving of sainthood. Lopez wonders why Pope Francis, usually known for his support of the downtrodden, could be so insensitive as to make such a man a saint.
The alternate view of the missions and of friars such as Junipero Serra is that, while they certainly made mistakes and were not very respectful of local cultures, they were well meaning and had what they thought to be the best interests of their charges at heart. According to Catholic doctrine at the time, anyone who was not a good Catholic was condemned to eternal damnation in the after-life. What mattered a little maltreatment in this world it meant eternal bliss in the next?
The missions were broken up and secularized in 1830 when much of New Spain became the Republic of Mexico. The mission buildings are some of the oldest in California and are frequently visited by tourists.