Why the Pope wants to canonize Father Junipero Serra

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Born and raised in California, Steven W. Hackel is a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of the award-winning books, Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (2013) and Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (2005). He is the editor of a volume of essays, Alta California: People in Motion, Identities in Formation(2010); the general editor of the Huntington Library’s Early California Population Project, a database of the baptism, marriage, and burial records from all of California’s twenty-one missions; and the director of the Early California Cultural Atlas, a spatial history of colonial California funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Related Link Why the pope has yet to overturn the church’s colonial legacy By Bennett Collins

In 1931 a larger-than-life statue of a man who stood only a bit taller than five feet was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol. It represented Father Junípero Serra (1713–1784), the Mallorcan Franciscan who gave up a successful career as a priest and university professor in Spain in 1749 and sailed to Mexico to begin his life there as a missionary to Indians. Twenty years later, at the age of fifty-six, Serra played a crucial role in the settlement and colonization of California, most notably as the founding father of the chain of Catholic missions that eventually extended from San Diego to just north of San Francisco. For that accomplishment and others related to it, Serra was given an exalted place in the nation’s capital as one of two Californians represented in Statuary Hall (the other is Ronald Reagan). Soon Pope Francis will confer upon him a far greater honor, making him the first Hispanic saint from the territory of what is now the United States. Predictably, on the eve of his canonization, interest in Serra’s life runs hot, with some hailing his saintly life and others condemning his religious imperialism.

 As a biographer of Serra, I am often asked to explain the seeming incongruity between Pope Francis’s progressive social views and his desire to canonize a man whose work among Indians contained the very excesses for which the Pope has recently apologized. I suspect that this canonization has little if anything to do with Serra’s Indian policies and everything to do with what the Pope and others perceive to be the increasingly inhumane treatment today of immigrants, not only across Europe but also within the United States. While many leading American politicians are calling for a wall between the United States and Mexico, the deportation of millions of workers and their families, and the end of birthright citizenship, this pope and his advisors intend to confront those proposals by casting Serra, in effect, as the patron saint of immigration. It is their hope that Americans, when reminded of the Hispanic origins of much of this country, will reject the notion that Latino immigrants are somehow trespassers, even criminals, and embrace a more humane treatment of today’s immigrants. Thus they hope to shape contemporary immigration policy by a deeper reading of American history. This rereading of early American history is long overdue and driven by powerful demographic shifts in our nation’s population, especially in places like California, home to nearly 39 million people, nearly 15 million of whom are Latino and 10 million of whom are Roman Catholic. ...




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