Father Junipero Serra, who has been inching closer to sainthood for decades, received official approval from the Vatican on Wednesday, to the delight of his supporters, who regard him as a legendary spiritual leader, and the dismay of many American Indians, who say he represents the worst abuses of the colonial period.
Serra fans in San Francisco were ecstatic when, half a world away, a Vatican panel signed off on Pope Francis’ desire, announced in January, to canonize Serra in a special Mass during the pope’s visit to Washington, DC, in September.
”Somebody pinch me,” said Andrew Galvan, a native Ohlone and the curator of the Mission Dolores museum. “I never thought I’d live to see it. I’m the happiest Indian in California.”
Galvan has been leading efforts since 1988 to make Serra a saint. He said abuses by colonial powers were “unfortunate” parts of history and that Catholics, with Serra’s imminent sainthood, now have a “golden opportunity” to reach out to American Indians.
Serra’s elevation seemed all but assured after Francis declared in January he wanted to make him a saint. But there remained the formal approval of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the identification of a second miracle performed by Serra.
His first miracle was the curing of a lupus patient, who had prayed to him. There was no second miracle, but the pope declared Serra’s entire life’s work to be the second miracle, Galvan said.
The steamroller to sainthood remained an affront to many American Indians, who view the 18th-century California mission system that Serra represented to have subjected their ancestors to forced conversions, enslavement, and whipping.
”My blood pressure is going up right now, just hearing about it,” said Olin Tezcatlipoca, the director of the Mexica Movement, a Native American group opposing Serra sainthood. “This is a canonization of colonization, white supremacy, and genocide. Does that sound saintly to you?”
Mission Dolores and the other 20 California missions were “nothing less than concentration camps,” he said.
”There may not have been any barbed wire or watchtowers, but if you tried to escape you would be punished or killed, and those are the facts. The Catholic Church isn’t even addressing this.”
Several days ago, Los Angeles archbishop Jose Gomez met with Francis in Rome to support the canonization, saying that Serra “came to this New World with a burning love for the land and its people, (with) genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways.”
Gomez, in a statement released by the Los Angeles archdiocese, said Serra critics had “distorted” his record. He said he regretted that the canonization “has opened old wounds and revived bitter memories about the treatment of Native Americans” during missionary times. Gomez said criticism of Serra “can be traced back to the anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda (that) prevents us from making an honest appraisal of Father Serra and America’s religious beginnings.”
He acknowledged that the “world of (Serra’s) times still considered native peoples, along with African Americans, to be less than full human,” but said he had “come to the conclusion that Father Serra should be remembered as one of the great pioneers of human rights in the Americas.”
A spokesman for the San Francisco archdiocese said the Serra controversy was the result of a “possible misunderstanding of facts.”
At the Mission Dolores cemetery, a visitor from Ireland, Michael Caplis, said the elevation of a Hispanic from California to sainthood was “fantastic” and “long overdue.”
”It’s a great thing,” he said, “and if they had to relax the rules to do it, that’s all right.”
And at the mission’s gift shop, cashier Melba Lopez said, in light of the good news from Rome, the store would have to stock up on Serra merchandise in time for the canonization. At present, the store offers Serra postcards for 50 cents, 65 cents, and $2, along with a Serra biography for $8. But after sainthood, the store will be obliged to add Saint Junipero Serra to its lineup of sterling silver saint medals, at $40 each.
”We’ll be ready in time,” Lopez said.