Gerald J. Russello" />

In defense of St. Junipero Serra and his missionary zeal

A statue of St. Junipero Serra in Sacramento, Calif., is seen in this 2015 file photo. It was torn down by a group of demonstrators late July 4, 2020. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)


A new edition of a biography of the life of St. Junipero Serra, released in November, perhaps can allow Catholics a way to understand and make distinctions between attacks on Catholic figures such as Serra and those in American history — in particular, prominent Confederate soldiers — whose actions and ideals are thought not to reflect those of the nation.

Serra (1713-84) represents a unique example: He was not American, not involved in issues leading to the Civil War and has been a beloved figure in California. Further, in 2015, Pope Francis canonized Serra in Washington, D.C. — the first canonization on U.S. soil. Serra, a Franciscan, left Europe in his 50s, where he lived in comfortable circumstances, and traveled in Mexico and up and down the Pacific coast despite great pain and discomfort. He was to be an example, the pope suggested, for other Catholics to reach out to others, including the marginalized, and to bring them the Good News. Serra’s reputation continued to rise after his death. As an example, California sent a statute of Serra to the Capitol as one of two representations of the state to the nation.

However, some questioned Serra’s canonization, calling him a “brutal colonialist,” and many contested the purpose and conduct of Serra and the other Spaniards involved in the missionary movement in California. This movement, mostly of the 18th century, resulted in the famous “mission churches” in the state, a string of which stretched from close to the border with Mexico up to San Francisco. In contrast, Pope Francis claimed that Serra, in fact, had “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.” Pope Francis was trying to distinguish misconduct that had occurred in the long relationship between Spain and the New World and the record concerning Serra himself.

Controversy around Serra and his canonization has only increased since 2016. There has been a large, sometimes antagonistic conversation about “who we are” as a nation. Mostly, that has been focused on specifically American figures. But as statues of various Confederates were torn down (whether by government action or popular initiative) in various places, some took this opportunity again to try to lump Serra in with that debate. In fact, on several occasions, statues of Serra were torn down or defaced for his supposed association with “genocide” or forced conversions. But Serra was not interested in eliminating the native peoples, and there is no evidence of it, but instead in converting them. Their methods and assumptions we may now question, such as their paternalism or their assumptions about the indigenous cultures. But what seems clear is that their mass elimination was not in Serra or his friars’ interest. As it happens, several scholarly analyses have indicated that there is little to no documented evidence that he mistreated or directed the mistreatment of indigenous peoples, or forced them to convert. In fact, there are documents showing Serra protested to senior government officials and asked for authority to protect the people under his care from the Spanish military.

Junipero Serra: Pioneer, Missionary, Saint” was written by Agnes Repplier and originally published in 1933. Cluny Press has republished it. Repplier was a Catholic writer very well known in her time, but whose work is now hard to find. Even writing with the prejudices of her time, still she wrote not with a hagiographic eye, and she acknowledged activity that should be condemned. But the difference with current writers, who write from a religion of secularism, Repplier understood what Serra and his Franciscans were trying to do, and that they thought it a good thing. That thing was to bring the Gospel to new people, which is what the Catholic faith requires, since Catholics do not think the Faith is a prize we are to keep hidden but a treasure to be shared. Repplier also makes clear that Serra fought the Spanish secular and military forces who did act unjustly toward the native people. Repplier, after analyzing the record, comes to the same conclusion as did later scholars — namely, that Serra fought for the indigenous people and was motivated by missionary zeal, not for conquest or wealth. For a secular culture, it is extremely difficult to behold the life of someone who thinks life is about holiness and understands that our eternal fate is of paramount importance. Without being able to see that, everything becomes about power and economics, even when it is not.

Repplier notes somewhat ironically that the missions began to fall once the independent Mexico began to demand more of them financially, and also once the state began ripping apart the lives of the people living on the missions in the name of “granting them freedom.” The recent protests against St. Junipero cannot be divided from long-lasting American anti-Catholicism. Much better to bring the “Black Legend” into the present than to reflect more fully on Americans’ own disastrous actions in California during and after the Gold Rush of 1848 upon the native people.

Replier’s book suggests things for Catholics to consider. First, the role and life of Serra and the Catholic West is in a different position than putting up statues during Jim Crow to rebels of the United States. The Confederates were about domination and defense of slavery. Further, they were traitors to their nation, and the statues were often raised not as totems of peace but reminders of war.

Second, for Catholics, taking down the statue of a saint must be seen differently. Serra is a saint, worthy of Catholic defense and veneration, whom the Church has declared an example and who it has declared to be in heaven. Destroying such statues is an attack on the Church and its tradition. It does not mean that saints were perfect in every action, just as we are not; it means that despite our imperfections, we, too, can become saints. And one way is by going outside oneself to bring God to others.

But at the same time, we need not defend the actions of Spain or its soldiers, or the conduct of every friar in every circumstance. Tout court. We understand the difference between sin and sanctity, and are bound therefore to explain it to those who do not.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman. He writes from New York.

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