The Slatest

Why Is the Pope of the Poor Canonizing a Spanish Colonialist?

Monument of Junípero Serra (with Juaneño Indian boy) on plaza ,Monument of Junípero Serra (with Juaneño Indian boy) on plaza de San Francisco de Asis in Havana.
Monument to Junípero Serra, with a Juaneño Indian boy, in the plaza de San Francisco de Asis in Havana, Cuba, January 2008.

Photo courtesy Olivier/Creative Commons

This afternoon, Pope Francis will perform the first ever canonization on U.S. soil, when he makes 18th century Spanish missionary Junipero Serra a saint in a ceremony at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.

Serra’s importance to the Church, as well as American history, isn’t in question. The Franciscan friar, born in Majorca in 1713, evangelized in California from 1769 until his death 15 years later, founding nine of the 21 missions along the California coast, some of which grew into cities like San Francisco and San Diego. Francis, the first Latin American pope, has called him “one of the founding fathers of the United States” and a “special patron of the Hispanic people of the country.”

But the church’s move has angered many Native Americans who see Serra as a participant in European colonialism—or even genocide—against indigenous people in California. Around 90,000 Indians were baptized in what is now California between 1769 and 1835, after which they were forced to remain in the missions and abandon their language, dress, and cultural customs. Those who escaped were rounded up by soldiers and whipped when they returned. By the time California became a U.S. state in 1850, diseases introduced by the Spanish had halved the native population from 310,000 to 150,000. The bodies of many of the victims still lie in unmarked graves in California’s missions today. “The mission period was brutal on our people,” Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in the Monterey area, told CNN. “There can be no doubt that Junipero Serra is personally responsible for destroying our culture.”

Serra’s defenders say he shouldn’t be assessed by 21st century standards, and that his attitudes were enlightened for their time—he critiqued the Spanish military for its harsh treatment of Native Americans. “Time and again, Serra insisted the Spanish were not in California for gold or land, but the good of the indigenous people,” biographer Gregory Orfalea recently wrote in the L.A. Times.

Some have suggested Francis may feel a kinship with Serra, who left a cushy academic position in Spain for a remote and often grueling posting, but the canonization seems odd from a pope who has made a point of apologizing for the church’s “”many grave sins” against indigenous peoples. He’s widely expected to address this dark history during the canonization today, but for many descendants of those Serra was sent to convert it will ring pretty hollow.  

See more of Slate’s coverage of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit.