Saint or “devil”? Row over upcoming canonization in US

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The first canonization of a saint ever on US soil will take place on September 23, when Pope Francis visits Washington. But the 18th-century Father Junipero Serra is a figure of some controversy in California.

For months, Native American protesters in California have been trying to let the world know what they think of Father Junipero Serra, who is to be declared a saint next week by the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis.

“Serra was no saint, Serra was the devil,” demonstrators chanted in unison in front of Los Angeles’ cathedral on a recent Sunday, four drummers keeping time on a street corner in front of the city’s cathedral.

Signs posted nearby proclaimed to passersby “genocide = sainthood” and tagged a portrait of the 18th century Spanish missionary as “devil” next to “devil’s advocate” – a picture of Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez doctored with an Adolf Hitler-style mustache.

Olin Tezcatlipoca, director of the Mexica Movement indigenous rights organization behind the Los Angeles protests, told dpa that by making a saint of the man who led the Spanish colonization of California, the Catholic church is “symbolically canonizing genocide, canonizing colonialism, and canonising white supremacy.”

“If we do not protest, then we are saying it’s OK,” he said. “It’s a monstrosity.”

Friar Junipero Serra (1713-1784) was born in Mallorca, Spain, but his destiny was in present-day California, then a Spanish-ruled colonial region on the Pacific coast of North America. Serra traveled to the Americas as a missionary and spent the second half of his life there.

He founded the first nine of 21 missions – Christian religious and military outposts – in what was then known as Alta California. The missions established a base for the region’s colonisation and shaped its modern history.

Officially, the US state of California honours Serra as one of its founding fathers.

Museums, roads, parks and religious shrines bear his name, and a statue of him is one of two representing the state at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (The other is of former California governor and US president Ronald Reagan).

But in recent decades, increased awareness of the reality of colonialism and the missions’ place in it has marred that legacy.

The mission system Serra expanded worked by convincing native people to accept Christian baptism, then requiring them to live and work on missions and punishing them if they tried to leave.

It decimated native populations by importing European plants, animals and disease, and deliberately destroyed native cultures, replacing them with Spanish, Christian traditions.

“There’s plenty of reasons for native people and many others to wonder how the Pope could canonize a man who supported such a system,” University of California Riverside historian Steven Hackel, author of a biography of Serra, said in an interview with dpa.

When Serra arrived in present-day California in 1767, there were approximately 300,000 native people living there. Eighty years later, there were just 50,000.

“Indians began this long period of population collapse during the mission period,” Hackel said. “We can point to Serra’s plan as a large reason for this. He gets the ball rolling.”

To some extent, the dispute between Serra’s supporters and detractors boils down to those who believe his mission to convert native people to Christianity was just and those who believe it was wrong.

Pope Francis has presented Serra’s missionary zeal as an example to priests around the world, and called him a “saintly example of the Church’s universality.”

Speaking to North American priests about Serra in May, he implicitly absolved missionaries of the abuses of colonization, instead praising Serra and others for defending native people against colonists’ abuse.

Francis, himself a descendent of Europeans in the New World, called Serra a “special patron of the Hispanic people” of the US, in whose canonisation he hoped they would “rediscover their own dignity.”

The archdiocese of Los Angeles, which maintains an informational website about Serra, stjunipero.org, said Serra’s participation in colonisation and the mission system should be seen in the context of his time.

Critics say that’s a whitewash.

“Father Serra was responsible for the deception, exploitation, oppression, enslavement and genocide of thousands of indigenous Californians,” representatives of the Kizh Gabrieleno Native American Nation in Los Angeles wrote in a petition circulated online and signed by more than 9,000 people.

In the petition, they urged Pope Francis to reconsider, saying history’s wounds were not yet healed.

“The passage of time has not made… the mastermind of the brutal mission system a saint,” they said.

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