The following comes from a Jan. 20 posting by Nick Taylor on Palo Alto Online.
As expected, last week’s announcement by Pope Francis that he intends to canonize the Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra later this year has drawn sharp reactions from supporters and detractors. Today’s Letters to the Editor in the Mercury News lay out the divide: a reader in Sunnyvale points out that Serra was “loved and revered by the Native Americans at the missions” (true enough, if you believe certain historical accounts), while a man in San Carlos contends that “making Father Serra a saint is like giving a Nobel to Custer” (hyperbole, but worth consideration). A similar debate is happening in the pages of the LA Times.
So who’s right? One of the Times’s readers (a Serra supporter) makes the helpful suggestion that everyone read Stephen W. Hackel’s recent biography of Serra, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father. Fiction readers might prefer my 2013 novel, Father Junípero’s Confessor, which paints a similar, albeit dramatized, portrait of Serra. Those who prefer to get their history from primary sources are welcome to read the original Serra biography, Francisco Palou’s Life and Apostolic Labors of the Venerable Father Junipero Serra, Founder of the Franciscan Missions of California. The truly hard-core can read that one in Spanish.
While researching my novel, I read all of the primary sources, and I came away with the impression that Junípero was an earnest, well-meaning missionary. His ire, when aroused, was directed mostly at his own countrymen, not the natives (he was notoriously impatient with the bureaucrats running New Spain). As his detractors point out, he did hold natives captive at the mission sites after they were baptized, but this was not because of a predilection for genocide; rather, he worried that they would fall back into Satan’s clutches if they were allowed to return to their villages. Seriously. That’s what he believed.
An LA Times article about the Serra controversy quotes Loyola Marymount professor Thomas P. Rausch, who warns against judging “an 18th century Catholic missionary by 21st century standards.” This seems like prudent advice–but far too even-handed for the opinion pages.