On October 5 the Christian Century published an article I wrote on protest related to the canonization of Junípero Serra and the Doctrine of Discovery.
“On one coast, in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis celebrated the canonization mass of Junípero Serra, a Spanish priest who led evangelization efforts in colonial California. At the same time in San Francisco, nearly 200 people gathered outside Mission Dolores for a ceremony to protest the canonization.
“We are here to celebrate our resistance and resilience,” said Wicahpiluta Candelaria of the Rumsen Ohlone–Apache people.
Candelaria organized the San Francisco event on September 23 along with community leader Corrina Gould of the Chochenyo Ohlone people and the group Indian People Organizing for Change. The three-hour interfaith ceremony included prayers, songs, chants, and storytelling from many traditions. Indigenous peoples spoke about the exploitation of their ancestors in the California missions in Serra’s time and other periods.
“There needs to be an understanding about the Doctrine of Discovery,” Gould said, referring to a legal concept in land rights, “and how this notion that we were ‘subhuman’ and ‘pagan’ led to genocide and colonization—5,000 people, some my direct ancestors, are buried in unmarked graves right here.”
Clergy from the United Church of Christ spoke about Christians’ complicity in this oppression.
In the months leading up to the canonization, indigenous groups and others challenged the decision by the Vatican, calling on Pope Francis to reverse it. Elias Castillo sent a copy of his book A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions to the pope.”
While reading A Cross of Thorns I found shocking quotes from Serra. In one instance Serra sent three runaways to Fernando de Rivera, the military commanding officer in Monterey, for punishment.
“I am sending them to you so that a period of exile, and two or three whippings which you Lordship may order applied to them on different days may serve, for them and for the rest, for a warning, may be of spiritual benefit to all; and this last is the prime motive of our work. If Your Lordship does not have shackles, with your permission they may be sent from here. I think that the punishment should last one month.” (79)
In historical accounts of Serra, and in his own writing, he was known for his extreme mortification of the body. Castillo writes, “At times he beat himself with a stone, or burned his chest with a torch, to encourage penance from worshipers. In one such instance, a parishioner, overcome from watching Serra strip to his waist and beat himself with a chain, rushed the pulpit and grabbed the chain from Serra.” He proceeded to thrash himself saying “I am a sinner who is ungrateful to God, who ought to do penance for my many sins—and not the father, who is a saint,” until he suddenly collapsed and died. (63)
Hence it is not surprising that such hatred of the body on the part of Serra left him feeling no qualms about the brutal treatment and extreme death rates of Indigenous peoples in California’s mission. Since the soul was all that mattered, death was to be celebrated. Serra saw his role as keeping the souls of Native Californians free of sin, which was only possible within the confines of the missions.
In a letter he wrote about two harvests happening. “In the midst of all our little troubles, the spiritual side of the missions is developing most happily. In [Mission] San Antonio there are simultaneously two harvests, at one time, one for wheat, and of a plague among the children, who are dying.”
For Christians in the United States, the canonization of Serra is emblematic of the way colonizers remember history. The legal document that made the project possible is known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Along these lines I received an excellent response from Sarah Augustine via email about the work to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.
“We, as people of faith, populate the only institutions on earth that can speak with moral authority,” reflects Augustine. This includes challenging the constitutionality of the Doctrine in the U.S., recognizing that slavery was once codified in our constitution as well. We can also challenge it in developing countries by calling on Congress to not provide military aid to nations that use the funds to displace Indigenous Peoples from their homelands for the sake of economic growth or national security.
“We must act,” she continues, “even though we can’t fully predict the outcomes – this is the definition of living in faith. It is never a convenient time to stand up for the truth. It is much easier to stand back, especially for those of us who benefit from the way things are.”