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Junipero Serra, dubious saint: The pope's canonization of the controversial missionary follows a long line of questionable halos

Native American tribes have condemned Serra's canonization, citing human rights violations


Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 24, 2015 8:16PM (UTC)

In the flurry of this week's frenzy of papal excitement, his holiness has still managed to attract his fair share of controversy. Performing the first ever canonization in the U.S. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Wednesday, he made a saint of Spanish missionary Junipero Serra. Fifty Native American tribes, however, have condemned the action, citing the human rights violations of Catholic missionaries, and Serra in particular. But Serra's just the latest in a long line of incredibly questionable individuals the Catholic Church has decided deserve halos.

Speaking during the canonization mass, Francis told the crowd, "Junipero Serra left his native land and its way of life. He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life." And he said, "Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it." As the first Latino pope, the act of canonizing Serra is an intentional statement about Francis' own identity and his role as a leader from the new world, for a new church.

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But as Simon Moya-Smith explains for CNN, "Serra is also documented as being an extreme and unapologetic abuser of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Coast." The history of Catholic missionaries is definitely not one of cheerfully bringing Jesus to an eager audience. Moya-Smith cites Elias Castillo's "A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions," which claims that Serra celebrated the deaths of Native American children as a "harvest."

And while some historians say he protected the indigenous people he lived among, Serra also flogged them in punishment. Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation chairwoman Louise Miranda-Ramirez told the San Jose Mercury News this week, "The church overlooks the fact that he was responsible for whippings ...."They say if you look into the eyes of a saint, you can see the image of God. Can you say that about Serra?"

Of the more than 10,000 saints the Church has already canonized, Serra no doubt ranks substantially below St. Francis or St. Therese of Lisieux in terms of positive P.R., but he's not alone at the bottom. In 1969, nearly 100 saints found themselves demoted, kind of like Pluto or the brontosaurus have been, for being insufficiently credible historical figures. Sorry, St. Christopher. There's a long list of Catholic saints who were vocally anti-Semitic, including St. Cyril, who famously expelled Jews from Alexandria. Even beloved St. Augustine took a seriously hard line against the Jewish people.

St. Olga, meanwhile, was a vicious mass murderer — but of course, her conversion to Christianity changed all that, right? Saint Catherine of Siena — along with multiple other saints both female and male — is venerated for what would now likely be diagnosed as an extreme eating disorder. And here's a description of St. Christina the Astonishing: "She would roll in fire or handle it without harm, stand in freezing water in the winter for hours, spend long periods in tombs, or allow herself to be dragged under water by a mill wheel, though she never sustained injury." Well, that is astonishing.

When you start exploring, you soon learn that the number of cruel, crazy and just plain nonexistent individuals who make up the league of Catholic saints is stunning. But now that we're living in the 21st century and all pretty much agree that anti-Semitism and eating fetid sores — not to mention human rights violations against indigenous peoples — are bad ideas, it'd be awesome if the Catholic Church reconsidered some of its criteria for elevating someone in its holy ranks. It might even be a miracle.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Catholicism Junipero Serra Pope Francis

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