In academia, colonialism is often talked about in terms of power: Expansive, wealthy civilizations take over weaker and poorer civilizations, resulting in cultural erasure. Postcolonialism is an effort to pick apart and critique that use of power and re-elevate the voices of native populations—often in opposition to older scholarship.
This is the path along which attitudes toward Serra have evolved. “Junipero Serra ... kind of became the symbol of Spanish California, not so much during his lifetime or the mission era itself, but at the end of the 19th century under the influence of ... the Spanish revival movement,” said Senkewicz. Anyone who has been to California will recognize the architectural imprint of this movement; even the gas stations have tile roofs in the style of missions. According to Senkewicz, this grew out of what was basically a marketing effort as settlers came to Southern California in the 1880s. “[They] created a mission mythology of dedicated, selfless missionaries and happy, contented Indians. And this mythology created a notion of California before the U.S. as a kind of bucolic arcadia.”
In the 1920s and 30s, the backlash began, Senkewicz said. Anthropologists started looking more closely at the meticulous records kept by priests. They found that in virtually all the missions, death rates exceeded birth rates—in other words, native peoples died off inside the missions. Just as Serra had been the symbolic hero of the mythical, bucolic California, so he became the symbolic villain of colonialism.
But this is not the worldview Pope Francis is coming from. “What’s missing in a lot of this stuff is that it’s no accident that the pope who’s canonizing Serra and the major supporter of that canonization in the American bishops, [Archbishop José Gomez of L.A.], were both born in Latin America,” said Senkewicz. There, “missions were regarded as places which genuinely did protect native peoples from brutal exploitation by conquistadors, who pressed native peoples to work to death on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, who forced them to work in the silver mines in Mexico and Bolivia.”
Pope Francis is no fool; he knows that the Church has not always been perfect, especially in its missionary efforts. In July, during his visit to Bolivia, Pope Francis made a point of noting that “many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” In a speech before roughly 1,500 delegates, he asked forgiveness, “not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” He did, however, follow this with a reminder of the good done by missionary priests in protecting native peoples from violence.
Ultimately, Francis has a lot of reasons to lift up the missionary work of Juniperro Serra in the U.S. “At a time when the Catholic Church is becoming more and more Hispanic and Latino, they’re trying to say, you know, Catholicism in America needs to be understood as always having had this kind of Hispanic element to it,” Senkewicz said. “It’s not just immigrants coming over from Northern Ireland and Italy.” For Hispanics in the U.S., Serra’s canonization is a symbol of legitimacy: He’s a saint who represents their version of America and their culture within Catholicism.