Just weeks after Pope Francis announced his intention to canonize missionary Father Junipero Serra during his upcoming visit to the states, a California legislator has proposed replacing the soon-to-be-saint’s statue in the U.S. Capitol – but critics of the move are beginning to speak out.
“I certainly wouldn’t endorse it,” Monsignor Francis J. Weber, an author and historian of the18th century missionary, told CNA Feb. 6.
Serra helped establish the California missions, many of which became the centers of major cities like San Diego. In recent weeks, however, California State Sen. Ricardo Lara has proposed that the priest’s statue be replaced with a less “controversial” figure.
Yet Serra’s supporters maintain that aside from his personal charisma, the beloved priest played a pivotal role in the development of the U.S. as we know it today.
“It was the first contact that the Europeans made with the Native Americans,” Msgr. Weber said of the missionary’s work. “California today is what he started it out to be. Things have progressed a lot in 200 years, but he set the foundation.”
Msgr. Weber, the 82-year-old Archivist Emeritus of the Archival Center at the San Fernando Mission in Mission Hills, Calif., praised Serra’s “magnetic personality” despite being “a short little fellow, with poor health.”
“When he died the Native Americans were terribly upset. He had become such a hero among them,” Msgr. Weber said.
Grazie Pozo Christie, a Miami-born doctor who spent her childhood in Mexico, said Serra’s canonization “means a lot” to Catholic Latinos as well.
Serra is “very much our very own and we love to see our own recognized and acclaimed,” she told CNA Feb. 9. “I saw his statue for the first time just last month in the Capitol. I was surprised and moved to see him. I felt like a true American.”
“To Latinos, Fr. Serra means unconditional love, acceptance, and sacrifice, because that is what he showed our forefathers,” said Dr. Christie, who is on the advisory board for The Catholic Association.
Serra (1713-84) was born on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean. He became a missionary to the New World, helping to convert many native Californians to Christianity and teaching them new and vital technologies.
St. John Paul II beatified Serra in 1988. In January, Pope Francis praised Serra as “the evangelizer of the west” and announced his intention to canonize the Franciscan missionary during his scheduled 2015 visit to the U.S., during which he is scheduled to make a historic address to a joint session of Congress.
Serra’s statue has been in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection since 1931. His statue cradles a church in his left arm and holds a cross aloft in his outstretched right arm. The website of the Architect of the Capitol, which maintains the statue, describes Serra as “one of the most important Spanish missionaries in the New World.”
“California today is what he started it out to be. Things have progressed a lot in 200 years, but he set the foundation,” Msgr. Weber said.
However, Mr. Lara has proposed that Serra’s statue be replaced with a statue of astronaut Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space.
Mr. Lara characterized the priest as “a controversial figure.” He said his effort to replace the statue with Sally Ride’s is about “recognizing the invaluable contributions of an accomplished Californian and American pioneer,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Msgr. Weber, however, rejected many of the claims against Serra. “You see all of these accusations against Serra, but not one of them can be validated by a responsible historian.”
The missionary, despite a painful cancerous growth in his leg, walked most of the way to Mexico City to secure a bill of rights for the native community.
“It was very painful. But that never slowed him down,” Msgr. Weber said, adding that the priest worked to separate the missionary and the military aspects of Spanish colonialism.
St. John Paul II, during his 1987 visit to the U.S., praised Serra as the native peoples’ “defender and champion” whose actions had as their aim the “spiritual and physical well-being” of Native Americans.
Msgr. Weber worried that an agenda was at work in the criticisms leveled at Serra.
“The Native Americans, I think, are being utilized by these people who have a rather warped view of what evangelization is all about,” he said. “I’m convinced that the questions about Junipero Serra are really not about Serra himself, who simply epitomized Catholic evangelization. I’m convinced that this is an attack on all of Catholic evangelization throughout the world.”
“There are those people who feel that the church should not be out evangelizing people. But the problem is, we have to do that. That’s what Christ told us to do: Go and preach the gospel to all people.”
Preaching is what Serra did. He left a prestigious university post in Majorca for the New World.
Msgr. Weber said the missionary’s efforts to teach the native community were marked with humility and patience. While some activists opposed to Serra’s canonization claim he wiped out native culture, Msgr. Weber noted the missionary’s effort to enculturate Christianity.
Serra insisted that the native community be taught in their own language, “because he said that’s the language in which they live,” the historian said. “He thought it was good for them to learn Spanish, but they had to learn the catechism from their native language.”
Despite the difficulty of printing at the time, several catechism editions were printed in the languages of various California natives. There were more than 30 indigenous languages in the region, and Serra and his fellow missionaries worked to translate difficult Christian concepts like the Trinity into native languages.
Msgr. Weber also said that the missionaries imparted some practical developments to help improve what was often a harsh environment for California’s indigenous people.
“It was a very difficult existence for them, and the missionaries taught them how to cultivate crops, how to raise animals, learn how to sew, to wear clothing, how to make such things as candles. The missions themselves became the foundation of what has developed into the California culture of today.”
Msgr. Weber also rejected claims of forced conversion by the missionaries. “There’s not a single case I’ve ever studied, and I’ve been around for a long time, where any missionary ever forced any Indian to become a Catholic.”
Serra’s statue now sits in the U.S. Capitol beside Ronald Reagan’s statue, which replaced a sculpture of traveling preacher Thomas Starr King in 2009.
Msgr. Weber said he could support the inclusion of Sally Ride’s statue if the gallery increased the number of statues per state to three. “I don’t see the reason for moving somebody out of there.”
Christie agreed, saying “There must be enough space to honor him as well as Sally Ride.”