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Junipero Serra was a brutal colonialist. So why did Pope Francis just make him a saint?

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On Wednesday, Pope Francis officially canonized Father Junipero Serra, thereby making Serra a Catholic saint. Serra founded several Catholic missions to convert Native Americans in 18th-century California, and he's the first saint to be canonized on US soil. The pope actually fast-tracked his confirmation — skipping a couple of traditionally required steps — to make sure he could grant sainthood to Serra during his visit to the States.

But a lot of Americans — particularly Native Americans — have been protesting Serra's canonization. After all, many people today think that "civilizing" the Native Americans of California did more to erase their culture than it did to save their souls. Here's why there's so much controversy over what Serra's legacy really was — and whether his life is something the Catholic Church, not to mention the reputedly progressive Pope Francis, should be celebrating in 2015.

Who was Junipero Serra?

Junipero Serra was an 18th-century Spanish missionary who is as responsible as anyone else for establishing the Catholic presence in colonial California. Serra founded nine of Spanish California's 21 missions: closed communities for Native Americans who agreed to convert to Catholicism, in which they practiced European-style agriculture and Catholic-style morality.

If you knew all this already, you probably went to school in California. California history classes have treated Serra as a state hero for decades; children have often been required to build dioramas of the missions. And in the US Capitol, which is decorated with statues from every state of important historical figures, the California statue depicts Father Serra.

Since California is so culturally liberal now, it's easy to assume that the state wouldn't lionize Serra so much if he weren't actually good for the natives. But his prominence is the result of a very different period in state history — one in which the state was much less interested in the opinions of nonwhites. According to Santa Clara University historian Bob Senkewicz, Serra started getting lifted up as a "California hero" during the late 19th century, during the "Spanish revival movement" (which happened, not coincidentally, after whites were beginning to thoroughly settle into the state). As Senkewicz told Emma Green in an (extremely good) article in the Atlantic about Serra: "[They] created a mission mythology of dedicated, selfless missionaries and happy, contented Indians [...] a kind of bucolic arcadia."

Serra's missions weren't a happy place for native Californians

"Bucolic arcadia" is definitely not how most people these days would describe colonialism in the Americas — whether practiced by priests or soldiers. And Junipero Serra was undoubtedly on a colonizing mission: he wanted to save the souls of the natives as well as assimilate them into European culture. So, unsurprisingly, in the late 20th century, as historians started scraping off the "mythology" of colonialism to uncover what had been painted over, they had to reevaluate the mission system and Serra himself.

One way to answer the question of whether Junipero Serra was really good for the Native Americans he purported to serve was how natives were treated on the missions themselves. The backlash against Serra began when historians began to look at birth and death records on the missions and discovered that more natives were dying under Serra's watch than being born — not a great indicator that Serra was saving native lives. The contemporary picture of the missions is less a "bucolic arcadia" than a feudal labor camp, with natives beaten if they violated Catholic teachings or didn't work hard enough. Serra's defenders point out that no native was forced to convert to Catholicism and live on the mission if he or she didn't choose to; his critics point out that once someone chose to convert and live on the mission, soldiers would be sent after him if he tried to escape.

That's definitely not great! But there were no great options for Native Americans living in 18th-century colonial California. Natives who weren't living on the missions were also getting felled in huge numbers by European disease; they were subject to Spanish violence and cruelty; and some historians argue that the changes Spanish colonists wrought to the local ecosystem by importing foreign animals and plants were so enormous that it was basically impossible for native Californians to continue their traditional lifestyles. In other words, the missions were just one, arguably less terrible, option among terrible options.

Contemporary native groups feel Serra tried to erase native culture

To some of Serra's contemporary defenders, the fact that Serra tried to provide a humane form of colonial rule to natives is enough. They point out that he tried to advocate on natives' behalf to colonial soldiers and officials, and that he was more concerned with the natives' well-being than his Spanish peers.

But no one is arguing that Serra disagreed with the colonial project — to the contrary, his kindness toward natives was conditional on whether they accepted Catholicism and European-style living within the missions. And that is at the heart of contemporary opposition to Junipero Serra: not that he was bad for the lives of the native Californians in the missions, but that he helped to erase and destroy their culture.

Some critics call this "cultural genocide." Whether or not that term is appropriate, it's hard to deny that Serra was interested in assimilating natives into "civilization." And for native groups, and many other contemporary progressives, it's a cultural imperialism that doesn't deserve to be honored.

Of course, this isn't unique to Serra: Most missionaries from most churches have gone to "backward" parts of the world for exactly this reason. The imperialism of missionary work is one of the biggest flashpoints between contemporary progressives and established religion. But it's become particularly relevant as the Catholic Church has started venerating Junipero Serra. In 1988, Pope John Paul II started the sainthood process by beatifying Serra — but the controversy he provoked was enough to let Serra's prospective sainthood languish for more than 25 years, until Pope Francis suddenly picked it up again.

Why is Serra being canonized now?

Francis didn't just resume the process of turning Serra into a saint — he fast-tracked it. The Catholic Church traditionally requires that any would-be saint get credited with accomplishing two miracles after he's died (usually something along the lines of healing a parishioner through prayer or relics). Then the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has to vet the nomination before choosing whether to approve the person for sainthood.

When it came to Junipero Serra, Pope Francis skipped most of those steps. Francis simply announced at the beginning of this year that he was going to canonize Serra. Serra only has one recent miracle to his name: the 2013 healing of a Native American woman who prayed to a relic of his. And the Congregation for the Causes of Saints did approve Serra's canonization before it formally happened Wednesday — but they did it four months after Francis announced he was going to be canonized anyway, and even after the pope personally conducted a mass commemorating Serra.

It's obvious that Francis wanted to be able to canonize Serra during his trip to the US, making Serra the first saint canonized on American soil. But that isn't enough to explain why he is so personally invested in Serra's sainthood.

If Pope Francis is the "cool pope" — the pope who turns down lunch invitations with congressional leaders to eat with the homeless, and is less interested in judging LGBT Catholics than judging the rich — why is he so interested in canonizing a man too controversial for his predecessors to touch?

Junipero Serra was an oppressor of Hispanics — but also a Hispanic himself

Junipero Serra isn't just the first saint to be canonized on American soil; he's the first American Hispanic saint to be canonized, period. And to many Catholic observers, this is the key to Serra's fast-tracked sainthood: a simple matter of demographics.

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Serra and his missionary colleagues, Catholicism is a global faith — and one with a substantial power base in Latin America. Pope Francis himself reflects that: He's not just the first Latino pope but the first pope to come from the Western Hemisphere. And the American Catholic Church, in particular, would be in dire demographic straits if not for Latin American immigrants and their children.

This is one (perhaps cynical) way to look at Pope Francis's focus on immigrants during his trip to the US: He's talking about the people who are keeping the Catholic Church alive in America. But it's also a way to look at Francis's advocacy of Serra: a Hispanic saint for a Hispanic church.

Not everyone, however, would agree that Serra even counts as "Hispanic" as a matter of terminology. In the 21st century, some people who identify as Hispanic refuse to use the term to refer to Spaniards — they believe "Hispanic" refers to the colonized, not the colonizers, and Serra was definitely the latter. This isn't just a terminology problem: It's a paradox of Hispanic identity. It's typical to say that Hispanics in the Americas are a fundamentally mestizo culture — a mixture of Spanish, Native American, and (in some places more than others) African cultures. Sympathetically, many Hispanics may side with the colonized over the colonizers, but they recognize that they're descended from both.

This paradox only gets sharper when dealing with Hispanic Catholics: people who practice a faith that was initially brought to them by colonizers. During a recent tour of South America, Pope Francis repeated an apology that Pope John Paul II had made for the actions of the Catholic Church in the Americas during the colonial era — but he did so during a mass attended by people who'd kept that faith. And while Junipero Serra's sharpest critics are Native American groups, the woman who claimed to be miraculously healed by his relic is Native American, too.

Serra is being canonized for what he did during his life — but by Catholic standards, not humanitarian ones

Junipero Serra himself, however, had no interest in creating a mestizo culture. He was an evangelist, trying to win over native Californians to Catholic life. The contemporary Catholic Church may allow Native American Catholics to go on vision quests and pray in sweat lodges, but Serra probably would not have approved.

But in the eyes of Pope Francis, this is a virtue, not a fault. Francis is an unabashed fan of evangelism: of taking the Gospel to people who haven't heard it and might not have interest in it. As he wrote in his first encyclical, "I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization."

Many progressives have extrapolated from Francis's relatively benevolent comments regarding, say, LGBT Catholics or women who have had abortions, and assumed that because Francis is uninterested in the issues that Americans think of as "culture war" issues, he's uninterested in a culture war generally. But nothing could be further from the truth. Pope Francis is apocalyptically critical of the modern world, and feels Catholics need to be actively combating it. To people who think of evangelism as inherently imperialistic, this seems reactionary; to people who are deeply worried about modernity, reactionary is exactly the point.

It seems obvious, but given the controversy over Serra, it's worth remembering: People aren't canonized by the Catholic Church for being good people; they're canonized for being saintly Catholics. Obviously, Serra was canonized mostly because of what he did during his life, rather than for having supernatural powers — that's why Francis skipped over the required second miracle to make him a saint. But he was canonized because what he did during his life was good according to Catholic teaching.

It's usually a bad idea for non-Catholics to assume that Catholic saints were good people by non-Catholic standards. Mother Teresa's name has become shorthand for "good-person-ness," but if you don't agree with the Catholic Church's teachings on contraception, you're unlikely to approve of her advocacy against condoms at the height of the AIDS epidemic. (Similarly, if you don't agree with the Catholic Church's teachings on abortion, you probably disagree with the claim she made during her Nobel Peace Prize speech that abortion is the greatest threat to world peace.) Pope Francis isn't an American progressive; he is a Catholic pope. And it's not surprising that he believes the "saving" of Native American souls was a good thing in and of itself.