On September 23rd, Pope Francis visited Washington DC. During the pope’s trip, he canonized — which is to declare sainthood — a controversial 18th century missionary named Junipero Serra, who set up California’s Catholic missions that housed the native peoples of California. Shortly after the canonization of the missionary, Carmel Mission, where the missionary is buried, was vandalized, and the statues of him and the graves of Europeans were damaged. Vandalizing a dead man’s grave and other property cannot be morally justified, regardless of what he was said to have done. As for the pope, he should have reconsidered canonizing Serra, due to the troubling effects of the missionary’s actions.
According to a letter between Serra and Felipe De Neve, the Spanish governor of the region at the time, Serra’s job was to make good subjects for the church and state by christianizing and converting the natives. Serra’s approach to turn the natives into “good” Christians was cruel, and the pope should have reconsidered canonization of Serra. The missionary’s intentions may have been to help the natives, but the way that he went about it is controversial.
Despite being expelled from Mexico, Serra was still a loyal subject of the King of Spain and the Church. Serra’s work supported colonialist policies. Serra noted how the natives in the missions were fleeing because of punishments imposed upon them for committing sins against God. An example of a sin was not doing forced labor to the mission’s standards. In order to prevent more natives from deserting, Serra recommended more punishments, like floggings and the stocks, on native officials, in order to set an example to the natives. Serra was a pawn of colonialism, and he built institutions of colonization, which hurt the natives.
Additionally, the population of native peoples significantly declined during Serra’s time. Steven Hackel, a history professor at the University of California, Riverside, and an author of a book about Serra, states that “with the missions came terrible diseases and population decline in two ways: elevated mortality … and a reduction in fertility among women because of STDs, most likely, and poor health in general.” While disease and conditions of health may not have been directly caused by Serra, his policies and missions certainly intensified it and this contributed to the lowering of the native population.
While Serra does not deserve to be canonized, this does not mean that it was right for anyone to vandalize property. Vandalism benefits no one. First of all, what the vandals did was dishonorable and rude. They only made more tedious work for the mission staff and volunteers, who spent an evening cleaning up the mess. The vandals wasted their time and other people’s time.
Also, did anyone think any more or less of Serra after mission property was vandalized? No, people did not think any less of the missionary. In fact, staff and volunteers celebrated the canonization after cleaning things up. They made those who are against Serra’s canonization look unreasonable and childish by committing a petty crime. If the vandals were really inclined to do something, they should have been constructive; for example, they could have educated visitors of the Carmel mission regarding the effects of Serra’s actions.
The pope’s decision to canonize Serra reopens dark parts of history. The pope should have at least acknowledged this history and stated the reasons for his actions. Because the pope did not state his reasons to canonize, it seems that he ignored this history.