ROME — Authorities in California history, archeology and the life of Blessed Junípero Serra have praised him as a passionate missionary with a vision that extended far beyond his own generation.
“I think that’s a characteristic of great people: They’re not bound up by the restrictions of their generation; they see ahead,” Msgr. Francis Weber told CNA April 30, in reference to the life of Blessed Junípero.
He compared Serra to former president of the United States Abraham Lincoln, who, despite being heavily criticized during his life for working to abolish slavery, “was one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had. But he was generations ahead of his time.”
“I think you could say that most great people are ahead of their own generation. I would probably say that they see things the way they should be done, but not as they are,” the priest said.
Msgr. Weber is the author of more than 100 books, many of which focus on California’s Catholic history, and the former archivist of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
A pupil of the well-known Catholic Church historian John Tracy Ellis, Msgr. Weber also taught history at Queen of Angels Seminary in Los Angeles and served as president of the Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists.
He was one of four panelists present in Rome for an April 30 discussion on the life and legacy of Blessed Junípero, who will be canonized by Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S. in September.
Father Serra was born in 1713 on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean. He left his position as a university professor to become a missionary to the New World, helping to convert many of the native community to Christianity and teaching them new technologies. The Franciscan priest founded several of the missions that would go on to become the centers of major California cities.
The priest’s mission work often took place despite a painful ulcerated leg, which is said to have been caused either by cancer or a spider bite soon after his arrival in Mexico. He died in 1784 at Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Carmelo in what is now the state of California.
St. John Paul II beatified Father Serra in 1988. In January, Pope Francis praised the missionary as “the Evangelizer of the West” when he announced his intention to canonize him.
In the panel discussion, specific attention was given to Blessed Junípero’s zeal to be a missionary. Msgr. Weber said this can be seen in the priest’s decision to leave his home in Spain, despite the fact that he wasn’t young anymore and knowing that he likely wouldn’t see his aged parents again.
While praising the Franciscan missionary’s visionary perspective and the good that came out of the missions, panelists also addressed criticisms surrounding Serra and the missions in a conversation with journalists after the panel.
Controversy over the canonization has stemmed from claims that Blessed Junipero’s missions enacted forced labor and conversions as well as corporal punishment. Scholarship on the issue is divided, and supporters of the priest contend that many of the accusations against him are rife with misinterpretations and factual errors.
Robert Senkewicz, a history professor at Santa Clara University in California and co-author of a newly released 500-page biography on Junípero Serra, was also present at Thursday’s press conference.
He said he’s not surprised that there is contention over Serra’s canonization and noted that much of the dissatisfaction likely surrounds a history of poor policies the U.S. had toward native Americans in the past.
Inevitably native populations will interpret their past to be a “prison” of previous U.S. policies toward American Indians, because “it wasn’t nice,” he said.
“It was a policy of removal and extermination … so I’m not surprised that there’s a lot of dissatisfaction against the canonization Father Serra, because Californian Indians are American Indians, and American Indians interpret their past through the most catastrophic parts of it, which were the U.S. policies.”
Ruben Mendoza, an archeology professor at California State University in Monterey Bay, also spoke on the panel from a cultural perspective, being of both Mexican and Indian descent.
With extensive experience in the field of archeology as well as working in the California missions of San Juan Bautista, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Nuestra Senora de la Soledad and the Royal Presidio of Monterey, Mendoza was initially hostile to Serra, but changed his view after studying him and working in the missions himself.
Mendoza pointed out that despite Blessed Junipero’s critics, “many of us carry currencies in our pockets that contain the images of individuals who we see as heroes, they were the founders of our country, and yet, if we judge them from the perspective of our histories, then they were human traffickers.”
These people, he said, “were a whole host of things that today we would not even begin to dream of if we consider ourselves as patriots.”
Mendoza also referred to how some have argued that Serra had sought to be a martyr at one point in his life, saying that if we look at this life, the reality is that “if he had sought martyrdom, he would have been mortified.”
Serra, he said, “would have realized that the very people that he loved, that he devoted his life to, would now see him as the culprit in their disintegration.”
“I believe that, in the end, by virtue of the very attacks that those descendants bring to the table, they have martyred Junípero Serra and turned him into a saint.”