St. Junípero Serra’s Missionary Legacy Is Central to the Church

COMMENTARY: If missionary expansion is considered an evil enterprise, then the very foundations of Hispanic Catholicism in the United States are compromised.

The grave of St. Junípero Serra, ‘Apostle of California,’ is located near the altar of the Carmel Mission in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
The grave of St. Junípero Serra, ‘Apostle of California,’ is located near the altar of the Carmel Mission in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. (photo: Nagel Photography /

St. Junípero Serra has been a figure of some controversy for a long time now, as the Spanish missions he founded are also subjects of controversy. On his feast day in 2020, that controversy has reached a boiling point and has implications for the Church in the United States, in Latin America and for the Holy Father himself.

Missionary saints are controversial at least to the extent that the missions themselves are controversial. For those who consider evangelization itself a form of cultural assault, animated by prejudice and racial discrimination, the missionary saint is an evil figure. Others might consider the mission itself noble or well-intentioned, but question its methods and the practices of missionaries.

The Church considers her missionary saints holy and worthy of emulation. The mission is the Church’s very nature, to proclaim the Gospel, which every culture and every nation needs. In regard to the missionaries in the New World, the Church acknowledges that they were conditioned by the attitudes of the time. However, the missions in general, and the missionary saints in particular, considered the aboriginal peoples as being created in the image of God and entitled to humane treatment. The missions moderated the cruelty of the secular powers and insisted upon the dignity of the indigenous peoples. Individual missionaries may have failed of course to maintain those ideals, but the missionary saints did not.

All of that is now highly contested, as some protests have turned violent, destroying statues of Junípero Serra.

Serra, though, is not just another historical figure judged wanting by today’s standards. A judgment on Serra necessarily implicates the life of the Church throughout the Americas.

The Church in the United States is now less the Church of Fulton Sheen and more the Church of Junípero Serra. The Hispanic reality of the Church — a majority of young Catholics in the U.S. are Hispanic — has its roots in the Spanish missions of Mexico. Serra is known as the “Apostle of California,” where the principal cities take their names from the missionary movement that came north — San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco.

If that missionary expansion is considered an evil enterprise, then the very foundations of Hispanic Catholicism in the United States are compromised. At an extreme, it calls into question whether the Catholic faith itself is good for Hispanic Catholics, or a legacy of a colonial and racist past that needs to be set aside. That extreme position is in part what has led to the toppling of some Serra statues.

The present and future vitality of the Church in the United States — not only in California, but in every part of the country — is a Hispanic future. The dominant figure in the past that has produced that future is — aside from Our Lady of Guadalupe — St. Junípero Serra. That’s the reason that the California bishops — led by Mexican American Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles — said that the attacks on Serra “failed” as good history.

“The historical truth is that Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities,” the California bishops said. “Serra was not simply a man of his times. In working with Native Americans, he was a man ahead of his times who made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population and work against an oppression that extends far beyond the mission era.”

What applies in the United States is all the more applicable in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Was the European missionary effort that made Latin America the home of a majority of the world’s Catholics a corrupt enterprise? Would it have been better for the indigenous peoples of Latin America not to have become Christians at all?

Some of those questions were addressed at last year’s Amazon synod in Rome, but they were not front and center of public debate as they are today. A principal controversy at the synod concerned the validity of pagan indigenous practices in the life of the Church. While the synod urged respect for indigenous peoples, it was with an eye to bringing them more into the heart of ecclesial life, not insulating them from a Gospel judged toxic. In the apostolic exhortation following the synod, Pope Francis called precisely for a renewal of missionary energies.

The first Latin American pope is well situated to address the Serra controversies. Pope Francis first earned worldwide attention at Aparecida, the 2007 meeting of all the Latin American bishops. He was the principal drafter of the document that called for a great “continental mission.”

Soon after his election, he used a special papal privilege to canonize saints without the need for another demonstrated miracle after beatification. Though not used often in recent pontificates, it has been used from time to time for some prominent cases, notably St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More in 1935.

Pope Francis first used it regarding St. John XXIII, who lacked the necessary miracle. Pope Francis did not want St. John Paul II canonized alone, so he waived the requirement for Pope John and canonized them together.

The Holy Father’s main use of this “equipollent canonization” process was for missionary saints. In 2014, Pope Francis announced the canonization of two missionary “Blesseds” for Canada — François de Laval and Marie of the Incarnation, both of Quebec — and another “Blessed” in Brazil, José de Anchieta. Advancing them to canonization was the Holy Father’s way of emphasizing two priorities: the Church’s missionary nature and the importance of the local Churches in the Americas.

In January 2015, Pope Francis announced the equipollent canonization of Junípero Serra, which took place the following September during his visit to Washington, D.C. Thus, on the matter of St. Junípero Serra, the Holy Father has made his position very clear, confirming not only the holiness of St. Junípero but the validity of his mission.

This July 1, feast day of St. Junípero Serra, is a suitable day to remember that and to amplify the arguments defending Serra’s mission made by the Holy Father, the Amazon synod and the bishops of California.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.