New saint Ju­nipero Serra’s Western legacy di­vided

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

A year be­fore Ju­nipero Serra was be­at­i­fied by Pope John Paul II in 1988, the Cal­i­for­nia mis­sions the Fran­cis­can priest had founded in the 18th cen­tury ex­humed his body and col­lected his left ulna.

The arm bone was sent to a Brigi­dine Sis­ters’ con­vent in Rome, where it was pul­ver­ized into small flakes the size of a nail­head, then placed in plas­tic con­tain­ers and sealed with red wax.

Those flakes are now a revered part of Catholic faith — the relics of a saint — af­ter Pope Fran­cis can­on­ized Serra in a mass Wed­nes­day at the Basil­ica of the Na­tional Shrine of the Im­mac­u­late Conception in Washington.

It marked the first can­on­iza­tion on U.S. soil, and an­a­lysts said it un­der­scored both the pon­tiff’s de­sire to high­light evan­ge­lists and the im­por­tance of the His­panic com­mu­nity in the growth of the church in the U.S.

But it’s not with­out con­tro­versy, as Serra was part of the Span­ish con­quest of the west, found­ing nine of Cal­i­for­nia’s mis­sion churches re­spon­si­ble for con­vert­ing the na­tive peo­ple. While His­pan­ics view the can­on­iza­tion as a point of pride, some Amer­i­can In­di­ans ve­he­mently ob­ject, say­ing Serra was part of a sys­tem that forced re­li­gious con­ver­sions, sup­pressed In­dian cul­ture and left hun­dreds of thou­sands of them dead.

Pope Fran­cis re­jected those ac­cu­sa­tions against Serra dur­ing his homily Wed­nes­day, ac­knowl­edg­ing “mis­treat­ment and wrongs” that are still re­mem­bered to­day, but say­ing the Fran­cis­can mis­sion­ary priest was a voice for the In­di­ans.

“He was the em­bod­i­ment of a church which goes forth — a church which sets out ev­ery­where the rec­on­cil­ing ten­der­ness of God,” the pon­tiff said. “Ju­nipero sought to de­fend the dig­nity of the na­tive com­mu­nity, to pro­tect it from those who have mis­treated and abused it.”

“I think the rea­son Pope Fran­cis picked Serra from history, sort of lifted him out of 300 years of history, dusted him off and made him a saint, [is] Serra is just an amaz­ing fig­ure for our times, our com­pli­cated, dif­fi­cult, morally fraught times, where peo­ple have dif­fi­culty act­ing where they’re afraid of do­ing the wrong thing or the op­po­site — they don’t care at all,” said Gre­gory Or­falea, writer-in­res­i­dence at West­mont Col­lege in Santa Bar­bara and au­thor of “Jour­ney to the Sun,” a 2014 book about Serra and the Cal­i­for­nia mis­sions.

Serra’s role in Cal­i­for­nia history was al­ready se­cure well be­fore his saint­hood. Roads and schools bear his name, and chil­dren study him in class.

But even at his death, those around him revered him and prob­a­bly had his even­tual saint­hood on their minds. As his death neared, his col­leagues took snip­pets of his hair, pieces of his cloth­ing, books out of his per­sonal col­lec­tion or pieces of his hand­ker­chiefs as relics.

The doc­tor who was min­is­ter­ing to him at his death was given a whole hand­ker­chief, and later said he ex­pected to cure more peo­ple through the power of that piece of cloth than through all of his med­i­cal books and sup­plies com­bined, Mr. Or­falea said.

It was an early sign that relics of Serra would prove to be in de­mand.

Holy man

Saints’ relics are among the most mis­un­der­stood parts of the Catholic faith.

Church scholars say relics aren’t magic talismans but re­minders of the ho­li­ness of par­tic­u­lar men and women and in­spi­ra­tions to prayer. In­deed, saint­hood it­self, ac­cord­ing to church teach­ing, is the con­fir­ma­tion that some­one has al­ready en­tered heaven — and two con­firmed mir­a­cles at­trib­ut­able to the saint’s in­ter­ces­sion are usu­ally needed as proof.

In Serra’s case, the first mir­a­cle came af­ter a nun in St. Louis, Sis­ter Mary Boni­face Dyrda, was stun­ningly cured of lu­pus, de­fy­ing doc­tors’ ex­pec­ta­tions. At the sug­ges­tion of Fran­cis­can Priest Mar­ion Habig, a Serra bi­og­ra­pher, Sis­ter Mary’s fel­low nuns had be­gun pray­ing to Serra.

An­drew Gal­van, his­to­rian and cu­ra­tor at Old Mis­sion Dolores in San Fran­cisco and one of Serra’s big­gest back­ers for can­on­iza­tion, was present in 1987 when the Vat­i­can re­viewed the case. Church of­fi­cials ver­i­fied with the the­olo­gians that the nuns were in fact pray­ing for Serra’s in­ter­ces­sion, not that of any other saints, and then ver­i­fied with doc­tors that there was no med­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for her re­cov­ery.

And then the of­fi­cials turned to Sis­ter Mary, whose re­ply echoed that of the blind beg­gar whom Je­sus cured.

“She says, ‘I don’t know what hap­pened. They told me I was dy­ing, I asked them to pray to Serra, and here I am,’” Mr. Gal­van re­called her say­ing.

Pope Fran­cis waived the need for a sec­ond post­hu­mous mir­a­cle in Serra’s case, declar­ing that his holy life it­self was proof of saint­hood.


It was dur­ing the process of be­at­i­fi­ca­tion that Serra relics be­came an is­sue.

All of the ones from his death, such as his cloth­ing and hair, had dis­ap­peared into history — though some sec­ond-or­der relics, such as the priestly stole and cross he was buried with in 1784, were taken dur­ing a 1944 ex­huma­tion, and are on dis­play at Carmel Mis­sion, where he’s buried.

But the church wanted firstorder relics — vials of blood or pieces of bone from the saint him­self.

So another ex­huma­tion — at least the third Serra has un­der­gone — was con­ducted in 1987. Serra’s left ulna was re­moved and turned over to the con­vent in Rome, which pro­duced the bone flakes, sealed in the small con­tain­ers with red wax.

“As long as that seal re­mains in­tact, then this is a true au­then­tic relic of Ju­nipero Serra,” Mr. Gal­van said.

Each of the Cal­i­for­nia bish­ops was given a Serra relic, and some were given away in ex­change for do­na­tions — part of what Mr. Gal­van be­moaned as the “relic rush” of 1990.

A Serra devo­tee who at­tended the be­at­i­fi­ca­tion cer­e­mony in 1988 was dy­ing and had asked for one of the relics. Fa­ther Noel Fran­cis Mo­holy, Mr. Gal­van’s men­tor and the man who led the can­on­iza­tion ef­fort un­til his death in 1998, gave him one.

The man wrote in his news­let­ter that relics were avail­able, and that started a se­ries of sto­ries. Mo­holy had to re­peat­edly push back against re­ports that relics were for sale — “you can’t buy a relic, you can make a do­na­tion, [and] even Don­ald Trump doesn’t have enough money to buy a relic,” Mr. Gal­van says.

Mr. Gal­van said there won’t be any re­peat of the relic rush. Now that Serra is can­on­ized, the relics that re­main in stor­age by the mis­sions are be­ing kept to give to churches.


The can­on­iza­tion is still deeply con­tro­ver­sial for Cal­i­for­nia In­di­ans.

A group of In­di­ans, aca­demics and a for­mer Fran­cis­can friar are stag­ing protests in Washington and New York this week over the can­on­iza­tion, say­ing Serra’s “poli­cies un­equiv­o­cally led to atroc­i­ties against our an­ces­tors.”

“He and his fel­low fri­ars ef­fec­tively and in­ten­tion­ally de­stroyed the cul­ture, spir­i­tual be­liefs and the en­vi­ron­ment of our an­ces­tors,” the ob­jec­tors said in a state­ment an­nounc­ing the protests. “Serra was pre­oc­cu­pied with sav­ing souls, but he never cared for the flesh and bod­ies of our an­ces­tors, or their pain and their suf­fer­ings.”

The protesters said Serra’s can­on­iza­tion seems to be an at­tempt to ex­on­er­ate “those re­spon­si­ble for crimes against our an­ces­tors from any guilt, and pro­vide jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for all sins, crimes and of­fenses.”

Mr. Gal­van, who is him­self a mem­ber of the Ohlone peo­ple and pos­si­bly Serra’s big­gest booster, said it’s di­vided his fam­ily. His cousin, Vin­cent Me­d­ina, who is also his as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor at Mis­sion Dolores, is op­posed to saint­hood.

But both men took part in Wed­nes­day’s can­on­iza­tion mass: Mr. Gal­van car­ried the reli­quary with the bone chip that was blessed dur­ing the cer­e­mony, while Mr. Me­d­ina de­liv­ered a read­ing at the mass, trans­lated into the Chochenyo Ohlone lan­guage.

Mr. Me­d­ina had strug­gled with be­ing part of the mass, but was con­vinced by rel­a­tives who said it was a beau­ti­ful state­ment of sup­port for his peo­ple, and pointed to the tens of mil­lions who would hear an all-but-ex­tinct lan­guage.

Mr. Or­falea, the Serra bi­og­ra­pher, said he does ques­tion Serra’s use of cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment on In­di­ans, which was a com­mon tech­nique at the time — though it would be stopped as a tool for con­ver­sions sev­eral decades af­ter Serra’s death.

But Mr. Or­falea said the priest not only spared the In­di­ans a worse fate, but was ac­tu­ally a great ad­vo­cate on their be­half. When one of his mis­sion­ary priests was mur­dered by In­di­ans, Serra not only got the cul­prits re­leased from prison, but would later go on to bap­tize and con­firm some of them in the Catholic faith. And when Serra en­coun­tered a mil­i­tary com­man­der who re­fused to dis­ci­pline troops who were rap­ing In­dian women, Serra trav­eled to make an ap­peal to the viceroy, who ousted the com­man­der.

“He spoke truth to power, and not a lot of re­li­gious lead­ers do that. He was not afraid of mix­ing it up in po­lit­i­cal cir­cles for what he felt was the moral right,” Mr. Or­falea said. “I look at Fran­cis, he’s spo­ken truth to power to the Vat­i­can Curia, the Vat­i­can bank, to those who would deny global warm­ing, to those who do not ap­pre­ci­ate the in­jus­tice of abor­tion.”

For Mr. Gal­van, can­on­iza­tion of Serra is just the be­gin­ning of the jour­ney.

He said the church now must use the fo­cus on Serra to reach out to In­di­ans in Cal­i­for­nia. He said he hopes Pope Fran­cis vis­its Cal­i­for­nia soon — pos­si­bly in con­junc­tion with a fu­ture trip to Mexico — and makes the rounds of the mis­sions, ac­knowl­edg­ing the church’s role in as­sist­ing colo­nial­ism but also as­sert­ing the for­give­ness the church teaches.

“That’s what Ju­nipero Serra is about, is the path­way,” Mr. Gal­van said.


Part of Pope Fran­cis’ Wed­nes­day Mass in­volved relics of the newly sainted Ju­nipero Serra.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.