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 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.
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