Tourists walk past a statue of Blessed Junipero Serra in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington Sept. 21. Pope Francis celebrated a Mass of canonization for Blessed Junipero Serra Sept. 23 outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. CNS Photo/Joshua Roberts

St. Junipero Serra brought Jesus to the worthy Native Americans

  • September 24, 2015

As Pope Francis presided at the canonization of St. Junipero Serra I was inside the Museum of the American Indian down on the southern tip of Manhattan Island —– the island purchased from the Canarsee nation in the 17th century with coloured beads.

I was there looking to see if there was any reference to St. Junipero.

I didn’’t expect praise. But I wasn’’t surprised by St. Junipero’’s absence either.

There were plenty of glancing blows sideswiping Christian evangelization of the Western Hemisphere. There’’s this text beside a display of Pueblo pottery:

Spanish exploitation of Indian labour and forced conversion to Christianity sparked the Pueblo uprising of 1680. During the revolt, Pueblos captured the largest herd of horses ever taken by North American Indians, laying groundwork for a new Indian trade. Spanish attempts to establish Catholic missions are evident in the A:shiwi-made altar vessels shown here, which date between 1629 when the Franciscan church was built at Hawikku, and the year of the Pueblo uprising.”

There’’s no evidence given for “forced conversion.” How could a single Franciscan missionary force Pueblo potters to use their considerable skill making altar vessels?

Actually, the altar vessels were not on display. The display had been changed without bothering to revise the text. But the Pueblos were the people St. Junipero chose to live among. It’’s their language he chose to learn. St. Junipero built churches with their help.

Throughout this museum there is no reference to the 500 years of Christian faith and devotion among aboriginal people from the Arctic to Patagonia. Christianity is treated as though it were a taint. It is as though the Native American Christians of the past half-millennium don’’t really count. The only authentic history of these people is the pre-Christian history. The only authentic Indian is a pre-Christian Indian.

A book on the Pueblo revolt is for sale in the museum gift shop. It doesn’’t mention St. Junipero either. The index does have extensive entries under “Franciscan friars,” including “cruelty of,” “Eulate’s antipathy towards,” “executions of,” “martyrdom longed for by,” and “Santa Barbara convent of.”

Nobody imagines the Church’’s mission to thousands of nations of the New World was such a perfect example of Christian love in action. There were failures, and many of them. But St. Junipero’’s life, his longing for martyrdom, his incredible drive can only be understood from the inside, from the assumption that he gave himself to his mission honestly, generously and with love.

In his homily at the canonization Mass, Pope Francis makes no excuses for the Church’’s failings, but he asks us to see the saint as a man who gave the best he had.

We are heirs to the bold missionary spirit,” Pope Francis tells us.” St. Junipero was the embodiment of a Church which goes forth, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.”

The Pueblos suffered at the hands of colonization, and the Church was too often blind to what colonization was doing. But the mission was a mission of reconciling tenderness. “Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” said Francis “— mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”

None of us are innocent in this. Just like Manhattan, Toronto sits on other people’’s land taken without their consent.

But as Christians we have always needed, wanted and sought an encounter. Christianity has to go out and find other people, other cultures, other ways of life.

Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving His message, His presence,” said Francis. “Instead, He always embraced life as He saw it. In faces of pain, hunger, sickness and sin.”

St. Junipero Serra did that and as a saint he reminds us to do the same.


Read our complete coverage of the Pope's historic visit to the United States of America.


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