Jared Zimmerer, Director of the Word on Fire Institute, recently sat down with Robert Senkewicz, the author of a fascinating book on the life and Missions of St. Junípero Serra. Given the recent events surrounding the statues of Padre Serra, Robert shines light on the history and Christianity of the saint.

Robert M Senkewicz is Professor of History Emeritus at Santa Clara University. He is the author, with Rose Marie Beebe, of Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary.

Who was Junípero Serra and why did he come to the New World?

He was born in 1713 on the island of Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. Two aspects of his youth proved to be important in his later missionary career. First, his home was a small agricultural village, Petra, towards the eastern side of the island. His father worked some fields in the area. As a boy, Miguel (his baptismal name) worked alongside his father. So agriculture, which was going to be so important in the California missions, was in his blood from a very early age. Second, he grew up with a great devotion to our Lady. One of the important local devotions in Petra was to Our Lady of the Good Year, commemorating the end of a drought in 1609 which the villagers attributed to the intercession of the Virgin. Serra was always very devoted to Mary. Later in life, when he became a student of the theology of Duns Scotus, he was a proponent of the notion of her Immaculate Conception.

Young Miguel attended a grammar school in his village run by the Franciscans. When he was sixteen years old, Serra entered the Franciscan order and moved to a Franciscan house close to the island’s capital, Palma, for his novitiate. When he took his vows, he changed his name from Miguel to Junípero. He did so in honor of Brother Junípero, one of the original companions of St. Francis. This was a very unusual move for young Franciscans at the time. It indicated, I think, that even as a teenager, he possessed deep self-knowledge. Changing his name meant that he knew himself well enough to realize that the virtues associated in the Franciscan tradition with Brother Junípero, humility and patience, were virtues that he would probably need some heavenly assistance to integrate fully into his own life! After seminary studies in philosophy and theology, he was ordained in 1737. He then undertook advanced studies in theology and became an eminent professor at the Franciscan University in Palma and a very well-known preacher throughout the island as well.

At the end of the 1740s he volunteered for the missions in the Americas. He was probably influenced by the example of Mallorcan Ramón Llull, a member of the Third Order of St. Francis who had been a missionary in northern Africa centuries earlier and who was buried in the Franciscan church where Junípero worshiped. In going to America, he gave up an extremely successful academic career to travel thousands of miles into what was for him an unknown land. He arrived in Veracruz, Mexico at the beginning of December 1749. He then walked with one other cleric from there to Mexico City, a journey of a few hundred miles over difficult terrain. On New Year’s Eve he arrived in the vicinity of Mexico City and prayed at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the next day he presented himself at the Franciscan missionary headquarters, the Colegio de San Fernando.

He served eight years in the Franciscan missionary field in the Sierra Gorda, a rugged area roughly two hundred miles north of Mexico City. He spent an additional eight years serving as a member of a group of Franciscans who traveled throughout various regions in Mexico to missions attempting to restore religious fervor in parishes where the local bishop thought that Christian commitment had waned. When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and the Spanish Empire in 1767, the Franciscans were chosen to take over some of the former Jesuit missions. One such former Jesuit chain was in Baja California, and Serra was sent there as the head of the Franciscans who were to administer the former Jesuit churches. Soon after he settled there, a high-ranking Spanish official arrived with word that the Spanish government had decided to extend its colonial frontier northward. It had received word that the Russians were quickly advancing across Siberia. The fear was that when the Russians reached Alaska they could come down the western coast of North America quite easily and establish themselves in Alta (Upper) California. So Spain desired to establish itself in that region before the Russians were able to get there. The official asked Serra if he would send some of the Franciscans presently in Baja California on the expedition north. Serra enthusiastically agreed and said that he himself would go. The expedition, led by Gaspar de Portolá, reached San Diego in June 1769 and Monterey in June 1770. At both places Portolá established a presidio and Serra established a mission. Serra stationed himself at Monterey, which was to become the regional capital. Within a year he moved the mission away from the presidio to the banks of the Carmel River. Serra remained Father President of the Alta California missions until his death in August 1784. During his presidency he supervised the founding of seven additional missions, from San Francisco de Asís in the north to San Juan Capistrano in the south.

Serra is held up by some as a great evangelist, yet by others he is called a shameless advocate of an oppressive colonial system. What accounts for these divergent views?

I’m glad you asked about colonialism, because some of the issues surrounding the way in which Serra has been interpreted relate to European colonialism in the Americas. I think that many people think of colonialism as a univocal entity that was the same from Canada down to the tip of South America. It was not. Also, in the United States, many people associate the activities of Serra and the other Spanish missionaries with the better-known British colonial system. But the Spanish and British colonial systems were quite distinct.

The British colonial policy relating to indigenous people was very clear: push them away and/or kill them. The Puritans slaughtered over four hundred Pequot Indians in the 1637 Mystic River massacre. Plymouth Governor William Bradford described their burning flesh as “a sweet sacrifice” to God. Many people appear to assume that these policies were also the policies of the Spanish. To be sure, there were cruelties towards natives in the Spanish colonies, but these cruelties were openly challenged. As early as 1511 Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican priest in Santo Domingo, mounted the pulpit on the first Sunday of Advent and castigated the conquistadores in his congregation. He exclaimed, “You are in mortal sin, and live and die therein by reason of the cruelty and tyranny that you practice on these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery?” Bartolomé de las Casas, influenced by Montesinos, became a passionate defender of the indigenous peoples. His efforts sparked a series of Spanish laws intended to protect the Indians from mine or hacienda owners who sought to oppress them with harsh and unrequited labor. These laws were not consistently enforced, but from the beginning of the 1500s until the end of the Spanish Empire, over fifteen thousand Spanish clerics—Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Jesuits, and others—journeyed across the Atlantic to staff a loose network of missions. There they attempted to gather the Indians together in order to protect them from the ravages of the conquistadores and their successors.

Missions were intended to assimilate indigenous people by converting them to Catholicism and teaching them European-style agriculture. The very existence of this mission system, and continual discussions in Spain and in the Americas about its successes and failures, underscore an important point: in Spanish America indigenous people had a place in colonial society. It was, to be sure, an inferior place. But it was a place. In British and later US North America, there was virtually no interest in indigenous assimilation and native people were accorded no place at all. Even those who attempted to assimilate, like the Cherokee, were pushed away.

How did Serra traverse the tightrope between his religious commitments and the political/colonial realities?

He focused on the conversion part of the assimilation goals. When he was in Mexico, he acquired a first-hand knowledge of the way in which indigenous traditions and imported Spanish Catholicism interacted with each other. Indeed, the brown Virgin of Guadalupe was a great example of that. So he tried to design the conversion process to be as flexible and accommodating as possible to the traditions and folkways of the people to whom he was ministering. For instance, we have records of him conversing with indigenous people and trying to find out their religious beliefs and backgrounds, so that he could try to present Christianity in a fashion that would be most amenable to being accepted by people coming from various other traditions. In one set of conversations that he recorded, a young Ohlone man told him that when his people first encountered the Spaniards, “they believed them to be the sons of the mules that were carrying them.” He intended to share this information with other missionaries so that they might use it in their own pastoral practices. He wanted conversion, but he knew that genuine conversion would normally be gradual and that it would have to be free.

In that vein, while he always agreed that the other aim of mission activity, cultural assimilation, was terribly important, he considered it decidedly secondary to religious conversion. So he generally attempted to resist colonial officials, such as Monterey Commander Francisco de Rivera y Moncada, who wanted to try to force the Indians at the Carmel mission to do colonial work that should have been done, in his judgment, by others, such as the military. He told Rivera in 1775 that the Indians at Carmel were still learning the rudiments of mission activity and he did not want to rush them into something else: “We are carefully trying to encourage them so that little by little they will learn.”

Most importantly, he always realized that Christianity was an alien presence in indigenous California and that resistance to this presence should be expected. After Kumeyaay people destroyed mission San Diego in 1775 and killed one of the missionaries there, Serra personally wrote to the Viceroy. He begged that if any Indian should kill him, that Indian should be forgiven and retribution should not be exacted upon the native peoples. He wrote, “If they [the Indians] have already killed the missionary, what are we to gain with military campaigns? . . . Let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here and the reason for forgiving him. Help him to understand, with some moderate punishment, that he is being pardoned in accordance with our law, which orders us to forgive offenses and to prepare him, not for his death, but for eternal life.”

At the same time, was not corporal punishment of the native people an element of mission life? Did Serra approve that, and if so, why?

Like virtually everyone in Europe at the time, Serra believed that Europeans were superior to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. He and most missionaries adopted a decidedly paternalistic attitude toward the indigenous people. They believed that their paternalism was basically benign. However, as Serra once said in a sermon he preached, one of the duties of being a responsible parent was recognizing the necessity of punishing the child when the child went astray. As he said, “But you will say, how can the tender love of the father for his child be reconciled with punishing and afflicting him? Actually, a harmony between love and strictness is what characterizes a true father. It is precisely because the father loves him that he teaches him to obey. When he misbehaves, the father scolds and punishes him so that the son can correct his mistakes.” And so, in the missions, corporal punishment was normally used when indigenous people “misbehaved.” That misbehavior generally was leaving the missions without permission or not returning on time if they did have permission. In those cases the missionaries would usually send out soldiers to bring them back. If the recovery was successful and the indigenous people were returned as prisoners, they were generally punished by whipping. There is no evidence that Serra personally administered these whippings, but he certainly approved them. Once when some people had been brought back to the mission, Serra wrote to Rivera, “I am sending for them to you for punishment—a period of time in exile and two or three rounds of whipping. This should be a good lesson for them as well as for the others, and it will be of spiritual benefit for everyone, which is the goal of our efforts.” Then he added, “If you do not have shackles on hand, if you let us know, they can be sent from here.” So his missions were definitely places of coercion as well as conversion. Serra definitely would have regarded love and punishment as two sides of the same coin. Nowadays we have a different view of whipping, and its consistent usage in the mission is condemned on all sides. As Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez recently wrote with regret, “It is sadly true that corporal punishment was sometimes used in the missions.”

Unfortunately, it is difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty how the indigenous people with whom Serra came into contact regarded him and the mission system during his lifetime. Those who fled the missions or were punished for trying to do so undoubtedly had a negative opinion. A number of people were also baptized by their own volition. It is impossible to discern the motives of those who asked for Baptism for themselves or their children. Some people undoubtedly entered the missions because the herds of Spanish livestock that accompanied the colonial efforts were trampling the fruits, berries, nuts, and game that had sustained the indigenous people for centuries. Whatever else the missions were, they were places that did have food. There were also indigenous people who appear to have accepted the missions and to have tried to integrate Christianity into their religious views. The safest estimate would be that the reception of the mission system by the indigenous people of California was mixed.

In your book, you include four of Serra’s homilies in an appendix. What did you glean from Serra from them?

The sermons were a group of Lenten sermons that he preached to a convent of Poor Clares in Palma in 1744. I think that there are two important aspects of the man that come out of those sermons, and both of them had important implications for his missionary activity.

First, as the overall theme for his sermons he chose a verse from Psalm 34: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” I found this significant. Lent is a time of fasting and repentance,  when people are encouraged to look into themselves, plumb the depths of our sinfulness, and resolve to do better, with God’s help. Yet Serra encouraged his listeners not to look into themselves but to rejoice in God’s overflowing bounty. So the focus is not on self, but outside of self. As he said in one of the sermons, “Anyone who has tasted the sweetness of the Lord just once regards as empty all of this life’s pleasures and delights. . . . But someone who has tried it just once discovers that he has increasing appetite for it, for he finds it very soothing. As the Lord himself says, ‘Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.’”

As I indicated above, when I was referring to the fact that he changed his first name from Miguel to Junípero, Serra had a very good sense of himself, especially of his defects. Yet throughout this entire missionary career, both in Mexico and in California, he constantly put his trust in God’s overflowing bounty. In the midst of trials, uncertainties, fights with military authorities, and much else, he always looked to God.

I remember that in 2015, around the time of his canonization, the biography of Serra that Rose Marie and I wrote had just come out. So people would ask me, what do you think Serra would think about all this controversy about him? My answer was that he would say that the important discussion should not be about him, but about evangelization and the Gospel. I think you can really see that attitude in the sermons.

Second, the sermons offer a capsule view of a crucial part of his missionary strategy. It stemmed from his choice of Psalm 34. He believed that people should be exposed to God’s goodness and, even if they have not experienced that before, that goodness will gradually draw them closer to him. The job of the missionary, in that context, was to provide an exemplary witness of what God’s goodness is actually like. Specifically, the job of the California missionary was to create a vibrant Christian community that actively witnessed to divine love and would gradually encourage people who encountered the community to want to join it. We can see this in 1770, when Serra quickly realized that the place at which the military had established the Monterey Presidio was not a good place for him to establish a mission. The reason was very simple. He wrote, “There is no Indian village at all in the vicinity of this port. Because of this, if we see that they are determined to accept our holy faith, we need to recognize the special difficulty they will have in taking up residence here.” So he moved the mission five miles away to the banks of the Carmel River. The reason was very simple: that was where the Indian villages were. He wanted his mission community to be close to the indigenous villages so that they could gradually “taste and see” the love of God reflected in the behavior of the community and thereby want to participate in that themselves.

Thanks very much! Any final comments?

Well, thank you and thanks to Word on Fire for this opportunity. I think it is important for people to understand that Junípero Serra lived in a world that was very different from ours. He lived in a colonial system that none of us would want to replicate in the present or future. However, he generally tried to make that system more humane and equitable than it otherwise would have been. Junípero Serra was a person composed, as we all are, of light and shadows. He was a man who, in the context of the actual times in which he lived, tried to stand for decency against cruelty, for justice against oppression, for grace against sin.

Be sure to read the Word on Fire St. Junipero Serra FAQ page >> wordonfire.org/serra/