When Oppressors Become Saints

Pope Francis recently announced his desire of canonizing Father Junípero Serra during his upcoming visit to the United Juniperro-serraStates. Serra, a late 18th century missionary, participated in the establishment of California’s missions, many – as in the case of San Diego, became the centers of major cities. There is no question that Serra, and other missionaries like him, was a pious man with the best of intentions; nevertheless, as my colleague Tink Tinker reminds me, such missionaries remain complicit with cultural genocide. No doubt cultural genocide may have operated as a conscious commitment; but more often than not, cultural genocide functioned “at such a systemic level that it may [have] be largely subliminal. In such cases, the good intent of some may be so mired in unrecognized systemic structures that they . . . remain unaware of the destruction that result[ed] from those good intentions.”[i] Unfortunately, centuries after the decimation of a people, many, including those willing to canonize such missionaries, continue to remain unaware of the destruction caused by such good intentions.

Pope Francis is ignoring how the cultural genocide of missionaries like Serra, who set out to Christianized the so-call heathens, systematically destroyed, eroded, and undermined the integrity of indigenous culture. The forced idealization of white culture and religion upon indigenous people has lead to the internalization of a false perception that their own culture was/is inferior, often resulting in self-hatred. Unfortunately, Pope Francis canonization of Father Serra is due to his own troubling romanticization of the missionary venture that obscures cultural genocide. In his last book written as cardinal Bergoglio, originally published under the title Mente abierta, corazon creyente (2013), the future Pope gathered his most significant writings concerning Christian life in preparation for his 75th birthday.

Bergoglio wrote “The first evangelizers [of South America] gave Native Americans knowledge of why they should engage in struggle . . . we should help people to learn the real reason for their struggle.”[ii]  Yet several Indian scholars have responded that Christianity is the real reason for their struggle, a struggle against the physical and cultural genocide implemented by the evangelizers. Nevertheless, Bergoglio credits symbols of the Virgin for the spiritual unity of Latin American nations, bringing as one “Spaniards and Indians, missionary and conquistador, Spanish colonization and racial assimilation.”[iii] Problematic is the lack of nuance in his view of the Church which he describes as “glorious precisely because it is a history of sacrifices, of hopes, of daily struggles;”[iv] a constructed history unrecognizable to many on the underside of Christendom, specifically the Indian, the conquered, and the assimilated.

What is problematic with canonizing Serra is the violence he willingly employed to proclaim the Prince of Peace. Through a conquering army Serra evangelized the native peoples of what would become California as part of a larger strategy of colonial conquest for the sovereigns of Spain. Spain’s move into California had little to do with bringing the Good News to the indigenous people and more to do with countering the threat of Russian colonial expansion in the area, motives made clear when Viceroy Croix received a royal order in 1768 to resist Russian incursion.[v] Conquest of the land and conversion of the population became the geopolitical strategy to counter the expansionist designs of Russia.

Although it could be argued that Father Serra motivations may have been less politically motivated, truly desiring with the best of intentions, to bring salvation to the natives; nonetheless, he remains complicit with the colonial venture that brought death, dispossession, destitution, and disenfranchisement to the indigenous population. In his mind, and in the mind of most conquistadores, to be a Christian was equivalent with being a Spaniard; hence the salvation of the indigenous population depended on them renouncing and hating their own culture and assimilating, at the edge of a sword if need be, to the conquering culture. Implementing a strategy to save the Indian required converts to be isolated from their families, homes and communities and relocated within the missionary compound where they were forced to work as slaves. Those that escaped and returned to their previous way of life were hunted down by the military posted at the mission and returned for brutal and cruel punishment.

Serra advocated violence in the form of corporal punishment toward the indigenous people. In 1799, Father Antonio de la Conception Horra, from the mission in San Miguel, described how indigenous folk were disciplined. “The treatment shown to the Indians is the most cruel I have ever read in history. For the slightest things they receive heavy floggings, and shackled, and are put in the stocks, and treated with so much cruelty that they are kept whole days without a drink of water.”[vi]

Concern about the canonization of Father Junípero Serra has less to do with his worthiness or his saintly behavior (or lack thereof). Canonizing anyone complicit with the brutal colonization of native people testifies to how organized religious institutions (in this case the Vatican) have failed to grapple with their history of dehumanization. Before we who claim Catholicism as part of our identity elevate colonizers and oppressors to sainthood, we should pay closer attention to the often-ignored witness of the colonized and oppressed. When Pope John Paul II visited Peru, he received an open letter from various indigenous people. Before canonizing Serra, it might behoove us to meditate upon the letter, which reads:

“John Paul II, we, Andean and American Indians, have decided to take advantage of your visit to return to you your Bible, since in five centuries it has not given us love, peace or justice. Please take back your Bible and give it back to our oppressors, because they need its moral teachings more than we do. Ever since the arrival of Christopher Columbus a culture, a language, religion and values which belong to Europe have been imposed on Latin America by force. The Bible came to us as part of the imposed colonial transformation. It was the ideological weapon of this colonialist assault. The Spanish sword which attacked and murdered the bodies of Indians by day and night became the cross which attacked the Indian soul.”[vii]

Miguel A. De La Torre


[i] George E. Tinker, Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 5.

[ii] Bergoglio, Jorge Mario, (Pope Francis), Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus, trans. by Joseph V. Owens, SJ. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2013), 31.

[iii] Ibid., 102.

[iv] Ibid., 96

[v] Glynn Barratt, Russia in Pacific Waters, 1715-1825: A Survey of the Origins of Russia’s Navel Presence in the North and South Pacific (Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia, 1981), 66-69.

[vi] Tinker, Missionary Conquest, 50

[vii] Pablo Richard, “1492: The Violence of God and the Future of Christianity,” 1492-1992: The Voice of the Victims, ed. by Leonardo Boff and Virgilo Elizondo (London, GB: SCM, 1990,) 64-65.

2 thoughts on “When Oppressors Become Saints

  1. Thank you, Miguel de la Torre, for this incisive article on Serra. My book is indeed subtitled “Cultural Genocide,” but I would hasten to add that the UN’s International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide does not distinguish types of genocide other than to list them all. Read the Convention and it is immediately clear that Serra was a perpetrator of the Crime of Genocide against Indian peoples. Sorry Pope Francis, but this franciscan was no saint! It is time for the churches, Roman Catholic and all the others, to own their histories of violence under the regime of european christian colonialism.–Tink Tinker


  2. I recently visited Mexico City where I paid a very delinquent manda to our Lady of Guadalupe. I also participated in a prayer ritual that included the Magnificat. This is very close to my heart. In the Magnificat, Mary proclaims the coming of the Savior that will turn the world upside down — “Casting down the mighty from their thrones
    and lifting up the lowly.” In various representations around the Basilica, the public sees the revelation of a very pregnant Mary to Bishop Zumarraga. In order to see the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, the bishop must raise a submissive Juan Diego upright and standing and the bishop must kneel. This is seen everywhere except in the latest project, an elaborate garden complete with life-size statues and an impressive waterfall fountain. The bishop is standing and Juan Diego is kneeling. Sigh.


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