Why Pope Francis’ Canonization of Junipero Serra Is So Controversial

Meridith McGraw, ABC News, September 23, 2015

Pope Francis, the first Hispanic head of the Catholic Church, will canonize the first Hispanic, Junipero Serra, during a special mass held at the National Basilica on Wednesday.

But the ceremony will not be without controversy.

Serra, a Franciscan monk who worked to evangelize the California coast during the 18th century, has been criticized for using coercive force and corporal punishment on Native Americans.

Steven Hackel, a history professor at the University of California, Riverside, says Serra’s use of corporal punishment was even controversial at the time. It was believed that physical punishment should not be dispensed by Franciscans or missionaries but rather by the state when someone committed a crime. Native American groups have protested Serra’s canonization, saying that Serra enslaved and abused their ancestors.

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But the Vatican is hoping that the focus of Serra’s legacy will be on his saintly acts and his immigration efforts.

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Sent by the Spanish crown in the 18th century, Serra helped lay the foundation for modern California by building a network of churches and settlements along the Pacific Ocean and converting Native American people to Christianity.

His legacy is considered so important to American history that he is one of two Californians with a statute in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall along with Ronald Reagan. Earlier this year, the California legislature proposed legislation to replace Serra with Dr. Sally Ride, the first woman and youngest person in space.

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Hackel said that the church sees the canonization of Serra as an opportunity to remind Americans of their Hispanic past, but also to provide historical context to immigration issues.

“The Vatican sees Serra almost as a patron saint of immigration,” said Hackel. Serra’s canonization is a way of communicating that, “there’s a history behind immigration policy that is rooted in a Spanish Catholic past and not just a Protestant, 18th Century political rebellion.”

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