Lifestyle & Belief

How a Catholic missionary helped make California cool


A sunset is seen above the two steeples of Good Shepherd Catholic Church on December 11, 2010 in Beverly Hills, California.


Kevork Djansezian

The profound demographic shift of the Catholic Church in the last century has pushed members of the Western church – Europe, North America, Canada and Australia – into the minority. Today, three-quarters of the world’s Catholics come from the global south, notably Latin America and Africa, while the Western church accounts for roughly 25 percent. 

Seminaries in Ireland are nearly empty and Mass attendance sharply down. In Nigeria, Catholicism is booming (despite violent attacks from Islamic militants) full of the kind of religious fervor that once propelled the church in the West. Evangelization – support of missions to spread the faith – is a major theme Pope Francis has emphasized, central to his vision of better syncing the church with the modern world.

Evangelization has a complex history, with trailing controversy today. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Church of Rome sent missionaries across the Atlantic to colonize the New World. Missionary priests followed the military in “settling” parts of countries we know today as Canada, America's greater Mississippi Valley and southwest, Mexico and Peru, to name but four. The impact this “clash of civilizations” had on the indigenous peoples has become a major issue in academia, a flashpoint in the culture wars. 

Scribner has just published "Journey to the Sun: Junípero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California," a book that follows Father Serra, a Franciscan, as a culture-carrier from Spain to Mexico to the settling of the early California missions. The author, Gregory Orfalea, takes on certain vexing issues of the culture wars in a 370-page narrative with 59 pages of footnotes. Orfalea [pronounced Or-fulla] grew up in Los Angeles, attended Catholic schools and graduated from Georgetown University. This is his ninth book.

He discussed Journey to the Sun with GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry in a telephone interview and follow-up email.

GlobalPost: You write about Spanish soldiers who treated Indians with unvarnished cruelty in Mexico and early California. At times I was reminded of the current film, "Twelve Years A Slave." Yet Serra and other priests saw themselves as following the footsteps of St. Francis, serving the poor and vulnerable. How does his treatment of New World Indians stand in the light of history?

Orfalea: Serra embodied what I call “radical mercy.” And in the light of history, that’s rare. Junípero Serra stood many times between rapacious soldiers and the Indians he served in the New World, at the risk of his own life. At the beginning of the entry in Alta California in 1769, Serra wrote the Viceroy in Mexico City, asking that if the Indians killed him, they should be pardoned. Later on, when the Kumeyaay attacked San Diego Mission, burning it to the ground and killing three Spaniards, including a young priest friend of Serra’s from his home island in Mallorca, Serra beseeched the viceroy to free the condemned prisoners: “As to the killer, let him live so that he can be saved, for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification.”

Notice the word “sole.” Not extraction of gold. Not taking of lands. Serra fought off settler greed on behalf of the Indians in Mexico and California. For Serra, the Indian had a soul equal to the Spaniards—hardly what the British, Puritans or early Americans believed. This sort of radical respect and mercy is extremely rare in the history of colonialism and even Christian evangelism.

GlobalPost: Were the California missions a part of global slavery?

Orfalea: No. I was verbally attacked recently in Berkeley, California by two people who claimed that Serra practiced slavery and that Spain massacred Indians in California. Neither is true, though a woman walked out midway through my response – ‘don’t confuse me with the facts.’

The Indians of California were not forced into the missions, contrary to the revisionist myth. In fact, a majority of them never made it in. Those who did had a variety of reasons for going there --hunger, epidemics, escape from intertribal conflicts, disorientation from the whole entry of the Spaniards. California Indians had a general sense that the padres meant better towards them than the soldiers and settlers.

There were pull factors, too, in the beauty of mission music and art, the towers with ringing bells. The Indians responded to beauty, just as they recoiled from cruelty. Once in the mission, they had responsibilities as part of a working community. For clothing, food, shelter they were trained in carpentry, masonry, artisan sculpture, large-scale farming with oxen, even iron works. It was closer to indentured servitude, or as one historian put it, “spiritual debt peonage.”

If the Indians fled without permission, committed adultery, or stole, they were punished, sometimes by floggings. So, for that matter, were Spanish soldiers and itinerant workers. This was done as discipline, and was specifically not to be done in anger, though Serra admitted “excesses” occurred. The floggings were a dark side of Serra and the missions, but thrashings were common throughout Europe. They were wrong, and humiliating, as I state plainly in my book.

GlobalPost: You write of Serra flogging himself. Isn’t that perverse by our standards?

Orfalea: Serra hit himself with the disciplina to imitate the suffering of Christ and offered his pain up for the spiritual reward of others. Of course today it is long outmoded and frowned upon in the church. But we watch football players smash their bodies against each other, bloody their noses and faces, and butt their helmets so hard against opponents that brain injuries are now an issue. Do we call that self-mutilation? No way. We call it great athleticism! The killer instinct any coach wants.

Let’s not even get into what steroids do to a baseball player’s body and brain. American sports requires a severe denigration of the flesh—far more injurious, I think, than Serra’s minor mortifications—and it usually isn’t in the interest of the spirit, certainly not on the pro level. It’s for money. Who’s crazier?

GlobalPost: I won’t answer that. Moving on, you write that Serra was a Jesuit-like Franciscan, much as Pope Francis, a Jesuit, is more like a Franciscan. What exactly do you mean?

Orfalea: Serra had a chair in Theology at the Lullian University in Palma, Mallorca, his home island in Spain. He was intellectually brilliant and perhaps the most bookish—as well as being one of the last—of the conquistadors. He believed in radical poverty, simplicity and denigration of the flesh, like St. Francis of Assisi.

He was suspicious of authority, ecclesiastical and temporal, like St. Francis—and Pope Francis, I might add. St. Francis had no truck with papal finery, in the same mode as the current Francis. Pope Francis said his first Mass not in the grandeur of the Vatican, but in a poor church in Rome for immigrants from North Africa.

He washed their feet at Christmas. Serra did the same to Indians of the Sierra Gorda of Mexico. This kind of humility can change a world. And I think it made a legacy in California radically different from the stodgy, stratified, puritanical approach in the East.

GlobalPost: You spent years on this book, and a lot of time in Mexico and Spain. What did you find that is genuinely new about this controversial man?

Orfalea: Several things. I learned that Serra came under the inspection of the Inquisition. We know that Serra worked, briefly, as a comisario for the Inquisition after he got to Mexico, mostly assessing books, though he also questioned someone accused of attempted murder as a witch. I discovered that he himself was put in the crosshairs of that miserable institution, for his teachings as a professor on the Virgin Mary, which supposedly were flawed.

He was never punished, but the event led me to take a close look at Serra’s attitudes towards women, which stand up rather well for an 18th-century priest. Darting from archive to archive and energizing several great archivists, I uncovered a love triangle in Oaxaca (with names buried for over two centuries) quite revelatory of Serra’s sense of justice.

A 28-year-old woman who had been involved with a grown man since she was 14 confessed to Serra. Even after the relationship was exposed, Serra did not recommend punishment but instead got her into a safe house to escape the murderous designs of her powerful lover. I have not doubt Serra loved her.

A priest friend living in Serra’s old quarters in Mallorca gifted me with translations of sermons that Serra gave to nuns in Palma just before he left for the New World. They show an unusual sensitivity towards women, an emphasis on God’s radical mercy. I discovered things in strange places. One of his letters had turned up at the bottom of a mountain gorge in the Sierra Gorda of Mexico where they had been in the holdings of a peasant farmer, along with 15 other documents, including letters of Serra compatriots.

I think it safe to say that my psychological reading of Serra’s so-called lost years wandering in southern Mexico is new; so is the death chapter which examines his extraordinary fear the last night of his life. What in a fearless life would cause such fear?

GlobalPost: Serra was by any measure one of the most influential missionaries in recorded history. He has not been made a saint. Why is that? Do you think he should be?

Orfalea: The short answer is technical: only one miracle has been logged in his name and approved by the Vatican. A saint needs at least two officially inspected and sanctioned miracles due to his or her intercession or response to prayer. A saint also needs quite a bit more, for example, a life of extraordinary examples of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance).

Serra’s life exhibited these in abundance, with the possible exception of prudence. I rather think that the missions’ policy of flogging people for wrongdoing, however much a product of its time and whatever its good intention, has hurt him, though it doesn’t take much to come up with saints who did a lot worse (St. Paul as Saul murdered Christians before his conversion; St. Augustine had children out of wedlock before his conversion.)

I personally think Serra’s exceptional love for the Indian and his intervention, showing radical mercy, on several occasions on behalf of those who rebelled more than counterbalances the harder side. But I have no bona fides to judge. I do examine the Vatican’s Positio on the matter in some detail, laying out in the last chapter the case pro and con. I was surprised to find several notable California Indians supported his cause for sainthood, some guardedly, some strongly.

GlobalPost: How do you assess Serra in the culture wars debate? Did the Catholicism that he and the Franciscans brought to California improve life for Native Americans, or was it a destructive force?

Orfalea: The short answer, of course, is both. The sad irony of the mission is that it was protection and exposure. But the Gospel of Love had its attractions. And let’s not forget the spiritual road was more in two directions than most people think.

The worst of the destruction took hold because of something the Spaniards knew little to nothing about—the devastation of microbes. Such misery, and it was horrific, was not intentionally applied to the Indian as occurred sometimes in New England. As Jared Diamond shows us, the Europeans, with their guns, germs, and steel were the most powerful, rapacious force on the globe and there was very little the Indian was going to do to stop them.

So the question then becomes: Who was the California Indian going to meet? By the time of Serra, most Spaniards felt the Indian was the equal, at least spiritually, of the Spaniard, the gente de razon. Serra famously called Governor Neve on the carpet for using that term, “the people of reason,” only as it applied to Spaniards.

“Are the Indians incapable of reason?” Serra asked sharply. The fact is, the English and Americans were far more violent and racist with the Indians in general, and the latter with California Indians in particular, than Spain and its Franciscans. It is very revealing that, according to the historian David Weber, after two hundred years of conquest, in Spanish America half the population was Indian, whereas east of the Mississippi in English America, only 6 percent remained.

Serra set in motion an audacious example of the power of love and art, a rare tolerance of difference, even a celebration of it. In California, I think, that tolerance flowered into the kind of Pacific Coast culture we have today, one more innovative, dynamic, in tune with nature, and infused with art in everyday life than in the sclerotic East. It was not perfect; it was filled with tragedy. But it was and is a different legacy.

We must unearth the past to understand not just what made us, but who we are becoming. Serra, to me, is as important to our history as the founding fathers, and he may be becoming more important every day our southern border shimmers like a mirage.

GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is author of "Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church."