Two hundred fifty-one years ago today, Junipero Serra made landfall in San Diego bay, and his mission to California began.
In September of 2015, the pope came to the United States to canonize Father Serra. Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the eastern portico of the National Shrine in Washington, on an absolutely beautiful early-autumn day.
Two concelebrants to note: Your unworthy servant, a hundred yards away from the pope, in the fiftieth row.
And Theodore McCarrick.
McCarrick sat, in his scarlet zuchetto, in the first row of concelebrants, immediately behind the pulpit.
A few feet away from him, the pope’s host: then-Washington-archbishop Donald Card. Wuerl. Who had seen documentary evidence of McCarrick’s predations, a decade earlier.
A few more feet way: Pope Francis himself. Who had seen the same documents two years earlier.
Also nearby: Then-nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who had seen documentary evidence of McCarrick’s predation fifteen years earlier.
Complexities at the canonization Mass. Kinda like complexities in the saint’s life itself.
…The Calfornia missions: beautiful, evocative places. In the late 19th century, the ‘mission tour‘ began, as a way to showcase the state of California. That happened just a generation after the state became English-speaking, when the Gold Rushers brutally tried to exterminate the natives.
Father Serra never tried to exterminate anybody. But the coming of the Spaniards in the 18th century did cause a great deal of unintended death. They didn’t know about germs, but their germs killed a lot of natives. And they didn’t know about the plants and animals that the natives ate, but their own plants and animals destroyed them.
Father Serra loved the idea of preaching to unbaptized people. And he loved the unbaptized people, like a father loves his teenage children.
Sometimes Christian parents use force of one kind or another, to get their children to church. Father Serra held firm to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theo. II-II q10 a8. That is: The preacher may not compel faith by force. But authorities in the Christian community may restrain by force any baptized person who forsakes his or her baptismal obligations.
This meant that Father Serra ordered the capture and flogging of some baptized Chumash who got disenchanted with mission life and fled back into the wild.
Meanwhile, Father Serra held in check the far-crueler tendencies of the Spanish military. And he insisted that all the mission property belonged to the natives.
Father Serra went to his death firmly believing that he had built a future for his beloved new Christians, not for rich colonists. He never could have foreseen the twists and turns of history that followed, which left the natives with–surprise, surprise–nothing.
…A lot of Chumash and Kumeyaay died of imported diseases in the missions. When they did, the missionaries lamented their deaths, but praised God that they died as Christians, so they could go to heaven. To a lot of contemporary Americans, this sounds like a terrible way to look at it.
But: Would these natives have lived long, peaceful, and prosperous lives had they never met a Franciscan friar? Most likely not. The tribes had plenty of diseases of their own, and enemy tribes ready and willing to kill them brutally.
That said: Would they have died as young as they did, from European diseases, had they never met the Franciscans? Probably not.
Meanwhile: Do we 21st-century Christians believe that only Jesus Christ has opened the gates of heaven, just like the 18th-century Franciscans believed? Yes, we do. That’s exactly what we believe. And do we prize eternal life above this short pilgrimage below? Certainly.
…Lots of complexities, my dear ones. Don’t look at me for “the answer.”
Saint Junipero, pray for us.