The evangelization of the New World by the missionary friars, both Dominicans and Franciscans

There have been sharp critics of Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Fra Junípero Serra when he comes to Washington in September. Here, a leading layman who works in the Holy See explains why the critics are wrong

By Guzman Carriquiry Lecour

The great Mexican, Latin American, American and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Octavio Paz, once described his personal life journey in the following way: “In trying to respond to the question about Mexico I realized, along the way, that to be Mexican was to be a Latin American and a neighbor of the United States. In my reflection on the history of Mexico I realized that it is part of the history of Latin America; it is therefore incomprehensible apart from the history of Spain and Portugal, and yet it is also incomprehensible apart from the history of the United States. So the question of Mexico opened for me the doors of world history.”


A monument to Serra in Plaza de San Francisco de Asis (St. Francis of Assisi) in Havana, Cuba — where Pope Francis will visit before his trip to the USA.

However, we can give a more realistic and broader horizon to this exciting journey. We are sons and daughters of the apostolic tradition, the universal tradition of the Church, thanks to the epic missionary activity of Spanish Christianity. This tradition was acculturated in sometimes dramatic conditions and among varied peoples and races, from which sprang new peoples whose history and culture would be forever marked by the Catholic faith.

Just when Christianity in Europe was suffering through the great schism of the Protestant Reformation, the Providence of God provided, at the same time, the first wave of globalization, which brought about the growth of the Catholic world and integrated the Indian-Spanish-American New World. The embrace and sign of unity of this was the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Immaculate Woman of mixed blood who made visible the common origin, vocation, dignity, heritage and destiny of every person and all peoples.

As time went on, the schism within Christianity in Europe spread to the American continent between the Anglo-Puritan world of the north and the popular Baroque Catholic piety of the south. However, the common roots continued to generate a healthy vitality.

Blessed Junípero Serra is to be considered a great witness to that flow of missionary saints who were the pillars of the founding of Ecclesia in America. From the periphery of Spain he went as far as the New World, from the Yucatán in the south of Mexico to San Francisco. The memory of this tireless preacher of the Gospel is kept very much alive in his native island of Mallorca as well as in many regions of Mexico, but his memory also lives on along the “Rosary of Missions” and the “El Camino Real” as the “Apostle of California.” The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of St. John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, allows us, in retrospect, to include Junípero Serra among those evangelizers who reveal the common roots on the American continent.

A Surprising Synodal Event

St. John Paul II’s prophetic vision in 1992 in convening the Synodal Assembly for America was very surprising. This initiative was announced by the Pope in his opening discourse at the Fourth General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate in Santo Domingo on October 12, 1992. It was an announcement that was unprecedented, unexpected and, to some extent, extraordinary. It anticipated a series of continental synods which — two years later — Pope John Paul II proposed in his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (November 10, 1994, n. 21). The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation that resulted from this gathering, Ecclesia in America, exhorted the churches of the entire American continent to greater communion and missionary collaboration in order to achieve greater solidarity among the people.

Certainly St. John Paul II foresaw that in this age of globalization all borders were becoming closer and more open. It is significant that the Holy Father would launch this initiative shortly after the collapse of the wall of contention in the East-West dialectic at the end of the historic bipolar Yalta period. It has been well-noted that St. John Paul II possessed a geopolitical vision that was both spiritual and missionary. In the Pope’s mind, other walls would have to come down, especially those that separated north from south, the world of hyper-development and opulence from that of dependence and poverty, in order to achieve a globalization based on solidarity.

junipero serra mass monterey harbor

An artist’s depiction of a Junípero Serra Mass in the harbor of Monterey, California, with Spanish soldiers and native Americans attending.

In his view, the American continent seemed to be the decisive place to confront this larger issue, because it is a continent where, on the one hand, there exist concrete situations of very unequal development and huge disparities of power and, on the other hand, where more than half of the world’s Catholics live. St. John Paul said it clearly in his opening address: “On the threshold of the third Christian millennium and at a time when many walls and ideological barriers have fallen, the Church feels absolutely duty-bound to bring into still deeper spiritual union the peoples who make up this great continent and also, prompted by the religious mission which is proper to the Church, to stir among these peoples a spirit of solidarity.” He would later give the Synod for America a special connotation by referring to issues of justice and of international economic relations among the nations of America” (n. 2).

In order to bring about the collapse of that wall, two things had to happen. On the one hand, the ignorance and indifference between the interested parties would have to be overcome; and, on the other, everyone would have to admit to and courageously take responsibility for historical conflicts.

Common Roots of the Christian Faith on the American Continent

We do not know if St. John Paul II had in mind the common roots — roots illustrated clearly by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez in a recent presentation — when he had the prophetic intuition to convene the Synod Assembly for America. His deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and his subsequent trips to Mexico, in any case, were signs that he had a remarkable understanding that the apparition at Guadalupe was a foundational event of the American New World.

In fact, the apostolic mandate to evangelize all nations in every corner of the earth took an historic leap forward with European expansion into America. Catholic reform in Spain, which took place before Protestant reform in Europe, unleashed an impressive missionary energy that was focused on the New World. The neo-scholastic revival at the University of Salamanca, where the thought of Francisco de Vittoria confronted new questions raised by the colonization and evangelization of the New World, the reform of the episcopate and the clergy of Spain undertaken by Cardinal Cisneros and supported by the Catholic kings, the reform of the observance of the mendicant orders, the reform of the Carmel of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross and then the foundation of the Company of Jesus by the Basque St. Ignatius of Loyola, nourished and invigorated these missionary energies ad gentes.

Soon after the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe — the mother of mixed blood who brought her Son to new peoples — millions of indigenous persons were baptized in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) and missionary initiatives brought the Gospel of Christ to the north, center and south of the continent.

This first wave of evangelization went through a stabilizing period in the 17th century, but from the end of that century into the 18th century there was also a time of strong renewal, thanks to the missions of the Society of Jesus — whose extraordinary indigenous reductions of South America are well known but whose work in California much less so — and then to a new springtime of the Franciscan missions. Indeed, the arrival of the exiled Jesuits to California — after the unjust expulsion of the Jesuits from all the regions of the Spanish Empire — coincided with the arrival of the 12 Franciscans, led by Junípero Serra, who would become the principal evangelizers of the vast area north of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Of the 70,000 natives living in California, around 7,000 of them went to live in the Franciscan missions. They were catechized and baptized, as well as instructed in agriculture and farming, in trade and in various crafts.

Blessed Junípero Serra always defended the dignity of the Indians and, as a result, had trouble with all of the Spanish military commanders of the region.

He also learned to speak “Pame,” the language of the Indians.

Unlike in the 13 colonies of the Atlantic Coast and their expansions — where there was a popular saying that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” — in the Franciscan missions the Indians were called “sons and daughters” and treated as such, and their language and their best cultural traditions were respected.

To treat Blessed Junípero Serra as a genocidal and “racist criminal,” not unlike Hitler, is a ridiculous and foolish assertion and a cruel calumny put forth by people who are either ignorant or who are ideologues. They ignore the historical reality that is backed up by solid research and the most serious publications on the life and work of Blessed Junípero Serra.

Under the guise of defending the Indians, these unfounded accusations only serve to hide the real history of their marginalization and miserable poverty. The elimination of all the Religious Orders by the Mexican government in 1822 meant the gradual destruction of the missions and grave harm to the Indians.

However, the coup de grâce was the conquest of the West during the Gold Rush, when they were brutally relocated to unfertile land, marginalized and despised. Then there was the first government of the dawning State of California, which cruelly persecuted the natives, even to the point of decimating them. Those who survived faced the sad destiny of being exiled to the “reservations.”

A Story Rarely Told and Little Known

The missionary and colonizing work of Blessed Junípero Serra took place at the same time as the unification of the 13 colonies of the Atlantic coast, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America — in the 1770s and 1780s. However, long before the arrival in 1620 of the pilgrims of the Mayflower and the founding of the 13 colonies, there was a long history of an Hispanic, Catholic and missionary presence, which began with the founding of St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 — still the oldest municipality of the United States.


John Paul II kisses the feet of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe

This presence further spread throughout Florida and Louisiana and then along the Gulf of Mexico into Texas and Santa Fe, all the way to the Pacific coast.

President John F. Kennedy made reference to this in his book Nation of Immigrants, writing about the “misconception” of Americans regarding “the influence, the exploration and Hispanic development experienced by the Southwest of the United States during the 16th century.”

“Unfortunately” — continued the president — “there are too many Americans who believe that America was discovered in 1620 (…) and who forget the great adventure that took place during the 16th and early 17th century in the South and Southwest of the United States.”

To reduce the history of the founding of the United States to the establishment, the growth, the unification and the expansion of the 13 colonies of the Atlantic coast is undoubtedly incomplete but is also, in a certain sense, ideological. It is only a part, certainly a very important part, of a story that deserves to be told in full and in all its aspects. Without a doubt, the anti-Catholic prejudices (in times of religious wars!) and anti-Hispanic prejudices (in times of wars for European and world hegemony!) explain that misunderstanding. Deep-seated prejudices still exist.

It is important to add, however, that President Kennedy did not mention the fact that in the second half of the 18th century there was a flourishing of this Hispanic and missionary presence. There was an intense and extensive process of exploration, the constructions of long roads through a geography covering a huge territory, administrative and economic reorganization, foundations of pueblos, garrisons and ranches, which in reality became part of the missionary efforts of the Franciscans, and the creation of 21 Californian missions, nine of which were founded by Blessed Junípero Serra.

The mythical idea of the frontier United States, based on the influential works of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner and popularized by the “western,” never had a similar counterpart among the Hispanics in the territory of New Mexico. In his 1920 essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, Turner, with an obvious Anglo-centric tendency, proposes the unique idea that the West into which the United States expanded was unspoiled and unpopulated, almost wild: the encounter between “savagery” and civilization. It is an image that must be corrected in order to fit with historical reality. In fact, Hispanics not only discovered and explored almost the entire territory of the United States, but they maintained a continual and prolonged presence, leaving a profound cultural mark in places like California, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, seen in the names of cities and geographic locations as well as in popular architecture, in urbanization, in the transformation of the urban landscape with the introduction of extensive ranching, in language and in Christian tradition.

There is a scene in the classic 1948 film by John Ford, Fort Apache, in which army officers and a representative of the United States government meet with Cochise, the chief of the Apache Nation. The meeting has to be conducted with the help of a Mexican interpreter in the Spanish language, which was the second language of the majority of Indians of the 19th century in what is now the southwestern United States. It was preferred that all this profound influence be buried in the sand, especially after enormous Mexican territories passed over to the dominion of the United States.

The recovery of this Hispanic and Catholic memory encompassing a more complete view of the origin of the United States enriches the history and the modern enterprise of that nation today. It also helps to break down the walls of separation between what is “Anglo” and what is “Hispanic,” between the Protestant tradition and the Catholic one, between the United States and Latin America. It also brings about greater communion between the churches and greater solidarity among the nations of the entire continent, as asked for by the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America. And it allows the 60 million Hispanics who live in the United States to not consider themselves as strangers in this country, barely tolerated and often discriminated against and persecuted, but rather to see themselves as part of a continuous line of the many Hispanics who over the centuries have populated enormous regions of the southwest United States. They can truly say, “We are Americans,” without having to give up their most meaningful cultural and religious traditions. Their situation calls for serious, expansive, reasonable and equitable immigration reform and respect for the rights of immigrants and their families. The great mistake of thinkers like Samuel Huntington is to claim that the North American identity is Anglo-Protestant.

A New Evangelization Among Hispanics

I think the canonization of Blessed Junípero Serra will make him a venerable saint, not only for Hispanics, but for all North Americans. Nevertheless, for the entire Church in the United States, and in particular for the dioceses of San Diego, Los Angeles, Monterey and San Francisco, the holy witness and missionary example of Blessed Junípero Serra call for a renewed effort to evangelize Hispanics. In fact, several opinion polls show that there is a sharp decrease in the percentage of Catholics among Hispanics in the United States, especially for Hispanics who have recently immigrated. On the one hand, this is due in part to a social and cultural context where what remains of traditional, rural Christianity is up against an American way of life influenced by a consumer and entertainment society, often leading to secularization. On the other hand, immigrants uprooted from their homeland, who are not integrated into the life of the parish, whose customary piety gradually falls away and who are trying hard to be an integral part of a society that marginalizes them, do feel received as “brothers” and “sisters” by welcoming evangelical communities.


1882, identification of the remains of Junípero Serra and the other Franciscan friars at Mission San Carlos Borromeo

The Catholic Church in the United States must become more deeply aware that within about 5 years the Hispanic population will make up half of the Catholic population in the country. With this the entire future of Catholicism in North American is at stake. The missionary effort of Blessed Junípero Serra reminds us of the serious responsibility the entire Catholic Church in the United States has in working with new ardor, new methods and new expressions to respect the Catholic tradition among Hispanics, to welcome them into the fabric of local communities, to respect and cultivate their popular piety, to enhance catechetical and liturgical growth of their faith, to provide education in marriage and family life, to promote priestly and religious vocations; that is, to assist them effectively in all their material and spiritual needs. This task will rely on the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe and also of Blessed Junípero.

In the Communion of Saints

Blessed Junípero Serra will soon enrich the crown of saints of the United States. St. Isaac Jogues, S.J., St. Theodore Guérin, S.P., and St. Rose-Philipine Duchesne, R.S.C., were of French origin; St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, M.S.C., of ​​Italian descent; St. John Neumann, C.S.S.R., a native of Bohemia; St. Damián of Veuster of Molokai, born in Belgium; St. Marianne Cope, O.S.F., of German origin; St. Kateri Tekakwitha, of Mohawk-Algonquin origin; while St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, S.C., and St. Katharine Drexel, S.B.S., have a long ancestry in the United States.

Now there will be an Hispanic saint. Can we not see this crown of saints as the expression, both of the waves of immigration which have built the country with the virtues and the works of their best men and women, as well as the catholicity of the Church?

St. John Paul II expressed this well during his apostolic journey to Los Angeles in 1987, and I would say his words apply to the whole country.

“Today,” he said, “in the Church in Los Angeles, Christ is Anglo and Hispanic, Christ is Chinese and Black, Christ is Vietnamese and Irish, Christ is Korean and Italian, Christ is Japanese and Filipino, Christ is Native American, Croatian, Samoan, and many other ethnic groups.

“In this local Church, the one Risen Christ, the one Lord and Savior, is living in each person who has accepted the word of God and been washed clean in the saving waters of baptism.

“And the Church, with all her different members, remains the one Body of Christ, professing the same faith, united in hope and in love.”

Is this not perhaps the providential character that makes America unique?

In this Catholic story appears already, as a present reality and as a promise to be fulfilled, the foundational motto of the United States itself: “E pluribus unum.”

It is said that the Catholic Church in the United States is “a global microcosm” representing the great heterogeneity of the different parts of the entire world and the country itself inasmuch as it was formed by various waves of immigration, citizens of the same democracy and global power.

At the same time it is the bearer of a place of unity, of an impetus of catholicity, of a force of salvation on which relies the future of the nation and its global enterprise.


Facebook Comments