ROME — The canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra honors a famous missionary who was motivated by love of God, but it also is a call to recognize how the process of evangelization must respect peoples and their cultures, said the head of the Franciscan order.
Fr. Michael Perry, minister general of the Order of Friars Minor, will be present in Washington, D.C., Sept. 23 when Pope Francis canonizes Blessed Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan missionary who founded the string of famous California missions.
The pope’s decision to canonize Blessed Serra has provoked some controversy, mainly because of the impact of the missions on native peoples and cultures and because of claims that Fr. Serra used corporal punishment on the Indians who lived at the missions.
In an interview with Catholic News Service July 31, Fr. Perry said, “When I first got word about the canonization, I had to stop and sit back for a moment.”
Fr. Serra’s missionary activity, he said, may have had “unintended consequences” and may have used methods contrary to the “sensibilities of people today,” Fr. Perry said. “I think we need to make sure this canonization is not simply a chance to validate maybe some bad things that happened, but to challenge us always to enter into a process of reform, of conversion and of authentic dialogue with cultures, with peoples everywhere.”
The canonization will be a blessing, he said, if Catholics “take a step back, take a deep breath and recognize that in history, at times, mistakes have been made. We’re human beings.”
Fr. Perry said he does not know for certain how Pope Francis learned of Fr. Serra, who was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1988. However, he said, the California missionary is a key part of California history as well as of the mission history of the Americas.
In November 2013, Fr. Perry wrote a letter to the “Franciscan family” marking the 300th anniversary of Fr. Serra’s birth, and it may have found its way to the pope, he said. “But I think the pope already had something in mind.”
Flying back to the Vatican from the Philippines in January, Pope Francis “caught us off guard – in a good way” – with his announcement he would canonize Blessed Serra in September during his visit to the United States, Fr. Perry said. The order had to scramble, he said, to collect and prepare the necessary paperwork.
The Catholic Church is recognizing Blessed Serra as a saint and holy man, the Franciscan superior said. “This man was in love with God” and “was convinced he had a missionary vocation to go and share what he himself had received – the mercy of God, the forgiveness he received in his own life and the joy of the Gospel that he experienced, the joy of being a Franciscan.”
Blessed Serra, Fr. Perry said, “was a man of his time” and understood mission the way almost everyone in the church understood it in the 18th century and, in fact, basically until the Second Vatican Council.
“The missionary ideal of church was that salvation outside the church did not exist,” Fr. Perry said, the missionaries “felt this compulsion: They needed to share the good news, they needed to invite people to embrace the Gospel and become members of the visible church because this was the theology of the church at the time.”
In addition, he said, being a missionary in the 18th century usually meant working with or under a colonial government, like the Spanish colonial government in California.
“What I think we have to learn from this canonization is that the church follows the cross of Jesus Christ; the state has its own flag, but the church does not follow the flag; the church follows the cross,” Fr. Perry said.
The Franciscan leader said Blessed Serra’s letters make it clear that while he cooperated with the Spanish colonial authorities, he was “very concerned about the plight of the people he evangelized,” especially at the hands of the colonial forces.
“There were a number of instances where Serra himself stood up to defend the rights of the indigenous peoples,” Fr. Perry said.
Blessed Serra’s letters and documents about his work highlight the missionaries’ priority of preaching the Gospel, he said, but they also emphasize three goals the 18th-century Franciscans had in mind in running the mission communities where the native peoples lived.
First, he said, through education and practical training, the missionaries wanted to give the native people the skills they believed were necessary for “a dignified life.” As part of the colonial structure, they also were charged with training the people “to become taxpaying, cooperative citizens” of the Spanish crown.
A third goal was to ensure the indigenous people could “continue to dream and imagine who they were from their own culture, from their own experience,” Fr. Perry said. “I think this was an area that was probably more difficult for the friars.”
Still, he said, the fact that Blessed Serra and his companions learned the native languages was a sign of respect that demonstrates the missionaries’ desire to go out to the people, to meet them and understand them.
Although he was a famous professor and preacher in his native Mallorca and again in Mexico City, Blessed Serra felt driven to leave that life behind and set out for the missions, the Franciscan superior said.
He told his companions that he would no longer be known as a “maestro” of philosophy or even as “reverend,” but simply as “Br. Junipero,” Fr. Perry said.
“Junipero himself was trying to seek a way of humility,” he said. “He was trying to re-identify, reclaim in a sense one of the greatest qualities of Franciscan tradition for mission: to go humbly, to go simply, to not go with titles.”