While the controversy that had brewed earlier in the year has quieted down, there has already been a renewal of some of the disagreement in reaction to the Pope’s forthcoming canonization of Junípero Serra in the United States. The sainting of the eighteenth century missionary on 23rd September at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. is in keeping with what Sylvia Poggioli, National Public Radio correspondent, describes as “an effort to restore the historical balance away from [the] ‘Anglo-centric’ interpretation of U.S. history to the importance of Catholic missions” (npr.org: 16 September, 2015). One might liken this to a rethinking of South Asian history that takes into consideration the colonial influence on the subcontinent by not only the British, but also the Portuguese. Similarly, the defining of the United States as a once British colony, heavily inclined towards Protestantism, has caused the Spanish and Catholic past of North America to be relegated to a historical footnote.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that the Church’s first Latin American Pope is to give the United States its first Hispanic saint. This, even as it must be pointed out that the Pope’s ethnic origins are Italian, and that the term ‘Hispanic’ cannot be used interchangeably for ‘Latino’. The former is a term meant to refer to those of Spanish heritage, and is often erroneously deployed to label those of Latin American origins. What should be gleaned from this is that even as Serra’s canonization recalls the non-British past of the colonization of the United States, it continues to highlight the European figures of that past. Given the many radical changes the Pope has wrought in modernizing the Church, dramatically changing public perceptions of the institution, Serra is a peculiar choice for canonization.
Serra, a Franciscan friar, came from Spain to California to evangelize, founding its first missions in the eighteenth century. Writing for the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), Jamie Manson notes that Serra “is credited by the Catholic church for proselytizing and baptizing the indigenous people”, but that “[his] story is laced with disturbing details…” (ncronline.org: 16 September, 2015). It is not Serra’s holiness – a prerequisite for sainthood – that Manson questions. Rather, in quoting the views of Elias Castillo, author of the book Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions (2015), as well as Valentin Lopez, Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians, Manson states that “Serra was a religious zealot whose primary purpose was to save the souls of the indigenous, whom he saw as savages in desperate need of salvation…” Also writing for NCR, Vinnie Rotondaro chronicles how Native American objectors to Serra’s canonization “point to the rampant death that occurred inside the missions – where thousands perished, crammed into poor living quarters with disease running wild – and say that Serra was so blinded by his belief in his faith and his people’s superiority that he focused more on baptizing Indians than tending to their suffering” (15 September, 2015).
For Goans, it would be rather easy to see the parallels between Serra and fellow-Spaniard St. Francis Xavier. Yet, it would be a false equivalence to liken the conversion of Goans to the plight of indigenous Americans. The throngs at last year’s Exposition indicate the continuing relevance of Xavier to Goan Catholics. Certainly, like Serra, Xavier is remembered by history as having been involved in the subjugation of the indigenous through the nexus between Church and state. It is not their personal piety that is in doubt here, but their unwitting sponsorship of persecution. However, evolving scholarship must also be accounted for when it comes to Goa’s Iberian past, and especially in the context of the Inquisition. Yes, Xavier was responsible for its initiation, but whether it was as repressive as common lore has made it out to be is the subject of contemporary debate. Further, conversion to Catholicism in South Asia was not without some degree of choice. For those that chose to escape the yoke of the caste system, conversion was an expression of agency rather than external force.
As he did on his visit to Bolivia earlier this year, the Pope is expected to apologize for the part played by the Church in the oppression of indigenous peoples in North America. But this apology is going to be a tone-deaf one in that Serra’s canonization is an institutional choice rather than a popular one. That Goans, Catholic and otherwise, still revere Xavier, for example, underscores how so many centuries later he has come to represent an icon who was adopted by a people. The same is not true of Serra.
From The Goan.