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The Emerging Truth about Junipero Serra and the California Missions

Matthew Fox Reviews A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, by Elias Castillo The saga of unholy injustice detailed in A Cross of Thorns left me feeling kicked in the gut, with my sense of moral outrage boiling over. Yet it is presented in subdued and sober terms, with fact after fact and story after story, building a sure case against the canonizing of Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra. The author, Elias Castillo, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, tells the truth of the fabled and now postcard-like missions of California, a truth that has often been hidden away in libraries containing correspondence and comments from the days of the mission founding while a myth of benign relationships with the Native Peoples has been promulgated instead.

In this book Father Junipero Sera, called by some the “Father of California,” is exposed in damning detail as the father of a system, the mission system, that systematically destroyed the culture of the indigenous peoples of California that had lived at peace with the earth and more or less at peace with themselves over millennia until the Spanish arrived. With Castillo’s new research in hand, it makes all the more scandalous the current effort, supported by two Opus Dei archbishops and the Knights of Columbus, to canonize this sadistic person who is a poster boy for colonization and for racism. Why, Why, Why is Pope Francis going ahead with this canonization? Who profits from it?

There are those who say, “Don’t judge an eighteenth-century person by twenty-first century standards.” Well, when that person is being proposed by the Pope himself as a saint and therefore a model for twenty-first century people to emulate, why wouldn’t we have the right to judge? For example, should we be imitating Serra’s penchant for beating and scourging himself both in private and in the pulpit as a glorious spiritual exercise? In his own day in fact, one member of his congregation in Mexico was so turned on by Serra’s self-flagellations that when Serra bared his chest and beat himself in the pulpit the parishioner stormed the lectern and seized the chains out of the zealous friar’s hands and thrashed himself so hard declaring “I am a sinner” that he died on the spot! Now there is a saint to be imitated, right?

Furthermore, as is clear from the author’s impeccable research, Serra was out of the loop even in his own time. For example, he preaches that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun moves around the earth—150 years after Copernicus proved otherwise! In addition, Europeans who visited his missions complained in his time that they were shocked by the treatment of the Indians.   Even fellow Franciscans of his time were embarrassed and ashamed of what he was doing. Also, the governor generals contemporary with his time complained of his death camps otherwise known as “missions” and often overrode his decisions. Decades after the governor forbade beating Indians Serra was still insisting on it in his missions.

The whitewash on Serra has been going on long enough. The facts are now out there including interviews with descendants of those who were colonized by him. Where are the Franciscans who are standing up to be heard today about this monstrous effort to canonize a Colonizer and a man who himself whipped, and ordered whipped, thousands of Indians, and whose entire theology was about getting people to heaven no matter what the cost? Surely these sons of Saint Francis have a stake in seeking an apology from the Native Peoples and letting Serra lie in his grave, don’t they? Surely they don’t want to support a lie about Serra’s holiness – do they?

Thanks be to God, our age is waking up to the evils of racism. The confederate flag is at last being removed from Southern statehouses and government buildings, after the massacre of nine people in a black church by a 21-year-old assassin whose web pages and costumes celebrated that flag. America is agreeing that the confederate flag is a symbol of all that is evil in our national history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism in its many incarnations right up to 2015.

But the missions are the same to Native Americans of California. They are symbols of slavery and of racism just as is the confederate flag. Castillo establishes this without a doubt:

  • The thousands of Indians who were herded into the missions did not come voluntarily but were treated as slaves insofar as they were paid nothing;
  • They were free labor for decades in the building up of the missions and their lands and vineyards and cattle raising;
  • They were not allowed to return to their villages (if they tried to they were whipped and often tortured, some locked into braces in the hot sun and left without water for days);
  • They were cut off from their religion and culture and families;
  • They were forced to attend daily mass even though it was in Latin of which they understood not a word and were to kneel for up to four hours during the Mass;
  • The men were separated from the women;
  • They were often starved and close to starving, etc., etc.

Far from the mythology still reigning, the Indians and Catholics did not get along well. Why else would over 1000 neophytes try to escape from fifteen missions between 1769 and 1817—especially knowing that if caught severe penalties ensued? The author lists the numbers from each mission in compiling these statistics. In 1832 the Mexican assembly called for an end to what it called back then “the detestable system of the missions” and so many Indians fled from the missions that the “neophytes” or baptized Christians plunged in number from 30,000 to 5,000 between 1834 and 1843. This does not sound like happy campers wanting to stick around. The fact that the missions were labeled “detestable” in 1832 silences those today who say piously, “but we can’t judge the missions by twenty-first century standards.”

Castillo devotes one chapter to “Rebellion” since many Native people rose up and resisted their own enslavement. After one such rebellion at the San Diego mission the military commander asked the conquered rebel Indians why they rose up. The answer was recorded thus: “They wanted to kill the fathers and soldiers in order to live as they did before.” On receiving news of the uprising and the number of persons killed Serra responded: “Thank God that that ground has now been watered (with blood): Now, certainly we will achieve the conversion of the Dieguenos.” Strange talk indeed for a saint! (173)

The coastal Indian numbers were estimated at 300,000 when the Spanish arrived in 1769; they were 16,624 in 120 years later. (p. 200) Is that not genocide? While some of that happened after the gold rush in 1849, it began with the mission system that Serra founded. The missions, like the monasteries of the late middle ages (which St Francis had reacted against in starting his order), became vast properties where tens of thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and goats made the friars rich beyond measure. Yet, “there is no full accounting of the wealth amassed by the missions during their peak period, from the end of the eighteenth century through the early 1800s.” (194)

In August, 1833 the Mexican government secularized the missions and all their lands, making them the property of the Mexican government and stripping the Franciscans of their authority over them, though allowing the chapels to continue as places for Mass. At San Gabriel the leading friar “flew into a rage” and ordered the destruction of all the buildings and livestock with the result that tens of thousands of carcasses of cattle, sheep and goats littered the field. While he tried to destroy the vineyards as well, the Indians assigned to do it refused.

So decimated was the population of the Indians in the missions that the head Friar from 1815-1819, Mariano Payeras, wrote that history will record that the priests “baptized them, administered the sacraments to them, and buried them” and he worried about how to shelter the friars “from slander and sarcasm…for all time.” (154)   The diet forced on the mission Indians resulted in stunted and much smaller bodies as is indicted by comparing human bones at mission Indian burial sites to those not so enslaved. (155) It seems that most of the concern of the Franciscan superiors was not about the plight of the Indians but about the depletion in free labor for the missions and what history would say about the Franciscans. Well, with this book, history has indeed spoken. And it is not pretty.

For any Franciscan today to stand by idly while the pope canonizes Serra is at least as immoral an act as was the work of their sadistic forefathers. Survivors of the missions were interviewed in the late nineteenth century and “all agreed that the friars and mission life was cruel and oppressive.” (151) On July 21, 1797, a group of Indians who escaped were interviewed by the military commander who captured them on why they escaped. Here are some of their testimonies as recorded by the commander:

  • After his wife and daughter died, on five separate occasions Father Danti ordered him whipped because he was crying. For these reasons he fled.
  • He fled because his wife and one child had died, no other reason that that.
  • His motive for fleeing was that his brother had died on the other shore, and when he cried for him at the mission they whipped him.
  • He left because his mother, two brothers and three nephews died all of hunger. So that he would not also die of hunger, he fled. (152f)

This does not strike me as twenty-first century values foisted onto eighteenth-century reality. In fact, visitors to the missions in their own time were shocked by what they saw—even Friar Antonio de la Conception Horra who was assigned to head Mission Sanguel in 1798 was shocked and complained that the missions failed to teach the Indians the Spanish language. He wrote the Viceroy of Mexico: “The manner in which the Indians are treated is by far more cruel than anything I have ever read about. For any reason however insignificant it may be, they are severely and cruelly whipped, placed in shackles, or put in stocks for days on end without receiving even a drop of water.” (141) Another friar in 1797 reported why Indians were fleeing the Mission San Francisco. “It is due to the terrible suffering they experienced from punishments and work,” he wrote the governor. An investigating presidio commander wrote: “Generally the treatment given the Indians is very harsh. At San Francisco, it even reached the point of cruelty.” (142)

Diseases, starvation, filthy and crowded living conditions, cruelty and torture--but also depression killed the mission Indians. “Some may have simply willed themselves to die, unable to stand the terrible stress….Nearly half of the missions populations died each year” and to make up for such losses the friars hunted further and further to find tribes from which they could seek a new and free labor force for their plantations. (139) As Castillo puts it: “Much of California including land that was far from the coast, would be turned into a huge and profitable farming area—the legacy of the missions, albeit at a tragic cost to California’s Indians….Newly-arrived settlers were faced with twenty-one missions that were in actuality giant agribusinesses that controlled the best lands with a large pool of free manpower.” (131)

French Naval Captain Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de Laperouse, sailed into Monterey Bay on September 14, 1786. He was the first outsider to visit the missions, arriving seventeen years after the first founding. He was “appalled at the treatment of the Indians by the Franciscan friars.” And he makes explicit the slave-like conditions of the Indians “whose state at present scarcely differs from that of the Negro inhabitants of our colonies.” (110) In addition “The color of these Indians, which is that of the negroes; the house of the Missionaries…the cattle, the horses—everything in short—brought to our recollection a plantation at Santo Domingo or any other West Indian island”-- in addition to “the noise of the whip.” (109f) The alcaldes or neophytes the friars choose to carry out the priests' commands, he notes, “are like the overseers of a slave plantation: passive beings, blind performers of the will of their superiors (friars)” whose main job is to “maintain order and the appearance of attention” during church services. (112) They also beat any Indian, no matter what age or sex, who violated mission rules. The floggings ranged from ten lashes up to fifty which could prove fatal. Women were not whipped in public but were taken away to be whipped so their cries would not arouse the men to rebellion. (113) When Indians killed a priest who was especially cruel in his whipping they were caught and sentenced to fifty daily lashes each for nine days and to life sentences of hard labor. (114)

Serra established nine missions before he died and the Indians “were little more than forced labor. This permitted the missions to thrive economically, and allowed the friars to profit personally for the sale of tallow, hides, horns, wine and brandy” which they sold to foreign merchant ships. “For the Indians it signified the beginning of brutal suffering and cultural genocide. Most died within two years, with their faith, customs, and way of life torn from them.” (98)

The Spanish Visitor General wrote to Serra’s close friend Friar Palou that they should “not teach the Indians how to write; for I have enough experiences that such major instruction perverts and hastens their ruination.” (129) This too followed the methods of the slavery plantations where reading and writing were forbidden. Castillo comments that this policy endorsed by Serra “proved catastrophic for the Indians when they began abandoning the missions in the 1830s.” (129)   One Scottish visitor, Hugo Reid, was so appalled at the widespread ignorance of Spanish among the mission Indians that he remarked: “Not one word of Spanish did they understand. They had no more idea that they were worshiping God than an unborn child has of astronomy.” (128)

We thus see that “Saint” Serra set up a sado-masochistic series of death camps, perhaps echoing his own masochistic spirituality. He was anti-intellectual, anti-science, ignorant of Indian culture and history and languages, paternalistic, racist, a white supremacist. In addition, Serra was an inquisitor before he ever came to the California area having been employed as an inquisitor in the mountain villages of Mexico on his own urging.

Nothing explains Pope Francis’ willingness to canonize Serra. In his recent encyclical the Pope laments how “the disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal….It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions…When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best,” (145, 146) He calls for a “preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.” (158) Then why, pray tell, is he so hell-bent on canonizing Junipero Serra and crucifying the Natives of California still another time? Why doesn’t he sit down with the Indians whom he calls one’s “principal dialogue partners” and learn the real history of the California missions and the price the Native Americans are paying this day in terms of soul wounds and depression, alcoholism and addictions for what the sins of the fathers foisted upon them 200 years ago by Serra and his brother friars?

And why doesn’t he apologize in full for the “Discovery Doctrine” papal bulls of the fifteenth century popes who laid the legal groundwork for the slavery and mission attacks on the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas? In the “Requerimiento” document of 1513, derived from those papal bulls and read to indigenous people under the Spanish Empire (but in Spanish which they did not understand), all are instructed that the Pope is appointed by God to “govern the world” and that Saint Peter was acknowledged in his time as “Lord and King, and the superior of the universe” who was appointed to be “in charge of the human race” and that such recognition “will continue until the end of the world.” (215)

Elias Castillo offers us a different reading of history and Spanish imperialism and the religious sins that accompanied it. Sins that haunt the souls of Native Peoples to this day—and sins that ought to cry out to us all for healing. How can the healing happen without the truth? How can anyone even think of canonizing Serra after these revelations?


Posting 95 Theses at Cardinal Law's Basilica

Just before we started the event I asked my 30 year old woman translator if she was scared.  “No,” she said. “Even though we don’t know what is going to happen, I am looking forward to it.  It is important that we do this and what happens will happen.”  Courage!  Always a sign of the spirit. The action at Cardinal Law’s basilica was memorable for many reasons: the crowd that gathered (it was announced beforehand in the paper), their questions; their passion in taking on the policemen especially around the right to hang the theses on a gate; the beauty of the morning with sun shining from an all-blue sky; the length of time we stayed there—about 80 minutes (much larger gathering than Wittenberg);  the Vatican plainclothes police with dark sun glasses staring at me the whole time; and above all the strategy and courage of the young people who created the excellent poster which looked like a medieval Manuscript in a large type that yet was practical and easy to read; their flexibility in adapting to the policemen’s tactics, for example they smartly engaged the moment and the Vatican plain clothed police when the crowd had dispersed.  I was away from this engagement but saw dramatic interaction from where I was.  I so look forward to seeing their film.  I especially wonder if Stephano the filmer got the attack by the Vatican thugs of the second film maker on film?

How right Barbara was about 1) Vatican police dictating orders to Roman police and 2) the thugs that are policing the Vatican these days. Just as I learned after my Wittenberg action how much darker the Vatican was than I had anticipated, so with this Italian, Roman, action, I learned how much darker still were the forces and veritable police state ruling not only Vatican City but, in many respects, Rome itself.  Penny Lernoux’ words are chilling: “Ratzinger is only a front man for the German-Polish mafia,” she said.  Or Barbara’s words: “The Vatican is run by a gang of mafia thugs.”

Our protest was non-violent and remained that way in the face of violence on the part of the Vatican police.  Are Italians forbidden to preach or to listen to a preacher in a public square?  Was the Basilica event an historic moment?  One of empowerment for Italians vis a vis the church?  Consider that Italy never underwent the Protestant Reformation (but only the counter-Reformation of the Council of Trent).

Our videographers and photographers were taking pictures of the police videographers and photographers and vice versa.  It was like a scene from old East Germany.  The Stasi.  That was the feeling emanating from the Vatican police.

Before we began, one of our people went into the church to scout things out.  Many policemen were inside.  He went up to one and said, “I heard there was going to be a demonstration here today,” (or something close to that) and the policeman got very agitated and said: “No there won’t be.  We will see to that.”  So that was our first clue that our demonstration would be outdoors and even outside the fence.  But as it happened, even that distance was not enough to satisfy the Vatican police (who apparently have very broad jurisdiction in Rome itself).  During the course of my presentation and the q and a period of about 80 minutes, the sheet containing the theses were taken down (I took them back at one point from the policeman who took them down), put up again, taken down, held up by some of the participants standing by, etc. etc.  Up-down, Up down, Up-down.

A man who asked some very sophisticated questions about my presentation (he had the air of a lawyer about him and was of mature age), ended up in a shouting match with the policeman who was literally receiving phone calls from higher ups on his ear phone telling him what to do.  From the pained look on his face I had the distinct impression that he wished he was elsewhere—like rescuing a cat stranded in a tree or even a spouse form domestic abuse or handing out traffic violations—just anywhere other than in a church courtyard on a Sunday morning being dictated to by plainclothes police with their phones in their ear and hearing a presenter calling for a religious reformation (or revolution?).  The shouting match between the police and this “lawyer” person was about 1) who owned the property we stood on and 2) Who owned the fence demarcating this property from the church steps and on which we hung the theses.  The “lawyer” said in an angry voice to the policeman, “my taxes paid for this sidewalk and fence so keep your hands off the preacher’s theses.”  There was considerable back and forth.

Meanwhile, “radio radicale” was there the entire time with a microphone in my and the translator’s face and with a number of questions posed as soon as I finished my presentation.  My presentation followed my 4 points I laid out in my “New Reformation” book—how our day paralleled Luther’s day in four respects: 1) invention of printing press/invention of electronic media 2) politics as rise of nationalism/politics as globalization and sparks of democracy 3) rise of humanist scholarship of which Luther was a part/rise of scientific and theological scholarship of our time and 4) corruption in the highest places of the church/corruption in the highest places of the church including Cardinal Law overseeing this particular cathedral, he who passed one priest from parish to parish who abused 150 boys and who now sits on a commission in the Vatican appointing bishops around the world!  A woman professor told me she took a 3 hours train ride to be present for the event.  She taught anthropology and religion and invited me to come to her university to lecture—they would pay for my trip to Italy she said.

Before we began, one man came up to me who was about 44 years old and said: “I no longer call myself a Catholic but simply a Christian.”

All the while the young members of our team were alert and smiling and doing their assigned tasks whether taking video, guarding the theses, mixing with the group, translating, photographing the cops, hanging around me for protection.  (They had arranged all that beforehand among themselves with no coaching from me.)  They did it with smiles on their faces. They gathered with the plainclothes Vatican cops when the event had finished and argued vociferously about their demands to see their papers and my documents as well.  “We have done no crime so you have no right to demand our papers,” they declared.  But maybe they had committed a crime.  The crime of inviting people on church soil to think.

Their final act was to keep the thug Vatican cops demanding my papers engaged while one of their group quietly slipped away, came rapidly up to me and said “walk away fast” to the taxi stand at the side of the church.  Drama.  A day of drama.  Working with the young people was marvelous.  They were alert, flexible, prepared, strong, smiling, committed, competent, brave.  Intergenerational wisdom indeed!  Intergenerational courage also.

A number of people requested copies of the theses to read and study.  We told them that they would be posted in the Italian version on the Fazi web page.  Among phrases I heard from thoughtful Italians in conversation during my visit: “The church is dead.”  “We are a culture today with no new ideas. Old people are running things in a very old way.”  “Unemployment among the young is at 24%.  Many are being supported by their grandparents and parents even after college graduation sincere there are no jobs to be had.”  “A growing tension between the young and old.”  “Old money is running everything. “ People are scared with the bad economy.  The women’s movement is very weak.  “We are a conservative country.  Even liberal minded people have trouble imagining women priests.”  You can get a college degree for just $2000 per year but there are no jobs after school.  “The one thing Italy gives the world consistently is…Beauty.  That is our only gift to the world.”

I ask myself: Why are the Italians seemingly so keen on my work at this time?  One reason is the timing.  There is a lot of anger among Catholics and it is clear that first a Polish papacy and then a German papacy have not always sat well with Italians.  Another is that there is no love lost for Ratzinger himself.  In my time there and even near St Peter’s I did not see one poster for sale of Pope Ratzinger.  Another is that Aquinas with his non-dualistic philosophy is SO Italian in spirit in so many ways and the Augustinian mind-sets of the two recent popes is not at all of the Aquinas mind-set.  Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves that the Protestant Reformation did not penetrate Italy; it affected it by way of the counter-reformation but that did not question the powers of the papacy.  My 95 theses do put deeper questions.  Is calling for a Reformation in the church today rousing a sleeping giant in Italy?  The Italian capacity for real spirituality in the creation spiritual tradition is vast.  Is the Roman Catholic church, together with the media, not perfectly set up for non-violent resistance? For church-step sit ins?  For filling the jails?  For exposing the darkness of the Vatican and its ways at this time in history?

All in all, it was a most amazing trip—perhaps the most amazing gig in my life.  The people I met from the publishing house, Vito and our public dialog at the amazing conference of writers, his passion and radical critical mind, the many serious and passionate and intellectually-solid interviews on radio, in magazines and newspapers, and the amazing TV program.  The filming and event at Law’s Basilica.  Much to remember and to build on.

The abuse at the hands of church has been going on for so many centuries—buttressed by an ideology of suffering and penance and sin, that I had no idea what Romans have suffered at in the hands of the Roman Catholic church.  This is one reason a number of commentators called “original blessing” a “Copernican revolution” for a religion based on punitive images of God and a consciousness of sin. A difficult thing to do, to change it. I recall a Native American woman who was also a Catholic returning from a ceremony at the Vatican to beatify Blessed Tekawitha: “There are evil spirits in that place, (i.e. the Vatican)” she recalled.

I think most Catholics today—Italy, Ireland, United States, Latin America and parts in between—are in a complete state of disgust.  This morning’s Boston Globe quotes some Catholics in Ireland.  One says: “When we were growing up, you believed in the church more so than you believed in God….Now the whole thing is transformed.  You believe in God but you don’t believe in the church.”  And a priest, Fr. Tony Cullen, says: “I’d like to see the clerical church die, and the proper church emerge, the church of the people.”  What to do?  How create new structures?  Stay and fight?  Abandon it altogether?  Fight from the outside?  All of the above?  One thing is certain: The clerical church is dying.