Holiness in Photographic Negative: The Life of Blessed Junipero Serra

The 24th of November this year will afford a significant opportunity for North Americans to reflect upon their common past: the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Bl. Junipero Serra. In commemoration of the founder of the California missions, the Huntington Library has assembled an exhibition devoted to his life and work, co-curated by an historian whose new biography of Father Serra has also just been published. Steven W. Hackel’s Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father is a monument almost as astonishing as the life of the saint it reports, but what amazes is its author’s incomprehension of his subject. A true image of the great missionary indeed it is, but it is an image cast in photographic negative.

The reader of Hackel’s book would do well to keep certain essential facts in mind before beginning. Its subject, christened Miguel Serre on the island of Mallorca, lived out—in the first half of his life—the kind of rags-to-riches story that the wealth of the Church once made possible, if not exactly common. From the dirt poor son of peasants he became, at the age of 30, the prestigious holder of the chair of Sacred Theology at the university in Palma de Mallorca. A comfortable, meaningful life lay ahead: he could reasonably expect to have become rector of the university and perhaps even a bishop. We should recall that the second half of the eighteenth century in Europe was an era liberally provided with wealthy, pampered prelates. With the occasional Talleyrand out in front of the pack, it was not too difficult for a man to combine respectable clerical station with all the soft pleasures afforded by that gracious era.

But this son of St. Francis had no intention of slouching his way to Gehenna. In 1749, he left Europe forever, to spend the next thirty-four years on mission in Mexico and California. The scope of his labors defies the imagination: nine Alta California missions founded under his leadership, well over 6,000 baptisms and over 5,000 confirmations personally celebrated by him, many, many Masses, sermons, and catechetical lessons, the endless labor of building civilization in the wilderness, and much of this work while vexed by a Spanish colonial bureaucracy that did not fully share his aims. Then, of course, there is the most astonishing fact of all, that he traveled some 20,000 miles or more on foot to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Indian tribes of northern Mexico and California.

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How does one go about portraying such a life as anything other than generous and heroic?

To begin, one must minimize the hero’s freedom. Seeking “to restore Junipero Serra both to history and to his full complexity,” Hackel first turns his attention to Serra’s background and upbringing, contending that “religious intolerance” was at the “center of Mallorcan identity,” that on this drought-ridden island the struggling peasants looked to the Church for stability, that he “likely” endured “liberally doled out corporal punishment” from his father, and, finally, chose a “career in the priesthood” amidst what was for many of his contemporaries a life of “filth, disorder, disease, and hunger.”

Then, the decision to go on mission should be adequately contextualized. He was raised in a parish adorned with images of Franciscan missionaries. His religious brothers—the “devoted and often bloodied disciples of St. Francis”—had masochistic tendencies. There was a high value placed on “intellectual conformity” at the university at Palma, and Serra’s own studies show a “devotion to revealed truths [that] trumped creativity and new inquiry at every turn.” There was precedent: he was not the first Franciscan professor to leave Mallorca for the missions of the New World. And finally, there are the mystical visions of Maria de Agreda, instilling in him confidence that the Lord would work the deliverance of the heathen in miraculous ways.

It is a curious case, and one that becomes still more curious when we reach the New World, for here Father Serra’s efforts become—through Hackel’s lens—almost delusional. Like many of his fellow Franciscans in Mexico City, whom Hackel qualifies as “an insular community of ardent and almost desperate believers”—Serra believed that the sinful tendencies of the flesh needed to be quite literally beaten out of a man. He wearied his body with long vigils, scourged himself so brutally that the sound of his lash could be heard throughout the convent, beat his breast with a stone while preaching to the point of self-abuse, and ate meager meals that never included meat. All of this mortification, moreover, was carefully staged. A claim such as this one could be made dispassionately, perhaps even analytically: “Since popular missions were very much theater, Serra always traveled on foot to demonstrate his humility.” But what of this judgment of Serra’s life-long debilitating injury to his leg? “He probably took some satisfaction in how the source of his discomfort was so visible to others.” Or this on his death: “For a missionary like Serra, who did not die a martyr, the end of life was often carefully scripted and staged.” Or, again, this characterization of the admittedly hagiographic life of Serra written by a friend and fellow missionary: “Palou’s account is nevertheless proof of at least one historical fact: as few people have done, Serra mastered both his life and, for a time, his legacy.”

And so is the verdict that Serra was a master of self-representation who carefully constructed his life to impress his contemporaries and future generations? If so, to what end? “As father president” of the California missions, “Serra had ascended to the heights of his profession.” No, that does not really convince. There must have been some deeper malady connected with his desire “to further his own apostolic dreams.” After all, his “deep commitment to personally administering baptism” is evidence of his “desire for absolute control.” We are face to face here with a “militant evangelism” coupled to a “cultural blindness” the results of which were tragic: “What Serra helped to initiate in California,” Hackel says, “was far more complex and destructive than he could have imagined.” Where once there had been some 300,000 Indians living according to their ecologically-sound ways, within two generations of his death, the Gold Rush would put the final nail in the coffin of native traditions and communities.

Until this point, Hackel’s account has at least been consistent. He is out of sympathy with the conquest of the New World by Europeans and their attempts to bring civilization and Christianity to the native Americans. One ought not be so illiberal as to refuse a man the enjoyment of his own opinions. But here, the thread of his argument starts to unravel.

The California Indians died in massive numbers in the late eighteenth century because of the spread of European diseases, especially “introduced venereal diseases.” But he has earlier told us—while casting shadows upon the Franciscans for their use of corporal punishment—that “time and again” the friars “found that curbing Indian sexuality was one of the biggest challenges they faced.” He consistently takes the side of the Enlightened Spanish colonial officials who wanted the Franciscans to mind their own business—the sacraments, to leave the Indians to their immoral stew, and to look away when the Spanish soldiers had their way with the Indian women. And Hackel does not so much as mention Serra’s desire to bring good Spanish Christian families to settle in the missions so that the Indians could have visible model of marital fidelity and continence. No, Hackel’s dismissal of Father Serra’s prudence simply does not convince.

Indeed, the reader who comes to Hackel’s Serra with an openness to being impressed by the saint will find that his admirable traits remain visible, even amidst the darkness of the image. While in central Mexico’s wild Sierra Gorda, he proved able to establish a viable agricultural life for the nomads of those hills; not only did their birthrate increase during his tenure there, but he even had some of them trained in the arts of building by craftsmen he brought north from the capital for that purpose.

In California, the efforts were even more basic. The Indians there not only went around naked much of the year—with the predictable consequence of rampant promiscuity—but they were divided into villages of 250 or fewer inhabits that “steadfastly maintained autonomy” and had their own “elites and religious and political leaders.” The clannishness ran so deep that the 300,000 or so Indians spoke between 80 and 100 languages, and languages so different that even neighboring tribes struggled to understand one another. Who can doubt that the human tendency to self-aggrandizement manifested itself in a world so ready-made for the brutal petty tyrant or the manipulative witch doctor? Even if one were to attempt to paint a picture of them as noble savages—which given their penchant for theft might be harder than Hackel seems to think—surely the act of writing an erudite, scientific study of an historical figure, addressed to an audience presumed to be capable of critical self-reflection, presupposes the very institutions, practices, and virtues that Junipero Serra was laboring to bring to California.

Ah, but here lies the nub of it, and the useful lesson for the missionaries of the twenty-first  century. Our natives today do not value critical reason much more than did the Californians of the eighteenth century. To be enlightened now one need only to celebrate diversity and tolerance. As a result, Junipero Serra’s dedication to the task of bringing to some elementary level of perfection God’s last and best material creature—the human being, capable of rational understanding and of divine faith—appears as so much fanaticism. His astonishing renunciation of a quiet, comfortable, and even dignified life for the endless, filthy toil of the frontier becomes evidence not of singular heroism, but of widely-shared delusion. It will take nothing less than the patience of a Junipero Serra to convince such an author, and such a culture as ours, that the love of God and neighbor is not just another post-modern stance, but the deep, calm reasonableness of holiness.


  • Christopher O. Blum

    Christopher O. Blum is Professor of History & Philosophy and Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute. He is the editor and translator of St. Francis de Sales’ The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language (Sophia Press).

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