Serra’s Actions Aren’t the Only Reason to Lament His Canonization

For the last couple of days, a few of my Latinx Catholic friends on Facebook have been mentioning the others whom they wish had been canonized on Wednesday afternoon at the Catholic University of America.

Some expressed a preference for an expedited canonization of Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero; they thought he would speak better to Pope Francis’s commitment to the poor, the marginalized, and the migrant he spoke of before Congress on Thursday morning.

Other friends posted about Native and mixed-race Americans who lived under the complicated legacies of Catholic-supported colonialism. They would remind readers that the dominant Catholicism of this hemisphere is not undertaken by worshippers of strictly European descent.

Theologian Neomi DeAnda, for instance, drew attention to Doña María Meléndez, a Native leader married to a Spaniard and residing in St. Augustine, Florida at Misión Nombre de Dios. She worked to feed the hungry and became a Catholic without abandoning many of her own traditions. From now on when I hear St. Serra, I will choose to remember her name, and Toypurina’s, and countless others.

When I published my remarks earlier this year about why Serra was not a saint, I was speaking to his placement within the complex situation of settler colonialism, a situation that made it hard for anyone to make choices we might view as ethically good. In this context, Serra is far from anomalous; there were many missionaries in the New World who did try to protect native populations from the worst of Spanish colonial abuses, but there were others who did much more.

The only good that could come from making a saint out of a colonial-era missionary is to draw attention to the moral complexity of our aspirations for “doing good” in the world; so often when we humans try to do good, and we have the backing of imperial power, we also do great harm. The only good that I find in a St. Serra is that it could force us all to meditate on the ambivalence that haunts Christianity in this hemisphere.

Of course, that is not the path Pope Francis articulated in his canonization address. Instead he described Serra as “excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing [or respecting/respetar in Spanish] their particular customs and ways of life.” (See his homily, in Spanish or in English.)

A lot hinges on how one defines “respect” here since Serra adamantly believed that native ways of life (from gender roles, marital relations, agricultural practices, dance traditions with religious roots, etc.) needed to change so that mission populations could be made into Spanish subjects and good Christian humans.

He wanted their bodies to survive, and no doubt he believed he was saving their souls by bringing them Christianity and saving their lives by bringing them Spanish agriculture. But, as Emma Green points out in The Atlantic, we do live in a different world now, a world aware of postcolonial criticism. Though Pope Francis supports evangelization, he has suggested that he believes it should work differently. He has apologized for many crimes that were committed in the Americas in the name of the Church.

However, even—or perhaps especially—as a Latin American, I wonder whether Pope Francis has not fully wrestled with the specific racialization of those colonizing crimes; the ways that those crimes did not just use the Church as a mask for colonial violence. Even devout missionaries who really sought to work with native populations too often presumed a Church where one must also become culturally European to enjoy full membership. In canonizing Serra in the way that he did, Pope Francis doubly whitewashed colonial Christianity by smoothing over the crimes Serra and his fellow Franciscans committed in the name of the good and by promulgating a Spanish immigrant as the saintly representative of a Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. that is by no means exclusively European.

Perhaps in canonizing Serra, Francis intends to demonstrate his support of Latinx Catholics in the U.S. (see Peter Montgomery’s piece here on RD). For instance, Fernanda Santos of the New York Times suggests that Latinxs see themselves in Serra, perhaps simply because he spoke Spanish as do many Latinxs. Many Latinxs may identify with Serra because he’s Spanish and lived on this continent at the same time as the birth of the U.S. as a nation (indeed, he does remind us that U.S. history does not neatly start East and march West). Yet Latinxs are more divided over this than Santos would have you believe. Many native Californians who have criticized this canonization are also Latinx, and many non-native Latinxs question the selection of Serra as well.

Many Latinxs, including Catholic-committed ones, still wonder about racism within our own communities, and it’s not only the fraught legacy of colonialism that makes us unable to identify with Serra. It’s that yet again a European subject has been elevated at the direct cost of attention to African, Asian, Native, and mixed-race voices.