It’s hard to speak about St. Junipero Serra (whose feast we celebrate today), especially in California, without addressing at least a little bit about the controversy surrounding him. I hope someday we will be able to speak about him without the apologia pro sua vita.
Some of the First Nation peoples of the Americas charge that Padre Serra was part of the Spanish colonial system that exploited the native peoples, besides bringing diseases with them that decimated their populations. Pope Francis asked forgiveness for all of this some months before he beatified Padre Serra, during his trip to South America in 2015, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called “conquest” of America, admitting that, “Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” St. Junipero gets tainted with that whole same brush. The other issue was Padre Serra’s own personal treatment of the natives under his pastoral care, stories at least of them being exploited, and others of them being subjected to corporal punishment, some of which have been verified by his own writings.
There’s a theory about spiritual development that has deeply affected and convinced me in a number of areas. It starts out like this: God’s grace can intervene at any moment, even in horrible conditions and even on people who are in a state of grave sin and serious dysfunction. Otherwise we wouldn’t have so many stories of people finally “hitting bottom” in drug and alcohol abuse, for instance, grace intervening just when things get the darkest. But the state of the recipient of that grace––the “receptor,” you might say––, the health of that recipient, even the intelligence and the cultural background of the recipient of that moment of grace, all those things are going to determine at least these three things: one––if that person is going to be receptive to the grace and allow themselves to be transformed by it; two––if and how that person is going to understand it, interpret, make sense of it; and three––how that person is going to be able to pass it on. If and how they are going to be transformed by the grace; how they themselves are going to understand the experience; and, I think particularly in the case of Junipero Serra, how they are going to pass it on.
Just because someone, like Junipero Serra or Francis of Assisi himself, has had a real startling experience of the grace of God, doesn’t mean that they are going to get everything else right, especially how to pass the tradition on, which is going to be highly influenced by their cultural formation. Because the same thing applies to cultures in general: just because a country is deeply Christian (such as ours professes to be) doesn’t mean that they are not going to get everything right, especially how that faith becomes a community, our helps build a state or a nation. Our understanding of how the world operates is vastly different from folks of the 13th or the 18th century; our understanding of how religion and politics intertwine and relate to each other are so vastly different now; as is our understanding of human nature itself, or cultural anthropology, or developmental psychology––and we still get it wrong! These tools, which have become handmaids of spirituality and that we take for granted now, were simply not available to Francis of Assisi or Junipero Serra.
I would never recommend anyone to perform the acts of asceticism that Francis of Assisi did, as a matter of fact, as prior I would expressly forbid it under the strictest obedience. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that the crucifix at San Damiano spoke directly to Francis and told him to rebuild the church, and his conversion caused a great flowering of a new spirit throughout the Church that continues to inspire. As we have learned now after many centuries, I would vehemently oppose the Church or Christianity in general being used as a tool for an oppressive regime, as it was even in recent times in India, El Salvador, and Spain, as well as in the Spanish colonialization of the Americas. But that does not diminish in any way my admiration for someone who was ready and willing to leave his homeland, pretty sure that he would never see it again, and make a treacherous journey across the ocean to a totally uncultivated land along the wild coast of baja and alta California because he thought it would help spread the Gospel of Jesus. I would stand between the whip and the person if I ever saw a pastor or a teacher applying corporal punishment on someone in the name of God today, but that does not diminish the fact that, as our friend Little Bear from the Esalen Tribe told us, Junipero Serra was the one who convinced the Spanish colonialists that the native peoples here in California really were human beings not animals, in the Imago Dei–the image of God, with souls that could be converted.
As at least the last three popes have done with their extensive repentance and their enlightened change of course and tone in missionary work, we can commit ourselves to not repeating the mistakes of the past, and commit ourselves to using every tool at our disposal to ensure that our own spirituality and the message we share is as healthy and mature as possible, and as untainted as possible by the dysfunctions endemic in the process of human growth. And at the same time we should also see in Junipero Serra’s extraordinary gift of self a little bit of that same fire that is the Third Good of our own Camaldolese charism––the absolute availability to be sent to the soft spots, absolute availability to be sent to the place where we are most needed, and absolute availability to do the thing that is most needed, with fierce creativity and courage, without ever looking back or counting the cost, even if it’s only right here on our own little piece of land in our own little community on this more highly cultivated (but still wild) landscape on the coast of alta-California.