On Wednesday, in one of his first acts in Washington, Pope Francis stood beneath the great dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and made Junípero Serra a saint.
With thousands in attendance, Francis tried to set aside controversy over Serra’s treatment of Native Americans to instead focus on the 18th-century Franciscan friar’s role in spreading the Gospel in the Americas.
“Siempre adelante,” the pope said, quoting Serra’s motto in Spanish. “Keep moving forward.”
This weekend, as Francis was still greeting crowds on the East Coast, however, vandals in California made a statement of their own by defacing the newly christened saint’s grave.
“Saint of Genocide” they wrote on a headstone at the Carmel Mission in Carmel, Calif., where Serra is buried. They also poured green paint on a statue of Serra and splashed headstones with blood-red paint.
The incident is being investigated as a hate crime because the vandals targeted “specifically the headstones of people of European descent, and not Native American descent,” Carmel police Sgt. Luke Powell told the Los Angeles Times.
The act of vandalism came roughly four days after Francis made Serra a saint.
The canonization was the first on American soil, but it was also highly controversial. Some Native Americans and scholars argue that Serra was complicit in the brutal and dehumanizing conquest of tribes in California, where the Spanish priest founded the state’s first Catholic missions.
“This pope doesn’t really care what we think,” Ron Andrade, the director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission and an Indian from the La Jolla Indian Reservation, told The Washington Post ahead of Francis’s visit to the United States. “I don’t know what he is hoping to accomplish with canonizing Serra. There were better people.”
In an interview with the Guardian, also before the vandalism, Andrade compared Serra to Hitler and the Spanish conquistadors who subjugated South America.
“Everywhere they put a mission the majority of Indians are gone,” Andrade said, “and Serra knew what they were doing: They were taking the land, taking the crops, he knew the soldiers were raping women, and he turned his head.”
“Why doesn’t the pope canonize Pizarro or Cortez?” he also said sarcastically. “It’s dumb.”
Francis, whose five-day trip to the United States was, in many ways, a tight-wire act of balancing competing demands and constituencies, appeared to address the controversy during Wednesday’s ceremony.
In a short homily delivered in Spanish, the pope praised Serra as someone who “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs, which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”
“He was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God,” Francis said. “Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life. He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters.”
In an earlier passage of his homily, the pope alluded to Serra’s critics, implying that they benefited from a historical hindsight to which the friar was not privileged, and that is better for missionaries like Serra to get involved in troubled times that to shy away from conflict.
“Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual,” Francis said. “Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed, encountered and forgiven. Mission is born of a constant experience of God’s merciful anointing.
“The Church, the holy People of God, treads the dust-laden paths of history, so often traversed by conflict, injustice and violence, in order to encounter her children, our brothers and sisters. The holy and faithful People of God are not afraid of losing their way; they are afraid of becoming self-enclosed, frozen into elites, clinging to their own security. They know that self-enclosure, in all the many forms it takes, is the cause of so much apathy.”
Critics counter, however, that the saint presided over a “near-genocidal policy” of putting Native Americans on reservations and forcing them to build Catholic missions.
“We can’t reward Junipero Serra for the dehumanization and destruction of native nations of the land, because that’s what happened, that’s what was done,” Chumash ceremonial elder Mati Waiya told the Ventura County Reporter in January of this year. “It was violent evangelism for the sake of gold, god and glory; it’s what motivated the Spaniards.” Waiya added that the building of the missions was “the ending of our world.”
“Serra was not the face of evil,” Deborah Miranda, a professor of literature at Washington and Lee University and an Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Indian, told the Guardian. “But there were so many atrocities happening and he closed his eyes.”
It’s unclear who defaced Serra’s grave. The vandals evaded security guards to strike sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
When church officials arrived on Sunday morning to prepare for an event that night to celebrate Serra’s sainthood, they discovered statues of the friar and other figures had been toppled over and doused in paint. The vandals had scrawled “Saint of Genocide” on a stone, the Associated Press reported.
“We are sadden[ed] to learn this morning of vandalism inside the entrance courtyard in front of the Basilica early this morning,” the mission said in a statement posted to its Facebook page. “Staff and police are in route to investigate. Apparently a person or persons broke in, splattered paint and toppled down the courtyard statue of St. Serra and other historic statues on display.
“Pray that the people how [sic] did this take responsibility for their actions on this sacred property and that they seek reconciliation.”
Investigators are reviewing surveillance video to try to identify the culprits, Carmel police told the Los Angeles Times.
Like the decision to canonize Serra, the attack on his statue has stirred criticism online.
“Not everyone thinks destroying native culture in the name of Christianity is a good thing,” commented one person on the mission’s Facebook page, citing the controversy around Serra. “This doesn’t justify the destruction of churches, but it’s the truth.”
“Vandalism is horrible, but has anyone on this thread considered WHY this was done?” wrote another commenter. “A lot of people are hurting now over the canonization of Serra. How can the Pope apologize on one hand to the indigenous people of South America for the colonization of the Americas and turn around and celebrate Serra who was one of the architects of the California genocide?”
Most commenters criticized the vandalism, however, with many volunteering to help the church clean it up.
“Hatred only creates more hatred,” one person wrote. “It is time to move forward and find peace in our hearts.”
Others suggested that the vandals were inviting divine punishment by defacing a cemetery.
“So disrespectful and down right sacrilegious,” one person wrote. “Wouldn’t want to be in their shoes!”