Saturday, May 16, 2015

Junípero Serra, saint or not

Thomas Reese  |  May. 15, 2015Faith and Justice

The upcoming canonization of Junípero Serra is causing controversy as his supporters view him as the Franciscan who brought Christianity to California Indians, while his opponents see him as a co-conspirator with the oppression of the Indians by the Spanish empire. Pope Francis will canonize him at a Sept. 23 Mass in Washington, D.C.
Who was Serra? What should we think of him?
For answers, I went to Robert Senkewicz, professor of history at Santa Clara University and an expert on early California history. He is the author of a number of books on early California, including the just-published Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, which he wrote with his wife Rose Marie Beebe.

NCR: Who was Junípero Serra?
Robert Senkewicz: Junípero Serra was an 18th-century Franciscan who was a very successful philosophy teacher on the island of Mallorca. In the middle of his life, he volunteered to go to the missions of the New World, where Franciscans had been working since the early 1500s. Serra arrived in Mexico City on Jan. 1, 1750.

He spent eight years working in an area of Mexico about 100 miles north of Mexico City called the Sierra Gorda among the Pame Indians who had been evangelized a little bit earlier.
Then he spent another eight years working in various administrative positions at the missionary headquarters in Mexico City. During this time, he was also a member of the mission band that would go around and try to increase religious fervor in various Catholic parishes where they were invited by the local bishop.
When the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain in 1767, he was sent to be the head missionary taking over the former Jesuit missions in Baja California. The very next year, the Spanish government decided to move the frontier northward from Baja California to Upper California, or Alta California.
Serra enthusiastically volunteered for that and he accompanied the expedition that went from Baja California to Alta California. He spent the remaining 15 years of his life as the president of the Alta California Missions. Under his presidency, nine missions were founded.
What was the purpose of the missions?
They inevitably had a double purpose. Under the Spanish system, the missionaries were paid by the government, so missionaries were both church and state functionaries.
From the point of view of the church, the purpose of the missions was to spread the Gospel to those who had not been baptized.
From the point of view of the state, the missions were institutions aimed at assimilating the native peoples, making them citizens of the empire. That meant, among other things, learning European-style agriculture, becoming a Catholic, and living in a congregated pueblo-type arrangement, just like people in Spain.
A great deal of the tension in the mission system stemmed from this double purpose, for these two aims did not always coexist easily with each other.
What about the religious aim? How did he try to convert the Indians?
Serra’s preferred missionary strategy was to try to create a community in which native peoples would gradually come to understand the truth of the Gospel.
In our book, Rose Marie and I argue that some Lenten sermons Serra gave to a group of Poor Clares in 1744 in Majorca outlined that strategy. In those sermons, he used as his refrain a line from Psalm 33, "Taste and see that the Lord is good."
He says that God is like a culinary sweet, a piece of candy. If you've never tasted it, you don't know what you're missing. But once you taste it, you acquire an increasing desire for it.
That's how he thought the conversion process was going to work. The native peoples would gradually be exposed to a Christian community and they would gradually come to see that their deepest desires were being fulfilled as members of this community.
Why did the Indians actually go to the missions?
Native people entered the missions in California for a variety of reasons. No doubt some were genuinely interested in Catholicism. Others presented their sick children for baptism in hopes that the priest might be able to cure them.
Some came because there was food at the missions. That was important because what was going on in California was that the Spanish military and missionaries brought large numbers of horses, mules, burros, sheep and goats with them. These animals inevitably and quickly destroyed the plants, acorn and berries that had sustained a traditional way of life for centuries. They also drove away the game the native peoples had traditionally hunted.
The presence of the Spanish colonial enterprise very quickly rendered it almost impossible for the traditional native ways of life to be maintained. So, some people came into the mission system because their traditional ways of life and sustenance was being destroyed by the  colonial invaders.

Did Serra realize this?
Probably not.
How did this religious aim of the missions square with the other aim, the imperial aim?
Serra knew he was part of the Spanish empire, and he believed in the empire. But he and other missionaries thought that an important part of their role was to protect native peoples from the worst tendencies of the empire.
In a manner of evaluating colonialism that goes all the way back to 16th-century Dominicans Antonio de Montesinos and Bartóleme de las Casas, missionaries generally thought that they were protecting native peoples from potential exploitation by soldiers, ranchers, miners and settlers.
So, they generally tried to keep the native people separated from these other groups. In doing so they cut some corners. Generally speaking, they did not do a thorough job of explaining to the native peoples that baptism was, from their point of view, a lifetime commitment and that entering the mission system was a one-way street -- you were able to go in, but you would not be permitted to leave.
Would you say then that the Indians were enslaved by the missionaries?
Coercion and force were part of the mission system, but I wouldn't say that they were enslaved. Slavery is a specific legal system. To use it in an American context equates with the way Africans were treated in the American South, and it was a very different kind of situation. Indians were definitely regarded as inferior. But they were regarded not as property, but as people.
What was Serra’s attitude and behavior toward the Indians?
His attitude and behavior were frankly and explicitly paternalistic. Along with probably 99 percent of the people in Europe at the time, he thought that non-Europeans were inferior to Europeans. There was a big debate in the early Spanish empire about whether or not the native peoples were fully rational beings or not.
By the time Serra got to the New World, many Spanish thinkers believed that the native peoples of the Americas were in a state of "natural infancy," that they were children. Serra shared that view and he basically had a paternalistic attitude towards them.
That paternalistic attitude could, at times, result in a behavior which anybody today would find very hard to justify. If people left the mission without permission, they were pursued and hunted by soldiers and other Indians. If they were brought back, the normal punishment was flogging. What the Spanish military and missionaries thought they were doing was punishing children to make them understand how they should behave.
Were Indians converted at the missions?
It's pretty clear that at the beginning the native peoples did what Europeans, the so-called "barbarians,"  had done a millennium earlier. They interpreted Christianity through their own traditional ways, through their own traditional deities and spirituality. So, what resulted in the missions was a mix, a syncretism, a new melding of traditional indigenous California spirituality and imported Spanish and Mexican Catholic spirituality. 
Over time, some missionaries understood this and accepted it. Others were very impatient with it. Serra was most likely somewhere in the middle.
Did Serra like the Indians?
As we were researching the book, we came to the conclusion that Serra himself was personally a much more complex individual than either his proponents or his detractors acknowledged. He could be very conflicted.
On the one hand, he really enjoyed being with native peoples who were not baptized because that was the reason  he had come to the New World .
For instance, he kept a diary of his journey from Loreto in Baja California up to San Diego in 1769. For him, one of the most emotional days of his life was in a place in Baja California where a group of native unbaptized people came out of the woods and presented themselves to the priest. This was the first time in his life that he had personally encountered a large group of unbaptized Indians. He was overwhelmed.
In his diary he said, "I kissed the ground and thanked God for giving me what I have longed for so many years." It was really a tremendously emotional experience for him. After 19 years in America, he was finally going to get to do what he came to do: preach to the unbaptized.
I think that some native peoples that he met could pick up that he really wanted to be there. He really enjoyed being with native peoples because he felt that his identity as a missionary was the most important thing for him. 
After all, he had been an extremely popular teacher and preacher. He probably could have become Franciscan provincial of Mallorca. He gave it all up because he found that the academic life wasn't giving him satisfaction. He wanted to do direct pastoral work. He was excited and happiest when he was doing that.
It is always extremely difficult to intuit the thoughts, motives and genuine behavior of native peoples through the writings of colonial officials, but I think it is reasonable to surmise that some native people, especially in the area around which he spent most of his time, Carmel, understood and appreciated him. He was a man who was happiest when he was out there directly engaged in pastoral work.
He was most unhappy when he had to deal with soldiers and governors. Serra never met a military governor that he liked. He dealt with three of them and disliked each one more than the previous one.
He also tended to be unhappy when he had to deal with his religious superiors back in Mexico City. He would sometimes think that they didn't understand what he was trying to do. His superiors often thought he was too impatient and too reckless in establishing so many missions so quickly. Maybe that criticism came with the territory. Indeed, the Jesuit missionary in Arizona, Eusebio Kino, experienced similar strictures from his own superiors.
At one point, Serra complained about all this: "I'm spending half of my life at a desk writing reports." He was clearly upset at all of the effort he had to put into such activity.    
What made him happiest was being a missionary among unbaptized people. What made him especially happy was when he could do that directly one-on-one with native peoples. When he described that  human interaction, he tended not to acknowledge the fact that he was part of a larger colonial system that could be, at times, very brutal and very bloody.
Did the Indians like him?
Some of them certainly did. The California native culture was not a written culture. It was an oral culture. So scholars try to infer how the native peoples are reacting through obviously biased reports of Spanish writers. Even with that, I think that some of them really did like him, and they were fond of him. They kept calling him Padre Viejo, the old priest.
He kind of liked that. He was considerably older than most of the other Spaniards or Mexican the natives were encountering. He was also shorter and more frail than most of them. I think some of them sort of adopted him almost as a mascot.
In December 1776, for instance, he was traveling through the Santa Barbara area, and there was a huge rainstorm. So the small party that he was with had to leave the beach where they were traveling and go up to the foothills because the waves were coming in. They got bogged down in the mud.
Suddenly, and out of nowhere, a group of Chumash Indians appeared. They picked Serra up and carried him through the mud so that he could continue his journey. They stayed with him for a couple of days, and he tried to teach them to sing some songs. That was the kind of thing that he just loved.
Other native peoples, for instance the Kumeyaay  who in 1775 led a rebellion in San Diego that destroyed the mission and killed one of the priests, clearly didn't like the mission system at all. In fact, after that episode, Serra wrote to the viceroy and asked that, if he were to be killed by an Indian, that Indian ought not be executed but forgiven.
So, some did like him, and some thought that he was somebody who was destroying their way of life. The native response to the Spanish occupation of California was similar to the native response to many other incursions of European colonialism in the Americas. Definitely more negative than accepting, and complex and mixed.
Were Indians exploited to support the mission system?
Yes. As the mission system developed over time it became a different kind of place after Serra's death in 1784 as a result of a couple of circumstances.
In 1810, the independence insurgency in Mexico under Miguel Hidalgo and Juan María Morelos broke out. If you were the viceroy at the time, you were going to do everything that you could to defeat this insurgency. So the supply ship, which every year had come up from Mexico to California, stopped coming because all resources were being diverted to fighting Hidalgo and Morelos.
All of the sudden, California was not getting its regular replenishment of supplies. The institutions in California that were best equipped to deal with this situation were the missions because by that time, they were pretty skilled at growing food.
They also had  blacksmiths, carpenters and other skilled personnel. Some of these skilled laborers were Indians, who had learned from Mexican craftsmen at the missions, and who would pass on those skills to their own children. So the missions became the economic engines of California from about 1810 increasingly onward.
The result was the missions began to reach farther and farther away from the coast to get more native people to keep up production levels. By the early 1820s, the missionaries were almost ranchers as much as they were missionaries. They were selling their hides and tallow to American and British merchants who were trading up and down the coast.
The missionaries would have definitely not described themselves as ranchers, but I think that’s what happened. And ranching concerns and missionary activity did not always coexist well together.
For instance, peoples' freedom of movement within the mission compound became more restricted. An example was that young girls and women were locked up at night because the missionaries thought, not without reason, that some soldiers would rape them if they were unprotected.
But putting so many individuals together in an enclosed and often cramped space created a very unhealthy environment. Young girls and women were especially vulnerable to imported diseases to which they had not developed any immunities. For this and other reasons, such as heavy workload, the death rate in the missions was very high and it increased over time.
Obviously, the missionaries didn't know about germ theory, or anything like that. But, they knew people were dying in great numbers because they were doing the funerals, and they kept very full records of all sacramental matters. Some were extremely upset, while others appear to have contented themselves with the assurance that this simply meant that more souls were going to heaven. It is very jarring and infuriating to read those words today.
Did the Franciscans or the church get rich through the missions? Did any of the profits from the missions go back to Mexico or Spain?
In the quarter century after 1810, the missions generated considerable income. But close study of the financial system and of the mission account books indicates pretty clearly that the overwhelming amount of this income, more than 90 percent, went directly back into mission enterprises, especially clothing for the native peoples and liturgical, catechetical and sacramental supplies. Very little was retained in Mexico City or went back to Spain.
The accusation, made by some opponents of the missions at the time and occasionally repeated since, that the church in general or the missionaries in particular enriched themselves, appears to be unfounded.
What happened to the Indians and the mission land when the Mexican government ended the mission system in the 1830s?
The padres always said, "The land belongs to the Indians, and we hold it in trust for the Indians." According to various laws, that was the technical reality. But the land was actually divided among the leading California families by the Mexican government.
So, Indians became ranch hands on the ranchos. On the ranchos, many Indians became valued laborers, because of the skills they had learned at the missions. However, their lives were sometimes quite similar to what they had known at the missions. The major difference was that they could leave if they wanted to.
Given all of this, what about the issue of Serra’s canonization?
I’m an historian, not a theologian. But I have tried to follow the debate and I do know a number of native Californians who are very opposed to the canonization of Fr. Serra. Many of their arguments are deeply reasoned, well articulated, passionate and personal.
I think that many of the arguments rest upon two concerns. First, the concern that canonizing Serra is by implication approving the entire mission system, including all of the punishments, diseases and deaths that were a part of that system. The second concern is that to canonize Serra is to justify and whitewash the church's role in colonial expansion -- as it were, to bless the European expansion into the Americas and the horrible loss of native lives and land that was part and parcel of that process.
On the first point, we have a section in our book about how, under the influence of the Spanish revival movement in southern California in the late 19th century, Serra became a virtual symbol for everything that happened in pre-US California. Serra was made into such a symbol by a group of Anglo boosters to further their own aims.
I personally don't think it is legitimate to make Serra a stand-in for the entire 65 years of mission experience in California. The system developed after his death in ways he did not plot or intend. So I do not personally believe that in canonizing him the church intends to say that it is blessing everything that happened in the missions from the time they were started until the time they ended. I don't think that canonization means that the person is perfect or that everything that happened after his death, even some perhaps unforeseen or unintended consequences, were necessarily good and beneficial. If those were the criteria, probably no one would ever be canonized!

On the second issue, the notion that the church should not have been involved in colonial expansion, I think that veers too easily into a simplistic way of looking at history. The study of the past is always a dialogue between past and present, and I fear that this notion is too exclusively focused on the present to the neglect of the past.
As I said before, the missionaries generally thought that they were representing the "softer" side of colonialism, that they were protecting the native peoples from the more oppressive parts of the system. The Catholic Church and Serra were definitely part of the colonial process. While I can understand 21st century people saying that religion should stay out of colonial land grabs and refuse to justify them, we can’t simply export that view back to the 18th century. The cold hard fact was that some European power was going to come into California, and the only question for the church was whether it wanted to try to influence that process from the inside or whether it wanted to remain outside that process and give up any influence at all.
Indeed, we do know what did happen when religious groups were not present to try to protect native peoples and were not involved in colonial expansion into native territories. The example of Indian removal from many regions in the 19th century U.S. is a grim instance. In fact, if there was genocide against native peoples in California, it happened during the gold rush, in the 1850s, when Americans offered bounties for Indian scalps and the native peoples of Northern California were brutally decimated and oppressed.
Whatever their faults, no Spanish or Mexican missionary in California ever came close to uttering the refrain that was heard among 19th-century North Americans, that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." And nothing on the scale of Sand Creek or Wounded Knee ever occurred in connection with the California missions.
I don’t know what Pope Francis intended by announcing the canonization of Serra. But I can  understand that, in Junípero Serra’s willingness to sacrifice the comforts of a very successful career, to forego climbing the academic and ecclesiastical ladders, to travel halfway around the world in order to live the rest of his life among people he had never seen but whom he deeply and genuinely loved, and to go without many advantages he could easily have gained, one sees qualities that are very consistent with what the church has long held up as indications of sanctity.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Up to my elbows in Pastelles

This afternoon I gained greater appreciation for the sophistication of Hispanic food. I learned how to make one thousand pastelles from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Before I arrived at the church, I had no idea whether a pastelle was a dessert or an entree. I was given a knife and a hairy potato-like squash to shave. We would be carving many root vegetables. The hairy potato looked so odd and barely edible and it produced a purplish color that made it look a little bruised. We diced three industrial-sized boxes of these potatoes (papa.)

Dicing the bananas was easy, but I only had one to do before I was given an autumn squash that had an exterior that was (muy dura) very hard. My fingers are raw from cutting so many of those roots. I could tell the mujeres (women) allowed me to do a little more on my own. They took the easier roots.

After two hours of dicing, we cleaned those massive bins of diced vegetables before running them through a grinder that created huge bowlfuls of goop. Then we added lots of salt, paprika, pork sauce, beef broth, and lots of other previously-unknown-to-me spices. My job? Mix those bowls well.

My elbows were covered in goop as I mixed six of those bins. I could hear the suppressed laughs while the women admired my technique. If I had been in Amman, the Filipinos would not let me do a thing, but these Spanish-speaking women have no problem doling out jobs. I stirred and stirred until they said "basta." My biggest surprise was they did not use eggs.

What they did next was very interesting to me. They laid out waxed parchment paper, applied a few spoonfuls of the mixture onto paper, added a little pork mixture, and topped it with olives and garbanzo beans. They then folded the mixture into a rectangle and then wrapped it as if they were gift-wrapping it with string.

The process from that point gets fuzzy. I think they are freezing the pastelles until Saturday's Spring Fling, but eventually these items have to be dropped into boiling water for 45 minutes to an hour. If water seeps in, the pastelle is tasteless, but these are so elegantly wrapped that no water will touch the mixture.

I can't wait to see how they turn out on Saturday. The mystery of it intrigues me. I liken them to a British or Australian meat-pie (pasties.)

Well, I had done much of the cleaning and it was abundantly clear that the master chefs had taken over so I simply said, "See you on Saturday" and returned to the Jesuit residence. I now appreciate the extraordinary effort to make these pastelles because so much hard work is needed. These women are certainly proud.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Religious freedom is under attack around the world

Thomas Reese  |  May. 1, 2015Faith and Justice


Religious freedom is under attack in numerous places around the world, but it is especially bad in 17 countries, according to a report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Nine of these countries have already been singled out by the State Department as "countries of particular concern" (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The commission recommends that an additional eight countries be added to this CPC list: the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.
Another 10 countries were listed by USCIRF as "Tier 2" countries, where violations are serious but not as bad as in CPC countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.
The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act requires the U.S. government to designate as a CPC any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.
The same act created USCIRF as an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission to advise the president, Congress, and the State Department on international religious freedom. Every year, it publishes a report on the nations it believes should be listed as countries of particular concern by the State Department. This is the 16th report issued by the commission.
Full disclosure: I was appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama a year ago, but the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
Although these countries of particular concern all have serious violations of religious freedom, their causes are varied.
For example, in China and Vietnam, although communist ideology no longer governs the economy, it still opposes religion, especially if it is outside Communist control. Officials fear any popular organization that gathers people together and has respected leaders outside their control.
On the other hand, in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the state is used to suppress any views that do not align with the state's theological orthodoxy. Members of other religions are few in these countries, so the religious police target dissidents of their own faith. People can be jailed simply for holding different views.
We also see countries where a particular religion is identified by some as part of the national identity. If you are not of that religion, you are not a good citizen.
Thus, in Burma, Buddhist militants attack Muslims (including the Rohingya) and Christians from the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni ethnic minorities. They are discriminated against as foreigners even if they have been in the country for generations.
Likewise, Hindu nationalists are telling Muslims to go to Pakistan and Christians to go to Europe if they are unwilling to become Hindus. For them, Indian and Hindu are synonymous.
In some countries, such as India, the state is not so much persecuting religious minorities as not protecting them from fanatics and mobs. The police often stand aside and watch others attack minorities. Here, politicians are often either afraid of the militants or dependent on them for political support.
In Pakistan, lawyers and judges have been assassinated for defending Christians and other minorities falsely accused of blasphemy. The assailants and those making false accusations are rarely punished.
While religious differences are sometimes at the root of religious conflict, often, the dispute begins as a struggle over power and resources. In the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria, and Iraq, certain regions, tribes, or portions of the population felt excluded from political power and the economic benefits of their country.
If the people being left out are from a different religion than the governing elite, then the potential for religious conflict escalates to an explosive level. Religious differences in these conflicts can be manipulated by cynical politicians for political purposes, but bringing religion into a political dispute is like pouring gasoline on a fire.
In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni minority lorded over a Shiite majority. After the fall of Saddam more than a decade ago, the new Shiite-dominated government discriminated against Sunnis. Matters were made worse by the rise of the Islamic State group in Sunni areas of Iraq and the civilian casualties resulting from the attempt of Iraqi forces and Shiite militias to destroy it.
In Syria, it was the Sunni majority that suffered under an Alawi governing elite led by the Assad family. What was essentially a political conflict was inflamed by religious passions. In Syria, the Assad government's suppression of a pro-democratic movement in early 2011 devolved into a calamitous civil war. The conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents took a decidedly sectarian turn as the government targeted opponents from the country's Sunni majority and terrorist organizations rushed to exploit the chaos created by conflict.
In Africa, we have seen tribalism, corruption and an unequal distribution of resources at the root of conflict. What are initially political conflicts over resources and power are inflamed by religious passion when regions or tribes following different religions come into conflict. For example, in neglected Muslim areas, those with nothing to lose find attractive the promise that Shariah will end corruption and reduce inequality.
Thus, in Nigeria, a series of corrupt governments have drained the country of its wealth while ignoring the needs of the north. What began in the north as a regional protest soon turned violent and extreme. Religion became intertwined in ethnic, political, economic and social controversies and provided fertile ground for Boko Haram and civil war, which has claimed more than 18,000 lives since 1999.
The same is true in the Central African Republic. After coming to power in March 2013 to fight economic and political marginalization in the northeast, the mostly Muslim Seleka unleashed a reign of terror against civilians generally, and Christians especially. Since September 2013, militias of mostly Christian fighters have responded with massive atrocities of their own, launching brutal assaults against Muslim civilians, committing mass murder, and driving nearly the entire Muslim population from the country.
For the Christians in the Middle East, one of the ironies of their precarious situation is that they were much better off in Iraq under Saddam and in Syria under Assad than they are today. Likewise, things are improving for the Coptic Christians in Egypt under the new military government, even if in general, the human rights situation is terrible.
The complexity of the political, social, economic, and religious situation in CPC countries should warn us against thinking that religious freedom will improve by simply exhorting religious people to be more tolerant. This is important, but not enough.
As long as democracy is seen as a winner-take-all struggle, conflict will be intense and violent, and politicians will exploit religion for their own purposes. The stakes are simply too high for the losers who will be excluded from the jobs and benefits provided by government.
Reducing inequality and corruption will reduce both political and religious tensions.
Most importantly, the police and the judiciary must be seen and experienced as independent of political parties and religious factions. They must serve all the people fairly and equally. If private disputes between citizens of different religions cannot be fairly adjudicated through an unbiased legal system, extrajudicial violence will continue to make matters worse.
Living in a country where religious freedom is enshrined in our political system is a blessing we don't truly appreciate until we see how believers can be persecuted and oppressed in other countries. Freedom of religion is a human right that needs greater respect around the world. As the beneficiaries of such freedom, we have an obligation to help those who lack such freedom in any way we can. 
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]