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Open mouth, insert (velvet slipper-clad) foot 

I like to think of The Pope as God’s letter turner that helps reveal his secret truths. You know, like what Vanna White is to Pat Sajak. Papal infallibility assures that whatever Pope Francis says or does will be the word or action of the Almighty. God’s message is already there, see? Pope Frankie Big Mitre just needs to flip the letters, smile, and look snappy in his silk robes.

When I heard The Pope was planning on canonizing Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784), the chrome-domed Spanish Jesuit responsible for Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and eight more of California’s 21 missions (not to mention countless grade school history projects involving sugar cubes and poster paper), I thought, “Take that, Sally Ride!”

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What? You haven’t heard? A statue of Father Serra in the U.S. Capitol is to be replaced by one of astronaut Sally Ride. I mean, sure, she was the first woman in space, and when she sailed out of our atmosphere in 1978 at the age of 32, she became—and still is—the youngest American astronaut to travel to outer space. But big deal! How many grade school kids built macaroni models of the space shuttle Challenger compared to all those sugar cube-structured miniature missions? Let’s get a little perspective here, shall we? But I digress.

Clearly, Pope Francis, my favorite Holy Man since Father Guido Sarducci, felt he better secure Father Serra’s legacy toot sweet before people forget about his contributions to California and American history. The Pope called Serra one of America’s “Founding Fathers,” after all. That may be news to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and those other white-wigged heroes, but remember: Pope = word of God = infallible. Oh, and for the record, Father Serra’s statue in the SLO Mission will not be replaced by one of Sally Ride.

Serra’s proposed upcoming canonization in September, which will make him America’s first Latino saint, will continue what Pope John Paul began in 1988 when he beatified Serra. To become a saint, you need two verifiable postmortem miracles. Serra’s first—the one that got him beatified—was that he cured a nun suffering from lupus. 

Of course, the man wasn’t perfect, and plenty of Native Americans think his most lasting contribution to California history was the genocide—cultural and literal—of the indigenous peoples’ way of life. But hey! He had the natives’ best interest at heart! In some of his papers, it was found that he wrote to Spain to ask what they did when Spanish children weren’t thriving. Make them drink more milk, came the answer, so Father Serra ordered native children to drink more milk. How could he possibly have known native coastal people were lactose intolerant? 

Obviously, that wasn’t the second miracle the Catholic Church needed to confer sainthood. And try as I might, I couldn’t find a record of the second miracle needed to confer sainthood. Maybe we’ll find out in September.

I guess the real question is this: Was Serra saintly? He forced natives to convert, and according to experts, most natives who came to the missions didn’t live very long and couldn’t leave without permission. Tens of thousands died of disease, and mass graves aren’t uncommon near mission grounds. Some reside under parking lots or church offices with nary a marker to denote their existence. 

Remaining Native Americans—even ones who are practicing Catholics—have mixed feelings about Serra. And non-Catholic natives? They call the missions “forced labor death camps” and Serra a “racist criminal.” Some historical records indicate that Serra wasn’t the benevolent evangelist the Catholic Church suggests he was. One fellow priest wrote about a time when some natives “escaped” the mission, and Serra’s colleagues had to restrain him from hanging them. “Such a race of people deserved to be put to the knife,” he’s quoted as saying. Maybe something’s lost in translation.

The Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians (aka the Kizh Nation) claim in a letter they wrote to the pope that mission soldiers enjoyed a “rapist lifestyle” and that native women would “smother their newly born babies” that were the result of rape and that natives would chop off body parts to escape shackles.

Sheesh! Ingrates, right? If it wasn’t for Father Serra and the missions, none of these ignorant heathens would have been Christianized and civilized. Heck, they’d still be wearing loincloths, painting themselves blue, and hacking out their children’s hearts and eating them! Or am I thinking of Mel “I’m Not Racist” Gibson’s Apocalypto?

Anyway, if Vanna … er, I mean Pope Francis, says God says Serra is sitting at his right hand in heaven, who are we to argue? He’s not the only holy dude on Serra’s side. Los Angeles Archbishop José Horacio Gomez insists that Serra had “a burning love” for Native Americans. I’m almost certain there’s no pun intended in that statement.

The Shredder says, “I’d like to solve the puzzle.” Send ideas and comments to [email protected].

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