On his way up the coast of what is now California, Father Serra walking always with a painful, ulcerated foot, the result of a snake bite in Mexico, had his first encounter with natives who had not been in previous contact with any missions. In northern Baja, his writing is filled with reverent wonder for their unashamed nakedness, grace, vitality and charm. Unique for his time, Serra also acknowledged that the country was theirs. He offered them figs; they gave him fish.
While Serra’s writing delights in the smell of sea , the discovery of fresh water and roses, even jokes about the natives wanting his ragged grey habit (because clothing was highly prized), he must have also seen how unrealistic was his dream of native peoples gladly presenting themselves for baptism. A culture based on personal freedom and individuality was reluctant to embrace the missions’ highly organized communal living. Despite his relentless optimism, Serra may have gradually come to recognize that a man nailed to a cross had little appeal to a buoyant, happy people whose abundant resources met most of their needs. Coastal Californians formed the oldest habitation in North America, dating from 11200 BC. 178 due to a moderate climate, skilled fishing and hunting, and clever cooking of plants, seeds and nuts
Few now know how precarious the California venture was, with the constant possibility of abandoning the whole attempt. So many Spaniards sickened or died, it was hard to see how the natives would ever want to become like them.
Finally, in desperation, Serra made the painful trip to Mexico City to plead his case before the viceroy of New Spain. Getting a surprisingly warm reception by the unusually enlightened ruler Bucareli, Serra laid out a thirty-two point plan which has been called “the first significant body of laws to govern early California.” Forthrightly, he defended the rights of indigenous women, whom few others recognized as even human. He even asked: unless the behavior of Spanish soldiers improved, “what business have we… in such a place?”
It’s hard to criticize one who so quickly condemned himself. He recognized the inherent contradictions of his ministry—needing more Spanish soldiers for defense, at the same time knowing they’d prey on native women. In one dark mood, he even pointed out that despite innumerable blunders, right can come from wrong. No one then had any idea how diseases introduced by the Spaniards would decimate the native population. During Serra’s era, natives died at a rate 50% higher than in their years before contact with Europeans. One scholar points out the great paradox of the missions: they brought both protection and exposure.
Many have pointed out that Serra had the unique blend of qualities that could keep the California missions afloat in distress. If nothing else, he had staying power, remaining when many others despaired, left, or went crazy. He wanted to bring people eternal life, at great personal cost, unaware they might have been quite happy without his version.
Like most human beings, Serra was complex. As he himself wrote of his experience, “I am quite aware of the enormous difference there is between reading about it and actually going through it.” One has to admire the dedication of a five foot tall, 110 pound man with a badly infected foot and lower leg who walked 1000 miles of his 9000 mile journey. Indeed, when Californians were asked what statue should represent their state in Congress, they unanimously chose Serra.
To judge his religious belief and practice by contemporary standards is anachronistic. Simply because Serra is a controversial figure doesn’t mean he can’t be a saintly pioneer. His paternalism towards the Indians may have been pragmatic: outside the missions, they’d be thrown into the ranches as slave laborers. Nothing in his writing reflects anything but good will towards native peoples, protectiveness, and the wonder that stirred when he first met them in 1769.
Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In, available from Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450, litpress.org/family