Scholars Available to Discuss Pope Francis Visit

UCR experts are available to discuss the controversial canonization of Junípero Serra, issues of gender and women in the Roman Catholic Church, and liberation theology

Pope Francis

UCR scholars are available to discuss issues surrounding the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. Sept. 22-27. Photo courtesy of the Presidency of the Nation of Argentina

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – When Pope Francis visits the East Coast Sept. 22-27, he will meet with U.S. and world leaders as well as Americans who are impoverished, incarcerated or homeless. He also will canonize Junípero Serra, founder of California’s mission system, a controversial decision that has angered many Native Americans. Serra is the Franciscan priest who founded the mission system that led to Spain’s colonization of California and the decimation of the state’s Indian population in the 18th and 19th centuries.

University of California, Riverside scholars are available to discuss the life of Junípero Serra and the impact of the mission system on California Indians, issues of gender and women in the Roman Catholic Church, and the history of liberation theology.

Steven Hackel, professor of history

Steven Hackel

Steven Hackel

Hackel is the author of the prize-winning 2013 biography “Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father” (Hill and Wang), the first book in decades to fully examine Serra’s early life in Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, and to discuss how the Franciscan’s experiences there influenced policies and actions in New Spain that make him a polarizing figure in California history. Hackel is also the author of the prize-winning “Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis,” a study of Indian-Spanish relations in colonial California.

Serra defies easy categorization, Hackel says, but it is clear that the saintly image imparted to generations of California schoolchildren is incomplete as is the characterization of Serra as a ruthless imperial priest intent on destroying California Indians. Serra was well-known as a devout Franciscan, teacher of philosophy and skilled administrator when he arrived in Mexico in 1750. Nineteen years later, at age 55, he founded the first of 21 missions in Alta California. “It was not an accident that he was sent here,” Hackel says. Influenced by stories of other Franciscan missionaries and their contact with indigenous populations, Serra left Mallorca to work with Indians who had not previously converted to Catholicism. “He did not find that in Mexico. That’s why he wanted to come to California. It was a chance to fulfill his ambition of being a missionary to Indians in the New World.”

When Serra died in 1784, around 6,000 Indians had been baptized at the nine missions established by him or under his auspices. By the time the missions were secularized in the early 1830s, more than 80,000 Indians had been baptized between San Diego and north of San Francisco, but almost 60,000 had been buried, nearly 25,000 of whom were children under the age of 10.

Jennifer Hughes, associate professor of history and founding co-director of UCR’s Institute for the Study of Immigrant Religions

Jennifer Hughes

Jennifer Hughes

Hughes is an expert on the Catholic Church in Latin America and is available to comment on the canonization of Junípero Serra, issues of gender and women, and the history of liberation theology in Latin America.

In a co-authored article published in the Spring 2015 issue of Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, “The Final Conversion of Pope Francis and the Women He Needs,” Hughes examines the origins of liberation theology in Latin America and the under-recognized leadership of Latin American women theologians who called attention to “the suffering of women that included those who were designated as ‘sinners’ and ‘indecent’ because they were single mothers, traditional midwives, or sex workers who had nowhere else to turn during times of extreme scarcity and crisis.”

Pope Francis has been remaking himself as “a powerful and charismatic religious leader who has one important challenge with respect to the public roles and private needs of women worldwide,” she writes. “There is a solution, one with a long and distinguished pedigree, the ancient tradition of the intellectual, theological and administrative companionship of women to church leaders, beginning with the close female friends and disciples of Jesus, including the three Marys — Jesus’ mother, Mary the mother of James, and Mary Magdalene, the best friend of Jesus who was incorrectly identified as a prostitute rather than  the generous and influential woman of means that she was. Saint Francis of Assisi consulted throughout his public life with Clare, the founder of the Franciscan Order of Poor Clares. Like his namesake, Pope Francis also needs the wisdom of strong women to help him navigate the other half of the world, the still-invisible 50 percent, the part of the world that — despite his concern for the smallest and least of us and for the ‘wounds on the bodies’ of the trafficked victims, especially women and children — still perplexes him and without whom he cannot succeed in his invocation of the Catholic Church as a new social movement in Latin America and in the world.”

Clifford Trafzer, distinguished professor of history, Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs and director of the California Center for Native Nations

Clifford Trafzer

Clifford Trafzer

Trafzer has published numerous books about Native American health, medicine and history, including the boarding school experience. Of the elevation of Junípero Serra to sainthood Trafzer says:

“The canonization of Serra glorifies and excuses forced colonization and Christianization of thousands of California Indian people. During the investigations into Serra as a candidate for sainthood, the Vatican ignored California Indian people and never allowed them a voice in the matter, not since the 1940s. Instead, the Vatican relied on the research of Herbert Eugene Bolton of UC Berkeley, a champion of Spanish colonization, and the Church (and Bolton) ignored the detailed population studies of Dr. Sherburne Cook of UC Berkeley, who demonstrated the disastrous impact of the missions on Native American populations in California.

“Canonization of Serra confirms and supports the continued right of conquest by non-Native Americans of indigenous people. Serra was an agent of religious conquest and theft of thousands of acres of Indian lands, which resulted in the death, dislocation, and denigration of California Indians. The Church continues to ignore the voices of California and evidence they can provide of gross abuses by Serra, President of the Sacred Expedition.”


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