On Wednesday, Father Ken Laverone of Sacramento’s St. Francis of Assisi Parish will help make Roman Catholic history when he assists Pope Francis in canonizing Father Junipero Serra.
Laverone is part of a delegation of 100 people from the Diocese of Sacramento who will be among the 25,000 attending the Mass of Canonization for Serra outside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. For a reception in Serra’s honor Thursday, Darrell Corti of Sacramento’s Corti Brothers Grocery has provided a case of Harbor Winery 1986 Amador County Mission del Sol, made from stock cultivated from the first variety of wine brought to California by missionaries around 1775.
Laverone, pastor at the midtown parish, will read a 500-word biography of Serra in Spanish in his role as Vice-Postulator for the Cause of the Canonization of Junipero Serra.
Not everyone is enthused about making the 18th century missionary a saint. Serra founded a series of Catholic missions along the coast of California. Scholars and and Native American groups say the mission system decimated Indian culture, relied on forced Indian labor and subjected Indians to corporal punishment.
In July, in a speech in Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized for the “grave sins” of colonialism.
“Terrible things did happen,” Laverone said. But he said Serra, a Franciscan theology professor from Mallorca, Spain, meant well by the Native Americans he encountered.
“He had a very strong view of the goodness and holiness of each individual person,” Laverone said. “He wanted to bring the gospel, the good news, to all people, and called the Indians and other non-Christians gentiles, like Paul did in his writings.”
Serra, famous for walking from Vera Cruz to Mexico City and later from San Diego north toward San Francisco to establish the mission system, was ecstatic after encountering his first tribe, Laverone said. “He said, ‘Look (at) these people. It’s like I entered into the garden of Eden; there’s a sense of goodness, light and happiness.’”
Serra didn’t want the missions built around presidios or colonies, and several times he protested to the viceroy in Mexico City about the way Spanish soldiers abused Indian women in Alta California, Laverone said. He also forbade retribution against Indians who killed a solder at Mission San Diego, citing God’s mercy.
Laverone said Serra did condone flogging mission Indians if they ran off. It was the same kind of punishment imposed on runaway soldiers, but was very different than what the Indians were used to, since they didn’t impose physical punishment on their children.
To say the Indians working at the missions were enslaved is too strong, Laverone argued. “He made sure they were fed and clothed properly and they worked.”
Historians, doctors and theologians studied thousands of pages to determine whether Serra was worthy of sainthood, Laverone said. They found one miracle –a nun in St. Louis was healed of lupus after praying to him – and many people worldwide who said their prayers had been answered and their ailments healed after praying to Serra.
Serra died in 1784 at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. At the time, he was already considered a saint by many Indians in the region, said Laverone. “On his death bed, the room was filled with wailing Indians who wanted to help usher his spirit into the next world, according to their indigenous customs.”
More than 5,000 Indians were baptized at the missions, Laverone said, and several Ohlone Indians from California will attend Serra’s canonization.
Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Serra and the subsequent debate prompted the Diocese of Sacramento and the California Catholic Conference to announce that they would look at ways to improve the accuracy of material presented at Mission museums and to review the way the Indian experience is taught in Catholic schools.