"His primary identity was as a priest” | Jim Graves | CWR
Historian and author Dr. Robert Senkewicz on the life, work, and holiness of Bl. Junípero Serra, who will be canonized this year by Pope Francis
Pope Francis recently announced his intention to canonize Spanish padre, Blessed Junípero Serra Ferrer, O.F.M. (1713-84) when he visits the United States this fall. Serra was from the Spanish island possession of Majorca, off the east coast of Spain, and traveled to the New World with his fellow Franciscans to evangelize the native peoples of Mexico and California. Beginning in 1769, he established the first nine of 21 California missions.
Serra has been criticized by some for his treatment of the Indians, but is admired by others, including Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, who said, “Blessed Junipero is one of my spiritual heroes and a giant figure in the evangelization of the New World.”
Dr. Robert M. Senkewicz was born in New York City. After attending graduate school at Stanford University, he became a history professor at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution near San Jose, California, in 1976, a position he still holds today. He has collaborated with his wife, Rose Marie Beebe, on several books about the history of California including Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535–1846; Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848; and “To Toil in That Vineyard of the Lord”: Contemporary Scholarship on Junípero Serra. Their new book, Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary (University of Oklahoma Press), will be published in February. Professor Senkewicz is a Catholic, and volunteers to lead tours of Mission Santa Clara de Asis on the University grounds. He recently spoke with CWR about Blessed Junipero.
CWR: There are many books about Junipero Serra, the Indians and the missions. What new perspective does your book add to those already out there?
Senkewicz: We offer one that has a double focus. First off, Fr. Serra was a Catholic Franciscan missionary priest. All four of these things are important. Many of the books on Serra I’ve read focus on some personal aspects of his life, such as his leg infection which caused him so much pain or the disputes he had with the governors of California. Insufficient attention, however, is paid to him as a priest and to his own spirituality and theology. This is an important part of who he is. In fact, he had a doctorate in theology.
Second, we concentrate on the native peoples he encountered in Mexico and California. Newer materials focusing on his relationship with the native peoples are contentious, saying that the missions and Spanish colonialism were bad for native peoples. We wanted to explore Serra’s thoughts in regards to them.
It turned out to be a perfect collaboration between my wife and I. I teach history and she teaches Spanish. All the original documents relating to the missions are in Spanish, so she was able to do our translations.
CWR: Tell us about Serra the priest.