The Mission, Junipero Serra, and the politics of sainthood

by Mark I. Pinsky

from Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 101-104
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1988, 2006

When Pope John Paul II pronounces Father Junipero Serra "beatified," the second of three required steps to sainthood, next year in Rome, backers of the "Apostle of California" might say a little prayer of thanksgiving for the heroic Jesuit missionaries depicted in the film THE MISSION — for making the festivities possible.

The workings of the Catholic Church and the nature of sainthood have figured in a number of feature films shot around the world and shown in this country over the past several years: THE NAME OF THE ROSE (Italy and Germany), THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO VIC (Scotland) and THERESE (France), as well as a documentary on the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.


None, however, focused on the moral dilemmas associated with sanctity and the state as much as THE MISSION, which deals with some of the Jesuit missionaries who went to live among the Guarani Indians of Latin America in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Jesuits founded successful, cooperative agricultural settlements, called reducciones, in the jungle highlands near the modern border of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. For nearly two centuries they brought Christianity to the native peoples and defended them from the depredations of Spanish and Portuguese colonists. Ultimately, the geopolitics of the day put them and their order at odds with the Pope, and they had to decide whose law God would have them obey, whether to save their lives or their souls.

THE MISSION won the grand prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, a Christopher Award, a Gold Angel from the Los Angeles-based Religion in Media, two Golden Globes (best screenplay and musical score) and an Academy Award (for Chris Menges' cinematography). However, at the box office and for many viewers, the film was a disappointment.

Some critics found the $17 million film too long and sections of the dialogue "preachy." Others complained that the production's whole was less than the sum of its formidable parts: actors Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro; screenwriter Robert Bolt (A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS); composer Ennio Morricone; director Roland Joffe and producer David Puttnam (who collaborated on THE KILLING FIELDS), deposed head of Columbia Pictures. The project was largely the result of a ten-year effort by the Italian producer Fernando Ghia, ultimately the film's co-producer, who has worked on such political films as THE MATTEI AFFAIR and CHINA IS NEAR.

Regardless of its mass entertainment value, THE MISSION raised important questions relevant to the Serra sainthood campaign, in part because the histories of the Jesuits and Serra's Franciscans in the New World have been intertwined for more than two centuries, beginning with the events portrayed in the movie.

In 1759, three years after THE MISSION's Jesuits gave their lives defending the land and culture of the Guarani Indians — sacrificed by church leaders trying to preserve the black-robed order's existence — Portugal nevertheless expelled the Jesuits from all of its territories in the New World, making the colonies once again safe for slavery and slaughter of the Indians.

Eight years later the other shoe dropped, when King Carlos III of Spain, convinced that rebellious, intriguing Jesuits were involved in an assassination plot against him, booted the order from all of its American colonies, and gave the missionaries 30 days to vacate their California territory — on pain of death if they refused or tarried. During the next half century, the order was suppressed and nearly died.


The principal beneficiaries of the Jesuits' expulsion were the Spanish Franciscans, who first arrived in Mexico in 1524. Serra, accompanied by Spanish military and civil authorities, personally took over the California territory from the Jesuits in 1769. He went on to found the string of missions that runs from San Diego to San Francisco. In sharp contrast to THE MISSION's young Jesuits, who were killed by Spanish and Portuguese soldiers, Serra died peacefully in his sleep in 1784 at the age of 71, surrounded by a few Indian converts at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel.

Over the last 50 years, wide and powerful support has been generated in California particularly in conservative political circles — and the world for Serra's cause, as the sainthood drive is known. There are statues and stamps in his image and streets named in his honor, and he has been the subject of countless books and articles and several wholly uncritical documentaries and docudramas.


Yet throughout his tenure as president of California missions and since, Serra has been charged with cruelty and insensitivity toward the Indians. Indian activists opposed to Serra's beatification demonstrated near the Carmel Mission late September during John Paul II's U.S. visit, when the Pope delivered a panegyric over Serra's grave, but did not announce the beatification, as widely expected. John Paul has in his travels exhibited considerable sensitivity to the customs and concerns of native peoples, and he continues to do so. Before coming to Carmel, he spoke to 15,000 Native American Catholics in Phoenix — where he apologized for the treatment of Indians by some missionaries, but praised Serra as an individual by finessing the historical record — and after Carmel, he kept his promise to reschedule another meeting with Native Americans in Western Canada. While visiting Temuco, Chile, in April of 1987, the Pope told the Mapuche Indians who had gathered at the rally that he had come "to encourage the Mapuches to conserve with a healthy pride the culture of their people; the traditions and customs, the language and their own values."

In response to the Indians' charges against Serra, the Diocese of Monterey hired a public relations specialist to compile an historical defense of Serra's relations with Indian converts, and has issued a challenge to all who oppose beatification on those grounds to come forward. The American Indian Historical Society in San Francisco accepted the challenge, and released its own critical book-length reply to the diocese, entitled "Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide."


It was troubling to Serra's supporters that some Catholics want to measure the Franciscan missionary against the standard set by the Jesuits of THE MISSION. Such a comparison would be academic, inasmuch as the Jesuits who died above the spectacular Iguazu falls defied the church as well as the Portuguese and the Spanish — and, having been excommunicated, are not considered martyrs to the faith, much less candidates for sainthood. The comparison also raises questions about the nature of sanctity and its relation — if any — to discipline and obedience.

While Serra, a former theology professor and member of the Inquisition, traveled with Spanish civil and military authorities, and frankly paved the way for Spanish empire, the priests of THE MISSION demonstrated what one character in the film, a cardinal played by Ray McAnally, calls "Jesuit contempt for the authority of the state."

Unlike the Guarani of Latin America, most California Indians of the period were peaceful and pastoral to the point of passivity. Nonetheless, the Franciscans thought their hunter-gatherer society was uncivilized, chiefly because the California natives of the time permitted abortion and divorce, were promiscuous (i.e., they remarried alter divorce), failed to discipline their children, bathed in sweat lodges and worshipped the forces of nature.

After luring the Indians into the mission settlements with everything from trinkets and musical instruments to a regular and reliable food supply, the Indian converts were compelled to build the structures and grow crops to feed themselves, the priests, colonists, soldiers and civil authorities. Within the completed missions, the Indians — even those who were married — were lodged separately by sex, in close, poorly ventilated quarters. Exposed to European diseases for the first time under such conditions, they died in horrendous numbers.

Those who ran away were rounded up with the help of Spanish soldiers, punished, and forcibly returned, sometimes in chains. When discipline was required, the Indians were shipped or beaten, as Serra and his defenders have acknowledged, pointing out that it was a common practice in those days — a practice to which the priests voluntarily submitted themselves as penance.

This is a virtual mirror image to the thriving communities, sometimes called "republics," portrayed in THE MISSION. True, as the film progresses, more clothing is worn by the Guarani, but there is no coercion or corporal punishment in evidence. As they did a hundred years before in Canada, the Jesuits speak and pray in the Indian language, rather than compelling them to learn Spanish, which was the rule in California.

It was precisely this economic success which doomed THE MISSION's Indian settlements since, as McAnally, who portrays the Pope's representative observes, "the paradise of the poor never pleases those who rule above them." And, at least in part as a result of their contact with the Jesuits, the Guarani ended up just as dead and bonded as the Chumash of California.


The differences between Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries in North and South America was symptomatic of a larger dispute. At issue was whether, as Serra believed, it was first necessary to suppress aspects of indigenous, non-Christian cultures in order to evangelize them — a position largely reversed by the Second Vatican Council — a matter of vigorous controversy within the church in the 18th century and well before, most notably in the Chinese Rites Controversy.

"These were huge debates that involved great Spanish theologians on the whole issue of using force for conversion," said Father John A. Coleman, a professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, In judging historical figures, Coleman said, the common expression in explaining their actions is that "they breathed the air of their time." But the problem with Serra is that there was other air to be breathed. If you're looking backward, you can fairly hold them to the best standards of their time. Coleman asked,

"Was a candidate for sainthood caught in the mentality of the age, or did he or she transcend the age? God's judgment calls on us to stand above our time."

Father Francis Guest, a Franciscan historian, told an interviewer recently that Serra's treatment of the Indians "has to be judged in light of European culture in the 18th century. It's not appropriate to use the standards of today in judging people." The Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which declared the validity of a miraculous cure attributed to Sera's intercession, evidently concurred. "The good that Serra did for the Indians far outweighed any of what we might now consider negative elements," says Msgr. Robert Sarno, an American priest assigned to the Congregation in Rome, "namely, blending them into the Spanish culture, as well as protecting them from Spanish soldiers and settlers."

"There is a prophetic side of sanctity," countered Dorothy H. Donnelly, a theological historian and associate member of the sisters of St. Joseph, "a gift of breaking through your time, your culture and your century, and of saying 'no' to the surrounding culture," as did the Jesuits of THE MISSION.


The Serra beatification highlights the issue of what kind of message the Church wants to send today to the world, especially the Third World, where the church would like to strengthen its hand. One Southern California priest has referred to the Majorca-born Serra as an "affirmative action saint," offered to a church that, in the Sunbelt at least, is becoming increasingly Latino. In downtown Los Angeles and other urban centers THE MISSION was shown with Spanish subtitles.

And while the debate over evangelizing people in the Third World may be settled, the related matter of obedience is not. Father Daniel Berrigan, a rather rebellious Jesuit who has said "no" many times to the powers that be of this culture, and who plays a bit part in the film, suggested in American Film that there is a direct line between the Jesuit reducciones portrayed in THE MISSION, and the "Christian base communities" now being created among the poor by some priests in Latin America.

Others make the connection between priests who cast off the cloth and became revolutionary guerrillas in the 1960s, as well as the more moderate adherents of "liberation theology," which has been criticized by the Pope. Joffe recently told the Los Angeles Times that while filming the picture, "I became fascinated with liberation theology." Several members of the ruling Sandinista directorate in Nicaragua are former priests, and were publicly chided by the Pope during his 1986 visit to Managua.

Those clerics like Berrigan and his brother Phillip, a former Jesuit, who ally themselves with the poor and politically dispossessed and against the established order continue to run into trouble, as evidenced by last winter's meeting of U.S. bishops in Washington, which backed the Vatican in temporarily disciplining Seattle Bishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. Two American Jesuit priests have been forced from their order in the past year because of teachings and acts alleged to be at odds with dogma, especially in the area of sexuality. For a brief period, the Pope personally appointed the order's governing Superior General in Rome, an unprecedented break in the Jesuits' history of electing their own leader.

Addressing a crowd at Corrientes, Argentina, the Pope John Paul paid a kind of backhanded (and inaccurate) tribute to the Jesuits of THE MISSION, saying, "the missions and doctrines of the Jesuits constitute, without a doubt, one of the most worthwhile achievements that unified the Spanish, Portuguese and native worlds." In the audience were many Indians, who hold an annual procession for the Virgin Mary, whom they call "the Queen of the Guaranis."

There is evidence, apart from the Serra beatification, that that the commitment displayed by the Jesuits in THE MISSION does have a place in the sainthood process. Supporters of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by a right-wing death squad in El Salvador because of his opposition to the authoritarian regime then in power — an incident roughly recreated in the film SALVADOR — are now asking Rome to declare him "venerable," the first of the three steps to sainthood.