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About this blog: This blog is a place for conversation about books. I post reviews of what I'm reading--lots of contemporary fiction, but also classics and the occasional work of narrative nonfiction. I am always looking for new books to read, so ...  (More)

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Junipero Serra and the Gold Retirement Watch

Uploaded: Sep 16, 2015
Next week, during his visit to Washington, DC, Pope Francis intends to canonize Junipero Serra, the Franciscan monk who founded the first missions in California. In previous posts I have explored the ways this decision is controversial. My own position has always been that although Serra presided over the destruction of native Californian civilization (via diseases that the missionaries and soldiers brought with them from Europe), sainthood has always seemed like the proper honor for his work on behalf of the Catholic church. That was my conclusion, after dwelling on Serra's life for years while writing the novel Father Junipero's Confessor. However I never felt like I articulated my argument very well. Sainthood is an honor bestowed upon the near-perfect, the stainless, and Serra had plenty of stains. Knowing the full story--the good and bad consequences of Serra's oversize ambition--how could I endorse sainthood?

Then I read Joe Mathews' Sept 15 column, "Sainthood could diminish Junipero Serra." Toward the end of the piece, Mathews calls Serra's sainthood "a reward from his Catholic employer." That's it! I thought. At the risk of diminishing the stature of many of the best-beloved historical figures in human history--not to mention being damned to Hell--let me extend Joe Mathews and propose that sainthood is the gold retirement watch of the Catholic missionary corps. Only the very best missionaries earn the watch, but Serra was a very successful missionary, with tens of thousands of baptisms to his credit and a lasting influence on the territory he Christianized. He lived his life in conscious imitation of St Francis of Solano (the "apostle to Peru") and other famous Spanish missionaries who came before him. Sainthood was his goal all along. He really, really wanted that watch. To look at his accomplishment another way, he was like a poor kid who grew up idolizing Joe DiMaggio, then went on to become a Hall of Fame center fielder himself. He was just that good.

Or bad, depending how you look at it. See, the debate on Serra's sainthood is actually a proxy debate on the Catholic Church. If you believe the Church is a benevolent force in the world, then you probably support Serra. If not, then you don't. Like it or not, get ready. Next week California is getting another "San."

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