A new biography of Blessed Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who founded many Catholic missions in 18th century California, shows “incomprehension” of its subject and wrongly minimizes his heroism, one reviewer says.
“A true image of the great missionary indeed it is, but it is an image cast in photographic negative,” Christopher O. Blum said of Cornell history professor Steven W. Hackel’s book “Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father.”
However, Serra’s “admirable traits remain visible, even amidst the darkness of the image,” Blum said in his review, published Nov. 1 at Crisis Magazine’s website.
Blum, a history and philosophy professor at Denver’s Augustine Institute, said that Junipero Serra left behind a prestigious university chair in Mallorca for the hard work of missionary life in the New World in 1749. He founded nine missions in upper California and personally celebrated more than 6,000 baptisms and 5,000 confirmations.
“Then, of course, there is the most astonishing fact of all, that he traveled some 20,000 miles or more on foot to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Indian tribes of northern Mexico and California,” Blum said, asking “How does one go about portraying such a life as anything other than generous and heroic?”
He said Hackel’s book minimizes Serra’s freedom and his virtues. According to Blum, Hackel speculated that Serra chose the priesthood to leave a life of “filth, disorder, disease and hunger” and that Serra’s commitment to personally administer baptism shows a “desire for absolute control.” Serra’s habit of traveling on foot was to show his humility as part of the “theater” of popular missions.
Hackel writes that Serra, who suffered from a life-long injury to his leg, “probably took some satisfaction in how the source of his discomfort was so visible to others.”
Blum said that Haeckel’s depiction suggests Serra was “a master of self-representation who carefully constructed his life” to impress contemporaries and the future, but the biographer does not provide a convincing motive.
Serra’s efforts to discourage promiscuity among Indian tribes came in the context of massive deaths from new venereal diseases from Europe, noted Blum, who charged that Haeckel consistently sides with Spanish colonial officials who wanted the Franciscans to “mind their own business.”
Blum said that in reality, Serra spent his life in “the endless labor of building civilization in the wilderness.” He helped establish a viable agricultural life for the nomadic natives, allowing their numbers to increase. He also trained some in construction, bringing craftsmen north from the colonial capital.
Serra labored to bring to California “the very institutions, practices and virtues” that allow for the writing of a critical biography of him, he added.
Yet for Haeckel, Blum charged, Serra’s “astonishing renunciation of a quiet, comfortable, and even dignified life for the endless, filthy toil of the frontier becomes evidence not of singular heroism, but of widely-shared delusion.”
“It will take nothing less than the patience of a Junipero Serra to convince such an author, and such a culture as ours, that the love of God and neighbor is not just another post-modern stance, but the deep, calm reasonableness of holiness,” Blum said.