2013-12-13 / Faith
Sharing all about Father Serra
Priest lends knowledge to TV show
During an uprising at the San Diego de Alcala Mission in 1775, Junipero Serra stood between hundreds of rioting Native Americans who burned mission buildings, killing a priest, and the soldiers who wanted to punish them.
“He gets in front of the soldiers and says, ‘Do not take vengeance,’” said the Rev. Joe Scerbo of St. Paschal Baylon Catholic Church in Thousand Oaks, who contributed to a fiveepisode docudrama about Serra that aired Nov. 20 to 24 on Catholic television network EWTN. “Historically, we can prove that.”
Serra’s legacy has been disputed, but his accomplishments are set in history: He founded nine of the 21 California missions, from San Diego to Sonoma, between 1769 and 1782, two years before his death. The early communities formed the foundation of the state.
Scerbo, a friar of the Franciscan Order that founded the California missions, said the preacher and theology professor left his home in Majorca, Spain, to emulate the lives of heroic saints. In his 50s and suffering from asthma, Serra crossed a perilous ocean, worked tirelessly to spread the Catholic faith and in some instances stood against injustice.
“(Serra) pressed forward to meet new cultures, to learn new languages, to share with others the joy he knew in the mystery of Christ’s passion for the world,” Scerbo said. “Everything he did, he did for Jesus. He spoke Jesus. He heard Jesus. He was led by the spirit of Jesus.”
The presence of the missionary can still be felt.
Scerbo recently met the descendant of a Native American woman baptized by Serra generations ago. The descendant told Scerbo, “I’m thankful he gave us the gift of faith.”
Pioneer and peacemaker
Scerbo, who has stage-four stomach cancer, described Serra as “a man of audacity,” a visionary who encouraged others to reach their goals and embraced the motto “siempre adelante,” meaning “always forward.”
In recognition of his work, a bronze statue of Serra was installed at the U.S. Capitol in 1931.
But Ted Garcia, a descendant of Chumash leaders, said the mission system created by Serra— whose 300th birthday was celebrated Nov. 24—hurt Native Americans, who he said were enslaved and forced to build the structures. Many forced to live at the religious outposts died of disease.
“(Spaniards) took away their language, culture, ceremony and their names. They gave them their own culture. It just wasn’t right,” Garcia said.
Though the Catholic converts could be whipped for disobedience or for trying to escape the missions, reports that Serra beat Native Americans are not true, said Scerbo, who served as the academic dean of Trinity College of Graduate Studies for 16 years. The priest has a Master of Teaching Science in counseling psychology, a Master of Arts in theology, and a PhD in religion and the personality sciences.
Instead, Serra was caught in the middle of violence and witnessed terrible atrocities, Scerbo said.
“The abuse of power was very much a truth then as it is now in our world,” he said. “Greed, lust, vengeance undermined his mission at every corner. . . . Even though the laws of the Indies were written affirming the rights of indigenous people against power abusers, great sins were committed by the conquistadors who came for power, prestige and position.”
Still, some critics argue that Serra condoned the abuse.
Should his legacy be celebrated?
“I can’t make any judgments because I wasn’t there,” Garcia said. “I don’t cast aspersions on people (based on) what someone else said.”
As a child, Scerbo himself witnessed unfair treatment of Native Americans.
“I saw a chief cry when his land was mutilated,” he said. “That tear burned inside me. I always saw that Indian chief leading people to something better. The pain of Native Americans must be acknowledged. I support the movement to see the Native American spirit recover.”
At a recent interfaith prayer service, a woman offered her forgiveness to Scerbo for the hardships her ancestors endured.
Unfazed by the unexpected event, the priest knelt in front of her and told the Native Americans, Jews, Mormons and Muslims in the crowd that he would try to heal historical wounds “in a prayer that went out into the universe.”
“I said, I will do anything I can to build a bridge to walk to your people, to seek and discover mutual values that unite us and make us strong,” Scerbo said. “That’s what Father Serra would do if he were here today.”