Continental Ambitions

by Kevin Starr, Ignatius Press, £28

A modern, satisfactory survey of Catholicism in colonial North America has long been a desideratum. Why none has appeared is something of a mystery. Wonderful studies of particular aspects of the story are plentiful, but it has proven surprisingly difficult to pull everything together. Thankfully, Kevin Starr has come as close as anyone to rendering the puzzle obsolete. His weighty new book is splendid. I can’t think of a more reliable and entertaining narrative account of this endlessly fascinating topic.

Crucially, Starr works hard to retain a sense of balance. He recognises that Catholicism’s progress in the overseas territories of France, Spain and England was a confusing mix of lofty ambition and unwelcome intrusion. As he suggests, it “brought with it terrible figures as well as admirable ones”.

Lamentable moments and trends are not hard to locate: the links with colonial excess and exploitation, crude denunciation of existing belief systems, and all the rest. “How,” after all, “could well-intentioned clergy bridge, much less heal, this breach of trust born of greed, rapine and murder?” But for all that, many of the priests and Catholics who travelled through North America were precisely that: well-intentioned. Some of them decried the outrages of their conquering contemporaries and it’s hard not to admire the sheer pluck behind the epic missionary odysseys.

Starr reminds us of Eusebio Kino travelling through California and Arizona during the late 17th and 18th centuries, observing comets, grappling with the intricacies of conversion and, for Starr, behaving like an archetypal Jesuit by revelling “in the work of the world, the big picture and the practical detail”. A little later we encounter the Franciscan Junípero Serra, every bit as dynamic and deserving of his “reputation as an action hero of Catholic history”.

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