For Sunday, July 5, 2020 | By Rev. Michael P. Hanifin
In recent days, we have seen protestors topple statues on the evening news. On the East Coast and in the Southern States, many city centers and parks have historic statues of presidents, generals, and other notable people. Recent condemnation was directed toward Confederate Generals and politicians, and then our early presidents were vandalized claiming they enacted policies of white supremacy.
These past few weeks have seen two statues of Saint Junipero Serra toppled (one in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and the other in Olvera Street in Los Angeles). Father Junipero Serra was a Franciscan friar who established 9 of the 21 California Missions. In 1776, he established Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano in present day Orange County. His Feast Day was on Wednesday, July 1st where Catholics remember that what he accomplished impacts our local Catholic Community. He has been called the Apostle of California and his body is presently interred near the altar at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel.
Recently, the Catholic bishops of California defended Saint Junipero Serra, claiming that the saint was “ahead of his time” by defending the rights of indigenous peoples, and that those who have called for his statues removal “failed the test” of history. The California Bishops stated, “The movement to confront racism within our society during these past weeks has been, at times, challenging, but it has provided bold new hope for every American that our nation can begin to transform key elements of our racist past and present.”
The bishops continue that they “vigorously and wholeheartedly support” efforts to identify and repair historical instances of racism against members of the African-American and Native American communities, but that on the specific question of removing statues and other public images, the actual history of the individuals must be considered. They said, “If this process is to be truly effective as a remedy for racism, it must discern carefully the entire contribution that the historical figure in question made to American life, especially in advancing the rights of marginalized peoples.”
Saint Junipero Serra and his Franciscan Missionaries confreres helped to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity and improved the quality of their lives by teaching them new agricultural technologies. Yet some activists viewed the Franciscan missionaries as having contributed to the destruction of Native American way of life through the founding of the California mission churches.
The California bishops (including Bishop Kevin Vann) defended the saint’s life and mission, “The historical truth is that Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities. Serra was not simply a man of his times. In working with Native Americans, he was a man ahead of his times who made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population and work against an oppression that extends far beyond the mission era. If that is not enough to legitimize a public statue in the state that Serra did so much to create, then virtually every historical figure from our nation’s past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today’s standards.”
Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers. Despite having an infirm leg, he walked to Mexico City to obtain special authority from the Spanish viceroy to discipline the military who were abusing the indigenous people. Then he walked back to California.
It is important not to deny that historical wrongs have occurred, even by people of good will, and the healing of memories and reparation is very much needed. The wrongs committed by historical characters cannot be corrected by keeping them hidden or sanitized, neither can they be corrected by the re-writing of history.