The September 13, 2021 Angelus News, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, featured a story with the headline “It’s time to start telling the truth about St. Junípero Serra.”
The word “start” really raised my hackles. For years there has been vicious misinformation spread about St. Junípero Serra, the founder of the California mission system; some even say, “the founder of California.”
Six years of misinformed protest
In 2015, there were calls to remove the statue of Fr. Serra from the U.S. Hall of Statuary in the nation’s capitol building, even as Pope Francis made his visit to Washington, D.C. for the canonization ceremony.
It was a slap in the face to Catholicism to say, in effect, that the long vetting process of the Vatican couldn’t be trusted and that Catholics were dishonest enough to canonize someone who was morally corrupt.
The criticism hasn’t let up since 2015. Instead, it has intensified. Mobs toppled statues of the saint in downtown Los Angeles, San Rafael near San Francisco and in Sacramento in 2020. This summer, a bill passed almost unanimously in the California Assembly and Senate to remove a statue of Junípero Serra from the grounds of the state capitol.
In response, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco wrote an opinion essay, published in the Wall Street Journal, in which they said that the legislature’s claims were a “slander” against the saint and promoted a “false narrative” about the missions.
What has the California Church done in defense?
So now the archbishops finally figure out they should say something? My hope is that the staff at the Angelus News made a poor choice with the word “start” when they were writing that headline. Surely there have been efforts before to save the reputation of Fr. Serra.
If so, though, why has the situation gotten this dire? Why wasn’t there an information campaign back in 2015?
Was there anyone trying to defend the statues at these protests? I realize you can’t reason with a mob – that was obvious when a priest tried to explain the positive contributions of St. Louis in front of protesters in the saint’s namesake city but was shouted down.
Mobs don’t want to listen. Remember that Pilate asked the crowd “What crime has he committed?” but the mob only replied “Crucify him!”
Nonetheless, there should have been defenders at these toppling events to engage in conversation with any rational beings and to pass out documented information.
The legislature is supposedly not a mob, and it began considering AB338, the bill to remove Serra’s statue, last January. Between January and late August, an ample amount of time, was there no Catholic lobbying against the bill? Did representatives from the dioceses of California not visit the bill’s sponsors to educate them? If that failed, did they not visit the rest of the legislators to enlighten them with historical accuracy?
Perhaps someone in the know will contact me to assure me that all of this was done, but they were stonewalled. Certainly possible, but I have doubts. My experience as a lifetime activist causes me to suspect that the Church hierarchy did not take vigorous action until this WSJ article.
Oh yes, they might have published a letter in church bulletins (how many read that?) and otherwise preached to the choir, but they probably wouldn’t have gone to the source of the problem unless diplomatic, back-channel discussions could be held discretely between powers. We have to be delicate and patient about these matters, right?
Do it now. Don’t wait.
I once lived in a diocese whose Pro-Life Director thought that the only thing Catholics should do about abortion is pray. Admittedly, prayer is the most powerful weapon, but it is not the only weapon. To seek solutions to problems only through prayer is to tell God, “You handle it. I don’t want to get my hands dirty.”
I really believe in the saying, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” We cannot expect salvation from a Deus ex machina. Nor should we wait until we have such a mess that only God could straighten it out. We have to get off the couch right from the start and take action ourselves. Waiting six years to try to educate the public about the truth of St. Junípero Serra’s accomplishments is unacceptable.
Action delayed is justice denied.