Pope Francis made a quick visit to the statue of St. Junipero Serra in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection after he addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday. He stopped for a moment of brief reflection.

Father Serra’s statue cradles a church in his left arm and holds a cross aloft in his outstretched right arm. The website of the Architect of the Capitol, which maintains the statue, describes Fr. Serra as “one of the most important Spanish missionaries in the New World.”

But did you know some California legislators have been trying to remove Father Serra’s statue?

The Franciscan priest’s eighteenth-century missionary work in Mexico and California reached countless Spanish colonists and American natives alike. He founded several of the missions that would go on to become the centers of major California cities.

The missions aimed to teach the Christian faith to natives. The missions also taught them the technologies of Europe. Father Serra himself sometimes served as a buffer between the Spanish military and the natives. So great was Father Serra’s love for the natives that he opposed the death sentence for a man who had killed one of his fellow missionaries in an uprising.

Pope Francis has encouraged Americans to recognize the importance of Father Serra for their history.

On Sept. 23, the Pope canonized Father Serra. He called him “the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth’, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.”

Father Serra’s importance in the state of California led the legislature to honor him with a place in the national capitol in the 1930s. Each state legislature chooses two statues to represent their state in the Capitol.   So why try to remove him in 2015?   Some California legislators had sought to replace Father Serra’s statue with a statue of astronaut Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman to fly in space. Their advocacy of Ride sometimes turned into denigration of Father Serra and his legacy.   Some critics of Father Serra simply oppose Christian evangelization. Other critics depict him as a figurehead for the misdeeds of Spanish colonization of the New World. Still others are more specific and cite some of the restrictions of 18th century mission life: corporal punishment for violation of the mission rules, including a requirement that once natives agreed to join the missions, they could not leave.

Archaeology professor Reuben Mendoza of California State University, Monterrey Bay used to side with the critics. But further reflection and study changed his mind. He spoke with CNA in March about Father Serra’s legacy.

“When he died, many native peoples came to the mission for his burial. They openly wept. Others of his colleagues and even colonists, believed that he would be made a saint, because of the way he had lived his life, a self-effacing life of a martyr,” the professor said.


The proposal to replace Father Serra’s statue had been advancing in the California legislature. California Gov. Jerry Brown, for his part, has the last word in the decision.

“We’re going to keep his statue in Congress,” he told Catholic News Service in July. “It’s done as far as I’m concerned.”

Brown also praised Serra as “a very courageous man, and one of the innovators and pioneers of California,” the Sacramento Bee reported in January.

Like Junipero Serra, Pope Francis is not blind to the sufferings of Native Americans. As he told Congress:

“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation.”

“Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past,” he said.

And at the canonization Mass, the Pope said Junipero Serra “learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters.”

Perhaps we can all take a lesson from Father Serra’s motto, commemorated on a coin from the Mission San Diego: “Always go forward and never turn back.”

And we can remember that Father Serra’s influence endures. Mission San Diego was rebuilt in the 20th century. Each Sunday, it celebrates several Masses in English and in Spanish.

The Masses are still standing room only. Another reason for prayers.


And let’s have one more look at Mission San Diego

The Statue of Father Junipero Serra at the U.S. Capitol

The Statue of Father Junipero Serra at the U.S. Capitol