In San Francisco’s Golden Gate State Park on June 20, a mob tore down statues of Junipero Serra, as well as Union general and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, and National Anthem author Francis Scott Key. In Los Angeles the same day, rioters pulled down a statue of Serra in the city’s downtown area.
Statues at Catholic churches and missions, including Southern California’s famous Mission San Juan Capistrano, have been relocated for fear of vandals.
Archbishop Gomez voiced understanding for “the deep pain being expressed by some native peoples in California.”
“The exploitation of America’s first peoples, the destruction of their ancient civilizations, is a historic tragedy. Crimes committed against their ancestors continue to shape the lives and futures of native peoples today. Generations have passed and our country still has not done enough to make things right,” he said.
Gomez said he believes protests over California history are important. He praised the city of Ventura’s model of respectful debate over the Serra monument with both indigenous leaders and Catholic representatives.
In other cases, he said, “it is clear that those attacking St. Junipero’s good name and vandalizing his memorials do not know his true character or the actual historical record.”
“He learned their languages and their ancient customs and ways,” Gomez said. “St. Junipero came not to conquer, he came to be a brother. ‘We have all come here and remained here for the sole purpose of their well-being and salvation,’ he once wrote. ‘And I believe everyone realizes we love them’.”
“Serious scholars conclude that St. Junipero himself was a gentle man and there were no physical abuses or forced conversions while he was president of the mission system,” said Gomez. “St. Junipero did not impose Christianity, he proposed it. For him, the greatest gift he could offer was to bring people to the encounter with Jesus Christ.”
During the eighteenth century, the saint founded nine Catholic missions in the area that would later become California. Many of those missions would go on to become the centers of major California cities. Serra helped to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity and taught them new agricultural technologies.
Pope Francis canonized the Franciscan missionary in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 23, 2015.
Some critics have lambasted Serra as a symbol of European colonialism and said the missions engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Bl. Serra himself was abusive.
“The sad truth is that, beginning decades ago, activists started ‘revising’ history to make St. Junipero the focus of all the abuses committed against California’s indigenous peoples,” said Gomez. “But the crimes and abuses that our saint is blamed for — slanders that are spread widely today over the internet and sometimes repeated by public figures — actually happened long after his death.”
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At the time of Serra’s arrival in California, it was voluntary to live in the missions and only 10-20% of California’s native community joined Serra in these missions. St. Junipero died in 1784, but it wasn’t until 1851 when California’s first governor called for “a war of extermination” against the Native Americans and called in the U.S. Cavalry, according to Gomez.
“It is sadly true that corporal punishment was sometimes used in the missions, as it was practiced throughout late 18th-century society. It is also true that some natives died of diseases in the missions,” he said.
Gomez said the saint understood that “the souls of indigenous Americans had been darkened with bitterness and rage at their historic mistreatment and the atrocities committed against them.” He cited Serra’s defense of Kumeyaay attackers who in 1775 burned down the San Diego mission and tortured and murdered a priest who was a friend of Serra.
“St. Junipero was not outraged. He was concerned for the killers’ souls. He pleaded with authorities to have mercy,” said Gomez. Serra urged forgiveness of the killers after “some slight punishment.”
This would help teach the Christian rule “to return good for evil and to pardon our enemies,” Serra wrote.
“This may be the first moral argument against the use of the death penalty in American history,” said Gomez. “And St. Junipero was arguing against its imposition on an oppressed minority.”