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Who Was Fr. Junipero Serra?

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Was Fr. Junipero Serra a dark part of history, deserving of his statues and memorials’ desecration, or was he a holy man of God who directly resisted the mistreatment and enslavement of the native peoples he evangelized? Find out here, with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.


CK:
Hello, and welcome to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Thank you so much for being with us. Strange times continue that we’re living through. Very, very odd and, in some ways, maybe a bit obsessive ideological times. That reality has expressed itself here in the state of California and other places in the tearing down of statues. Here to talk about the tearing down of the statues and, in some places, the kind of preventive peaceful removing of the statues, I suppose, of the man who is … I guess from the time we’re at about fourth grade here in California, we learn he’s more or less the guy who made California, Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest and missionary. Here to tell us about what’s happening in San Francisco and also to talk about the man Serra himself, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, the Archbishop of San Francisco. Archbishop, thank you for being with us.

ASC:
You’re welcome. Good to be on the show.

CK:
So I know in Ventura, they’re going to take a statue down. Some of the missions are taking the statues down just so that nobody hurts the statues, I guess.

ASC:
Yes.

CK:
But in San Francisco, it got out of hand. What happened there?

ASC:
Last Friday night, basically a mob went into Golden Gate Park and tore down three statues for some form of protest. One must wonder what they were protesting, because Junipero Serra was one of them, but they also pulled down a statue of Francis Scott Key and another one of Ulysses S Grant. We’re seeing these protests against racism, but Grant, of course, was an abolitionist and went to war to free the slaves. Junipero Serra, the real story isn’t known, so he’s associated with something that he actually stood against for in his life.

CK:
Well, you can see why Francis Scott Key, though. He did write the national anthem, and I suppose somebody will find a way to make the national anthem a racist document of some sort, but okay, so Father Serra, and I gathered, too, that in the statue, he’s holding up a crucifix. He has Christ crucified in his hand.

ASC:
Yes.

CK:
So this mania for destroying these things, I don’t want to read too much into it, but Father Serra is the target, but there’s also a sense in which any representative of the past is a target, and I think actually Christ Himself, in a way, is a target, because people don’t see the coming of the good news to the Americas as a good thing.

ASC:
It seems to me it’s a rebellion against our Western civilization-

CK:
[crosstalk 00:02:45].

ASC:
… the legacy of Western civilization, which the Church built. The Church built on her Christian faith and her Christian principles. So I agree with you totally. Ultimately, it’s a rebellion against Christ, and I hate to say this. I would not be surprised if the defacing of statues would go that far.

CK:
Yeah, would go down to just tearing down statues of Christ himself, wherever they are.

ASC:
Yes.

CK:
Yeah. Well, eventually, your city will have to be renamed, won’t it? Ours will, too, here in San Diego. St. Francis, a Catholic saint. I mean, you just get the sense of there’s almost a French Revolution mentality about it, of just get us to year zero. Get rid of all of this.

ASC:
It is exactly that. It is exactly that. They want to erase the Christian heritage, our two millennia, millennium and a half of Christian heritage here in the West. You’re right. I mean, at the time of those revolutions in Europe led by the French revolution and others, there was a literal renaming of streets and of town squares, not so much of cities, but of many place names were changed.

CK:
St. Petersburg, though, in the Russian Revolution, renamed Leningrad. We’ll probably-

ASC:
That’s true. Yes. Good point.

CK:
But that’s much later. So maybe a bit about the man. I mean, should we as Catholics feel a little bit of guilt about Father Junipero Serra when people say to us, “Well, he’s the kind of bringer of an imperialist Spanish” … even some have said murderous regime to California?

ASC:
He’s come to represent that. He’s kind of the icon of the whole Spanish Conquest that ended the way of life that the native people knew here at the time, and they did suffer a lot of abuse at the hands of the Spanish soldiers, mainly. They also suffered a lot of death because of the diseases that the Europeans brought, to which they did not have immunities. But the mission era was only one era of that, of what they suffered. The mission era ended … So, as you know, in San Diego, it started in 1769.

CK:
Because it started right here.

ASC:
Yes, right there, and it ended around 1833. That’s when Mexico took possession of the land and secularized the missions, and the whole system fell apart. Then it went into the Mexican era. Then it went into the California era. It was the California Republic for a while, and then the American era when California became a state.

The devastation during the secular rule was really horrendous, very horrendous. But Serra comes to … We can talk about that later, but Serra has come to symbolize all of that, because he was of the race of the people who first came here, and when this oppression began, even though he himself gave his whole life to protecting them against the abuse of especially the soldiers, to the point of heroic sacrifice, he nonetheless, because he’s part of that race that came here and is such a towering historical figure, he’s the one who comes to be the icon of that.

To my mind, it’s kind of like associating Abraham Lincoln with slavery, right? Because he was a WASP. Those are the people who first came to the United States, and those are the people who captured Africans and enslaved them in this country. He’s a part of that race, even though he gave his life to ending slavery. So Serra would be … Now, granted, some kind of ways of going about disciplining people that was in conformity with the times, we would not find so acceptable, such as the infliction of corporal punishment, but he always urged leniency and not to be too harsh in punishing them. Missionaries he thought who were going too far and being harsh, he would have sent back to Spain. So he was …

CK:
Yeah. Well, it’s-

ASC:
He was trying to defend the Indians. Yeah.

CK:
Yeah. So we live in a state now where millions of people are imprisoned for interminable periods in horrible conditions, and we look back on an era where they used corporal punishment as if they were the barbarians. I don’t know that we have much of a leg to stand on in that. It would have been common for a Spanish soldier. It would have been common for corporal punishment to be used by courts in those days as punishment instead of interminable periods in prisons.

ASC:
Well, yeah, that’s a good comparison, that Indians did suffer abuse at the hands of the soldiers.

CK:
Yes.

ASC:
So, being from San Diego, you see the physical reminder of what the Franciscans did.

CK:
There’s a valley between these two that people should know this. There’s a whole valley you have to go to to get from the mission … You’d have to walk across Mission Valley and down a ways to get to the presidio. These are not-

ASC:
Several miles.

CK:
Yeah.

ASC:
They first settled on that bluff overlooking the bay, where the presidio is still stands. That’s why it’s called Presidio Park, but soon … and the idea was, “Well, we’ll just settle here,” the presidio, that is, the soldiers’ barracks, the mission, and the church, the mission church and the school. They always founded a school because it wasn’t about enslaving the Indians. It was about educating them, teaching them arts of cultivation, cultivating crops, animal husbandry, and self-governance, and teaching them the faith. The vision was to form them to be Spanish citizens equal to the European Spaniards with that kind of formation, that kind of faith, and, eventually, so they could self-govern. Then they were going to hand the land over to the Indians for their own self-governance.

It was the vision of creating a new Christian civilization, as missionaries succeeded in some parts of Latin America, in particular, the Jesuits in what’s now Paraguay, built this great republic where they had symphony orchestras. They had paved streets. They were moving toward forms of self-governance before powerful economic and political interests intervened on the part of Spain and Portugal and actually waged a war. The native population succeeded for a while, but eventually were overcome, and it all fell apart.

What happened in California was the missionaries got started here later in time, and they did not have enough sort of cultural infrastructure to work with, because the missionaries would always respect the local culture and try to inculturate, the word we use nowadays. The church has always done it, inculturate the Gospel.

So I like to talk about the … We have a visible reminder of that, too, called the mission church. It’s a new form, innovative form of church architecture. It’s a traditional Catholic church, but look at the building material, because they had to use what was there, adobe, but also look at kind of the colors, the style of art that grew up from that. It feels like where we’re living.

CK:
Yes.

ASC:
One who grew up here would feel at home in a building like that, and it’s so successful it’s replicated all throughout the Southwest, even in secular buildings. So this was the vision of the missionaries. So they landed there on that bluff that’s now called Presidio Park and then realized that the soldiers were abusing the Indians, especially the Indian women. So that’s why they moved the mission inland several miles down that valley, what we call Mission Valley, and closer to the river, the source of water.

We have this reminder all up and down the coast now that that was the first settlement, but everywhere there’s a presidio attached to a mission, the presidio is several miles away, including here in San Francisco. The presidio is at the opening of the bay, right at the tip there of the bay.

CK:
Right.

ASC:
The mission church is in the heart of the city, several miles away.

CK:
This geographic reality that you point to in your statement, and I would really like to recommend people read Archbishop Cordileone’s statement. You can get it on the website of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, but you point to this physical reality of this separation as a kind of … It’s a mental image we can use to understand that we need to make … or we can, if we’re going to be honest, and must make a separation between the military power of the Spanish, even the economic power of the Spanish, and the spiritual efforts of people like Junipero Serra, who … and you describe his own physical ailments and how he walked from Mexico City. Could you say a little bit about that, about the man himself?

ASC:
Yes. So we have the history of the man, but people might want to just deny that, deny the facts, but that’s why I bring up the physical reminder. You can’t deny the physical reality where you see a mission and a presidio. But this story I mentioned in my statement is … It’s well known, and this is the degree that he wanted to get protection to the Indians. He was upset at the abuse they were suffering at the hands of the soldiers. So he walked up to California. So he’s a missionary in Baja California. Then he came up to Alta California, and with a bad leg that caused him pain. He was so upset that he walked all the way back to Mexico City to meet with the viceroy for special faculties to discipline the soldiers, and then he walked back again to California with the leg that gave him such pain. So that’s the extent to which he went in his desire to protect the Indians.

There are other things, too. Well, there in San Diego, Luis Jayme is buried there in the mission church.

CK:
Right.

ASC:
He was killed in, in an uprising. He was struck by an arrow during an uprising, and Serra intervened on behalf of the perpetrator of that crime for mercy on him. He frequently did that for the Indians. So we call him the Apostle of California, but he would be horrified, if he were alive today, that his name would be associated with all of the abuse that was perpetrated, even the abuse beyond the mission era. People don’t realize this, either, how much more the Indians suffered, especially when it came into the American period, around the time of the Gold Rush. Basically, it was open season on Indians, and the California Republic actually legalized slavery of Indians.

CK:
Yes.

ASC:
So this was before it became a state. California became a state in 1850, but basically kept that practice for 20 years. Also, there was basically a genocide going on. The fortune seekers during the Gold Rush, and then most of them didn’t find gold. So they didn’t return home, but the returned to the way of life that they knew, which was farming. So they would steal the land from the Indians. They’d either pass bogus laws to take it from them or they would just kill them. There was a bounty on Indians. They would bring in their head or bring in their scalp and collect a bounty. This was actually legislated. The governors called for it. The state legislate three different times designated funds for this campaign against the Indians, to the tune of about one and a half million dollars. Not adjusted to our time, one and a half million dollars of that time.

CK:
Yeah, which would be an enormous sum now. So I feel like part of … It sounds like you want to make sure in what you’re saying to be clear that there’s no sense of denial here about what native people suffered in California. It really is horrific what native people suffered.

ASC:
Evil, just unbelievable the evil that was perpetrated against them.

CK:
Yeah. Right. Yes, and some of that during Father Serra’s time. There’s no question. But Father Serra himself is the man who, as you said, is walking on a bad leg from California back to Mexico City back to California just so that he can tell the governor, essentially, what’s going on and make it stop. People can read Helen Hunt Jackson’s book, Ramona, by the way, to get a sense of what life for a Native American was like here in Southern California back in the 1870s and ’80s. Again, it was Catholic priests, frankly, who were defending … This was not Spanish priests at the time, but, again, they were Catholic priests who were defending the Native American people. You’ve probably had the opportunity to celebrate Mass in some of these missions, maybe here in Mission San Diego. I imagine you must have been a celebrant there at some time.

ASC:
Oh, it’s the last place I lived there as Auxiliary Bishop before I moved north, and I also actually grew up very nearby, by San Diego State. So it’s about a little over three miles away.

CK:
So when you celebrate-

ASC:
So all this is very personal for me, because Junipero Serra was a big part of my life when I was growing up.

CK:
You must feel a connection to him as a priest when you celebrate on the altars that he founded, essentially.

ASC:
Oh, yes, yes.

CK:
Have you ever stood next to one of the life-sized statues of the man? He’s not a very big man.

ASC:
No. No, he’s not.

CK:
I think he’s 5’2″ or something, but made a saint. I have to say, here in San Diego, on the native lands, we have these wonderful chapels where you can go to Mass any Sunday and be surrounded by the descendants of people, I’m sure, who were evangelized by Father Serra. Do you find in your own interactions with Catholics who are both Catholic and Native American they’re stuck, they’re in a position here of … or what do you find in that regard? I don’t actually even know in San Francisco, you’re really very urban there, how many native people are there.

ASC:
It seems to vary. Now, we’re blessed here in San Francisco. The curator of our mission here, Mission Dolores, is of the Ohlone tribe.

CK:
Oh, okay.

ASC:
So he’s of indigenous blood, and his ancestors go back to Father Serra’s time. They were baptized, some perhaps by Serra himself, but baptized by those early Franciscan missionaries. He knows the real story of Serra. He’s very grateful to Father Serra and is a big promoter of his. So he’s been a very effective voice in trying to convey the more accurate story, and as a Catholic and as an Indian. So Andy does wonderful work for us.

CK:
So, I mean, ever since this killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, there is something that … It strikes me, and I wonder if you feel the same way, that there’s almost an unanimous shock at what happened to George Floyd and a sense of unity, of horror, of recoil from that. It seems to me that that sense of unity of “This is not what we want our country to be” is diminishing over time, in part because of this radical just tearing down of people like Father Serra, their statues, that this is actually quite counterproductive.

ASC:
I would agree, and it’s not going to solve the problem that we’re all concerned about. It seems to be, like I said, a hijacking, in that statement. People are taking advantage of this moment to create pandemonium and anarchy. I think it’s tapping into some very angry energy, because sometimes something happens when you bear with something that is unjust and you take it and you just have to take it and have to take it and something happens, and then it bursts.

CK:
Yes.

ASC:
I think that’s what happened with the George Floyd murder. Given the way African-Americans have been treated in this country, they just can’t bear it anymore. So there’s this kind of angry energy that needs to be released, but whether it just ends up not being directed or if there are forces that are directing it in a way to create anarchy, I’m not sure. But if it’s not properly directed, if it’s not, as I said in the statement of righteous indignation, it becomes very destructive, and it’s not going to solve the problems of racism in our country. That’s a big worry to me.

CK:
Yeah. I mean, there’s just such … and people who don’t know Serra, at least so that you could say, “Well, right next to him is a statue of Ulysses Grant.” You tear that down. What does that possibly have to do with curing racism when this is the man, essentially, who won the Civil War? I mean, it’s just absolute nonsense.

ASC:
Yes.

CK:
I’m very glad to have you to straighten out the record on Father Serra. Are you feeling like you’re getting a hearing in the public square, or are you getting people to do interviews and articles and telling the truth about Serra, or do you feel like the truth about Father Serra, especially as you’re expressing it as Archbishop of San Francisco, is not getting through?

ASC:
I have been getting a lot of … I think the statement got a lot of attention, and I have received many requests for interviews, for statements from even the secular media. So it seems to be generating some interest and getting some attention even throughout the country.

CK:
Well, I hope that this interview will help support you. I feel like Catholics in the pew who know that you’re telling the truth about Father Serra, we know the truth about Father Serra, and we’d like to defend him. I think most people don’t know what to do. You’re not going to get Catholics … I mean, what do you … Are you going to send the Knights of Columbus out with their swords to stand around these statues? I don’t know. I suppose I would conclude with this question, I guess. What would you want from the Catholic community of California to support the truth about this saintly, holy, Christ-like man, Father Junipero Serra?

ASC:
They, first of all, have to know the truth.

CK:
Okay.

ASC:
So they have to educate themselves. Read up. You mentioned the book Ramona. There’s a very thorough biography of him written by two Santa Clara professors, Robert Senkewicz and Marie Beebe on Junipero Serra. It came out a few years ago around the time of the canonization, and not just about Father Serra, but all of the myths about the Church. There are so many myths that are painting the Church in such a negative light. You can go down the list through history of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Galileo affair, the whole idea of church and science, Pius the 12th and the Nazis. But they’re all either lies or wildly exaggerated.

CK:
Yes.

ASC:
So people need to know the truth. Because I’m theoretically on vacation right now, I had a little time to read. I finished a book by another historian, Rodney Stark, called Bearing False Witness, who goes through all of these legends or myths.

CK:
Yes.

ASC:
He debunks them and exposes the truth. Rodney Stark, he’s a professor at Baylor University, the largest Baptist university in the country, but he’s not Baptist. He’s also not Catholic. He’s an honest historian. But if people knew the truth of our Church and all the truth, goodness, and beauty the Church has given to the world, they would be proud to be Catholic. But you see, there are forces that want to make us feel ashamed to be Catholic, right? It’s a part of … You mentioned the French Revolution, this kind of destroying of religion. They want us to feel ashamed. How many Catholics are hanging their head in shame? If they knew the real facts, the real truth, they would be proud.

Think about, for example, what happened a couple of years ago, the tragedy of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris catching on fire. The whole world mourned that beautiful building, whether they’re believers or not, Catholics or not, because it’s such a monument to beauty. In the mind of believers, it’s a monument to the beauty of God. This is what the Church has given the world, this kind of beauty, and architectural innovation, too, by the way, to figure out back then how to make a church that’s so tall.

So that’s the kind of thing we have to be proud of, and not just in the area of the arts, but in the area of science, in the area … Great innovators of science have come from the clergy. In the area of the idea of human rights and rule of law, just in so many ways.

So the first thing our people have to do is to educate themselves. Another book I could recommend that’s a very readable one, Bearing False Witness is very readable, as is the book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods. So become educated about their own legacy, to become articulate about it. To organize groups of prayer as well. You mentioned about protecting statutes. Essentially, that’s what we would need to do. It would have to be like 24-hour adoration, right? You have people just around, present there, present there and praying and observing. If we can do that, great. But perhaps acts of reparation are necessary as well.

But spiritually, I think kind of what we have to have in our heart is something that I came across the other day in the Office of Readings. So this is in the Divine Office, the different hours of the day of prayers and Scripture readings that priests do. The early morning office, called the Office of Readings, after the Psalms are prayed, there are two longer readings, one from Scripture and one from a father of the Church.

So last Tuesday, as I was reading this treatise on Christian perfection by Saint Gregory of Nissa, these words kind of jumped off of the page to me because they’re so pertinent to what we’re going through now. So I’d just like to offer this little reflection. He says, “What must we do, we who have been found worthy of the name of Christ? Each of us must examine his thoughts, words, and deeds to see whether they are directed toward Christ or are turned away from Him. This examination is carried out in various ways. Our deeds or our thoughts or our words are not in harmony with Christ if they issue from passion.”

Now, the word passion made me wonder. So Saint Gregory would have been writing in Greek, and I didn’t have a Greek text available, but I did have the Latin to see how it was translated into Latin. It’s not the word [foreign language 00:27:27], which means suffering, why we speak of the passion of Christ. Then, of course, that word in English has acquired the meaning of a burning desire or burning zeal for something. But it wasn’t that word. It was the word [foreign language 00:27:40], which means a disturbance, a tumult, being stirred up in a frenzy. In other words, exactly what we’re seeing happening in our society today, being all whipped up into a frenzy. So keep that in mind when he uses the word.

So they’re not in harmony with Christ if they issue from passion. “They then bear the mark of the enemy, who smears the pearl of the heart with the slime of passion, dimming and even destroying the luster of the precious stone. On the other hand, if they are free from and untainted by every passionate inclination, they are directed toward Christ, the author and source of peace.” So that’s the answer, to be directed toward Christ. With Him is where we find our peace.

CK:
Archbishop, thank you so much. Thank you so much for your ongoing, consistent defense of the Catholic Church in the world. I know that you sometimes suffer for that, but in particular, thank you so much for the defense of Father Serra. Those of us who are inarticulate in our defense or just don’t know how to make a defense, he needs a champion. He needs a million champions now, and we’re very grateful that you’re one of them.

ASC:
Yes.

CK:
Thank you, Archbishop.

ASC:
Okay. You’re welcome.

CK:
Thank you, everybody who joins us here for Catholic Answers Focus. We’ll see you here next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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