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A Bell for Father Serra

It was from just the sort of barbarism into which our own age is so rapidly descending that Father Serra sought to rescue the tribes of California

The first century of the Christian faith had not yet ended when St. John thought it necessary to issue the stern admonition, “Do not love the world” (1 Jn 2:15). Doubtless the apostle knew the story of the Maccabees and their heroic resistance to King Antiochus, as well as the dolorous truth that many in Israel had “gladly adopted his religion, sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath” (1 Mac 1:43).

A contemporary Antiochus—together with his courtiers—has recently stripped the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz of its mission bell, a ceremonial bell installed in 1906 as part of a state-wide array of bells marking the King’s Highway, the famed trail connecting the missions founded by St. Junipero Serra. The reason? Some take these bells to be symbols of oppression. It is a puzzling protest, for Father Serra was certainly no slaver or conquistador.

A more convincing explanation may be that the rulers of California’s secular regime despise civilization as much as they do Christianity.

For what Father Serra offered to the natives of California—in his teaching, in the example of his own common life with his fellow Franciscans, and by initiating them into common works such as church-building—was a deeper and more comprehensive experience of human rational fulfillment than they had previously enjoyed.

It is clear that from the perspective of their own habits the native Californians could only perceive the good of a rational life with difficulty, if at all: their persistent thievery proves the point. But we should be alarmed at how difficult it is for us adequately to perceive that we are perfected by and in the shared endeavors of a life lived in accord with reason. Our technological power and wealth so overwhelm our imaginations that it is easy for us to forget that what is most worthy about civilization is not the comfort it gives to us, but the shared life of virtue that it supports. The tendency of some to admire the free-spirited, untrammeled existence of the California natives makes sense in light of our appalling habitual individualism, for what is typically admired about them is precisely how little their tribes required them to subordinate their private enjoyment of the passions to the good of the whole community. Fr. Serra’s patient labor to open up for them a vista of a more rational life is a timely example for us.

But was Serra too stern in the way he went about it? He is known to have employed corporal punishment in the attempt to curb the riotous passions of the baptized but still uncivilized natives. How could it have been right for him to have done so?

It is universally acknowledged that many of the native Californians went around naked much of the year, with the predictable consequence of rampant promiscuity. It was this promiscuity that Serra was attempting to curb through the punishment of recidivists among the baptized Californians, and it was this same promiscuity that had a great deal to do with the subsequent decimation of the tribes due to venereal diseases. Like his predecessors the Jesuit missionaries in New France, Serra wanted to bring good Christian families to California, so that the natives could learn from their example of marital continence and fidelity. But in the meantime, he was faced with a situation in which his own faithful were being demonstrably harmed by an addiction that was supported by their traditional culture and encouraged by the bad habits of the Spanish soldiers. Former professor of theology that he was, he understood that an addiction to promiscuous sexuality saps the foundations of the moral life and breeds a tendency to despair. Seeing that his children, as he thought of them, could not help themselves and could not be talked out of their self-destructive behavior, he had recourse to the same remedy—physical blows—that had been used by generations of missionaries before him.

It was strong medicine, but one we are not in a good position to criticize. It is difficult to exonerate our age from a charge of a misguided permissiveness when the wounds caused by our sexual sins are so evident and so grave.

It was from just the sort of barbarism into which our own age is so rapidly descending that Fr. Serra sought to rescue the tribes of California. He did so by testifying that God is love, that his law is our light, that to pay him homage is our due, and that to celebrate his saving deeds is our purest delight. By instructing native Californians in the arts of civilization, he attempted to lead them to a more rational and so more truly human existence. By his paternal care for their souls, which extended even to the thankless task of punishing them for their transgressions, he sought to liberate them from the bond of a dehumanizing addiction and to steady their characters for the pursuit of the good. By bringing them the sacraments of our salvation, he opened to them to the possibility of friendship with God, which of all things is what brings the greatest perfection and happiness to our nature.

This July 1, we should sound a bell for Fr. Serra and as a peaceable protest to those at the University of Santa Cruz and elsewhere who would sooner bend a knee to the world than honor a saint.

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