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California Bishops denounce vandalism of St Junípero Serra statues

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Mary Margaret Olohan on June 23, 2020

  • The California Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced vandalism of statues of St. Junípero Serra on Monday.
  • Statues of the Roman Catholic saint have come under fire over accusations that he reflects oppression of indigenous peoples.
  • “The historical truth is that Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities,” the bishops said in a statement. 

The California Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced vandalism of statues of St. Junípero Serra and defended the Catholic saint’s legacy on Monday.

“The historical truth is that Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities,” the bishops said in a statement. “Serra was not simply a man of his times. In working with Native Americans, he was a man ahead of his times who made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population and work against an oppression that extends far beyond the mission era.”

Serra, a Franciscan monk credited with the spread of Catholicism in the western United States, founded nine of the 21 missions along the coast of California beginning in 1769 and was canonized a saint by Pope Francis in 2015. He was the first Catholic saint to be canonized on U.S. soil, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

“And if that is not enough to legitimate a public statue in the state that he did so much to create, then virtually every historical figure from our nation’s past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today’s standards,” the bishops added.

Riots and demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody, have sparked demands that U.S. monuments to historical figures be removed or replaced. In many cases, rioters have torn these monuments down. Many have also begun calling for statues of a Catholic priest and saint, Serra, to be taken down.

Catholics have praised Serra for his dedication to evangelizing the indigenous peoples of California and for pushing back against the treatment Spanish soldiers showed to the native people, but critics accused him of pushing native tribes to abandon their cultures by converting to Catholicism. Some criticized Serra for being “complicit” in the “brutal and dehumanizing conquest of native tribes in California.”

Serra has also been accused of introducing foreign diseases to indigenous tribes and forcing tribes to build the missions, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But the California Conference of Catholic Bishops defended Serra from these accusations.

They emphasized the importance of the “movement to confront racism,” noting that they “vigorously and wholeheartedly support a broad national coalition, especially in its peaceful dedication to eliminating racism against members of the African-American and Native American communities.”

The bishops noted, however, that if the removal of statues of historical figures is to be effective “as a remedy for racism,” those removing statues must “discern carefully the entire contribution that the historical figure in question made to American life, especially in advancing the rights of marginalized peoples.”

“In calling for the removal of images of Saint Junipero Serra from public display in California, and in tearing down his statue in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, protesters have failed that test,” the bishops said.

The bishops’ press release refers to comments made by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone in a recent press release, in which Cordileone praised Serra’s efforts to “protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers.”

“Even with his infirmed leg which caused him such pain, he walked all the way to Mexico City to obtain special faculties of governance from the Viceroy of Spain in order to discipline the military who were abusing the Indians,” Cordileone said. “And then he walked back to California.”

He continued that “we have a physical reminder to this day: everywhere there is a presidio (soldiers’ barracks) associated with a mission in the chain of 21 missions that he founded, the presidio is miles away from the mission itself and the school.”

“St. Junipero Serra also offered them the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, which he and his fellow Franciscan friars did through education, health care, and training in the agrarian arts,” Cordileone concluded.

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