We got stalled on the hill looking down at the Marian garden at Catholic University that was my husband’s destination by a federal officer who wouldn’t let us continue on until Pope Francis’ motorcade had left the vicinity. A few yards ahead of me, my husband said something in a low voice to the officer that had them both laughing, and I started to suspect something was up.
But nothing could spoil the sweetness of the proposal that capped off an incredible day in which we witnessed Pope Francis declare Junípero Serra a saint — the first such event on American soil. Because of this, St. Junípero Serra has a special meaning in our home and is one of the holy men and women to whom we turn frequently for intercession.
It has been especially heartbreaking, therefore, to see statues of the saint indiscriminately torn down by protesters in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Righteous anger that works productively and lawfully toward a goal of justice for all is one thing; tearing down religious monuments is another.
So I was grateful to read a lengthy letter penned by Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles in Angelus magazine, the publication of the archdiocese, in which he passionately yet charitably set the record straight.
St. Junípero Serra “lived and worked alongside native peoples and spent his whole career defending their humanity and protesting crimes and indignities committed against them,” Archbishop Gomez wrote. “Among the injustices he struggled against, we find heartbreaking passages in his letters where he decries the daily sexual abuse of indigenous women by colonial soldiers.”
“For St. Junípero,” he continued, “the natives were not just powerless victims of colonial brutality. In his letters, he describes their ‘gentleness and peaceful dispositions,’ he celebrates their creativity and knowledge; he remembers little acts of kindness and generosity, even the sweet sound of their voices as they sang.”
“He learned their languages and their ancient customs and ways,” Archbishop Gomez wrote. “St. Junípero 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.'”
The legacy of remarkable individuals like St. Junípero Serra are the ones that deserve to be celebrated and honored, not vilified. As Archbishop Gomez said: “In online petitions today we find St. Junípero compared to Adolf Hitler, his missions compared to concentration camps. No serious historian would accept this, and we should not allow these libels to be made in public arguments about our great saint.”
Archbishop Gomez ended his beautiful and important piece with a spiritual meditation that he composed almost completely from St. Junípero Serra’s own words found in his sermons and letters. St. Junípero’s eloquent writing stirs the soul and evokes the words of the disciples on the road to Emmaus as they exclaimed in wonder at how their hearts had burned as Jesus had opened up the Scriptures to them.
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening with a contrite heart. Help us to begin right now to realize the truth! To be entirely animated by love of You, help us begin to live a holy life, with a burning love and zeal for the salvation of our neighbors. Make us more gentle, more calm, more nurturing and strong.”
I recommend reading it all. St. Junípero Serra, pray for us!
Gretchen R. Crowe is editorial director for periodicals at OSV. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.