- - Monday, July 20, 2020

An angry mob vented its spleen against yet another statue depicting St. Junipero Serra — a figure sacred to Hispanic Catholics — toppling it, burning and beating it with sledgehammers. 

The simple monument stood before the state capitol in Sacramento as a tribute to the Hispanic pre-history of the great state; its base was decorated with a map of the 21 Franciscan missions that settled California during the 1700s. This violent assault makes the goal of the gentle saint’s work in the New World — a harmonious society fully invested in the dignity and rights of all people — more elusive. And that is a great shame, because the vast majority of Americans today desire this same unity.

Attacking images of the gentle Serra not only sows division, it exposes the attackers’ misapprehension of St. Junipero’s life and legacy. The story of St. Junipero is much more complicated and beautiful than those who molest his statues can imagine. Starting at the advanced age of 53, he walked over 5,000 miles in his treks through the rugged California wilderness, lame but unstoppable in his fervent desire to protect and succor the indigenous people.

He was their greatest and most tender advocate, a truth proved by not only the historical record but by the rending lamentations of the natives upon his death. Although to St. Junipero their material well-being was vital, their spiritual good was even more so, and to this end he brought them the priceless gifts of faith and salvation.  

Did he form a part of the Spanish Conquest? Indubitably yes. Like every man that has ever lived, he was caught firmly in the historical currents that swirled around him. Europe was small and crowded, while the New World was, by comparison, vast, bursting with unmet possibilities and practically empty.

The urge to cross the ocean to conquer was as natural as the urge to breathe, and it was the vital work of the gentle Franciscan missionaries like Serra to soften the cultural encounter. Their mission was to turn what could have been a brutal trampling of a weaker people into an embrace — prompted by the Catholic insistence that here in New Spain the newly-met souls were beloved children of God.

More than 500 years later, Hispanics in the United States more often than not are descended from some combination of European, indigenous and/or African forebearers. As such, we have generally been able to understand that the line between good and evil doesn’t lie between one race and another. Rather, in the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it runs “right through every human heart.”

For Hispanics, Serra’s life’s work — his excruciating, months-long evangelical journeys up and down the California wilderness, his peaceful missions where agriculture was taught and noble Christian ideals like the inherent dignity of man were communicated — show that this line was drawn along the farthest edge of the saint’s heart.   

Those who’ve destroyed St. Junipero’s images live comfortable and materially-abundant lives unlike most experienced in human history — and they likely can’t imagine the expansionist urge that sent the Spanish to the New World. It is too difficult, when good things come to them without having to cross oceans in creaking ships to find them.

And if God or the transcendent don’t figure as a force in their own lives, Catholic missionary zeal (undertaken as a work of love) must be entirely incomprehensible. Perhaps these young liberals are sure that by a process of moral evolution each successive generation is kinder and more enlightened — and that denizens of the past are to be judged by modern standards and invariably found wanting.

Although they hold themselves as vastly morally superior to St. Junipero and his brother monks, a better sense of history and some insight into their own condition might prompt them to reflect on where the line between good and evil crosses in their own hearts. 

• Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy adviser for The Catholic Association.

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