Back in the late 1960s, when he was in fourth grade growing up in Northern California, my good friend and co-author Craig Osten and his then-classmates spent an entire semester learning California history – particularly about the California missions. Nine of these missions were founded by Father Junipero Serra.
As a lover of history, Craig pleaded with his parents to take him on a trip to visit the Northern California missions. They did, and he particularly fell in love with Mission San Juan Batista, located about an hour south of San Francisco. The mission, which was made famous in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, “Vertigo,” includes a charming little town where visitors can wander around and soak in what it must have been like in the early days of California. Another favorite, when his family visited Southern California, was Mission San Juan Capistrano with the famous swallows who greet visitors to the beautiful grounds during the spring and summer months.
Craig and his classmates learned about the historical heritage behind each of the missions, how Father Serra and later other Catholic fathers ministered to the Native Americans in the area, bringing them a much better life than they had before.
But in only a few years after Craig’s tour of the Northern California missions, the narrative about Father Serra and the founding of the missions had completely flipped.
By the time Craig was finishing middle school just a few years later, a new history – or “new truth” – was being taught in the local public schools. This new history told impressionable fourth graders that Father Serra and the Catholic fathers were oppressors who destroyed the Native American culture, torturing the Native Americans into submission in an effort to convert them into Catholicism. Serra and his fellow fathers were no longer perceived to be patron saints but instead were seen as cruel villains. And while there is some truth that several Native Americans experienced great cruelty in the colonial system of California, it was at the hands of others, not at the hands of Father Serra.
In fact, Serra did the complete opposite of what he has been accused of. Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, the Archbishop of San Francisco recently wrote, “Serra repeatedly intervened on behalf of indigenous rebels against Spanish authorities. He famously walked to Mexico City with a painful, ulcerated leg to obtain the authority to discipline the military who were abusing the indigenous people … If we looked at him with clear eyes, we would see Serra as one of first American champions of the human rights of indigenous peoples …”
This is the Father Junipero Serra Craig learned about until the narrative was flipped in the early 1970s.
But nonetheless, just like other key figures in American history who are being “cancelled” by radical, left-wing vandals who have been indoctrinated into this new version of history that vilifies our past, Father Junipero Serra has found himself the target of those who wish to rewrite history to fit their personal perspectives.
Last Saturday, vandals tore down a statue of Father Serra in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, without any understanding of who Father Serra was and what he did. His statue had earlier been torn down in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Efforts continue to remove him from the U.S. Capitol.
In Sacramento, it was left to Bishop Jaime Soto of the Sacramento Catholic Diocese to set the record straight on Father Serra’s legacy. He said, “…while Father Serra worked under this colonial system, he denounced its evils and worked to protect the dignity of native peoples. His holiness as a missionary should not be measured by his own failures to stop the exploitation or even his own personal faults. Holiness, in the end, is more a result of God’s grace and our willingness to cooperate with His mercy.”
Bishop Soto’s statement gets directly to the irony of those seeking to expunge Father Serra from history because he did not meet their standard of “perfection.” No man is perfect, and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – whether it be George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Father Serra, or you and me. There is only one who is perfect – Jesus Christ – and He went to the cross to take the punishment we deserved for our human imperfections – our sinful nature. Even the best individuals, with the best of intentions, cannot be perfect. That was the message that Father Junipero Serra brought with him to California, not one of “bigotry and oppression” as his accusers state.
But rather than focus on grace and mercy, these vandals choose to focus on eternal damnation of anyone who does not affirm their personal worldview. No person – whether past, present, or future – can live up to their standard. The result will eventually be what George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Every book has been rewritten, every picture repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered” to fit this new narrative that vilifies those who went before regardless of whether the accusations are true or false.
And with the rewriting, renaming, and altering of this history comes a great loss – the loss of the history, heritage, and beauty of treasures such as the California missions that Craig learned to love – replaced, ironically, in the name of “inclusion.” The toppling of Father Junipero Serra is just a sad down payment of a price that is far too high for us all to pay – the loss of our heritage built on the sacrifices made by those who went before.
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