“The imperialism of missionary work is one of the biggest flashpoints between contemporary progressives and established religion,” the leftist publication VOX declared in 2015 in an article about St. Junipero Serra, the 18th Century Catholic saint canonized by Pope Francis in 2015.
Serra, the first saint of the Catholic Church to be canonized on American soil, was a professor of philosophy before taking up the crusade of evangelization (“Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature”) and founding five (Franciscan) Catholic missions in southern California.
The essayist Agnes Repplier, in her biography of Serra, wrote that the missionary,
“… Had the qualities of those emotional, penitential, and migratory years, when endurance was the keynote of existence, and when the love of life was balanced by the honor paid to death. His harsh asceticism, the boards on which he slept, his meager diet, the cruel mortifying of his flesh, all savored of the Middle Ages; and so, too, did his habit of putting his mind and soul into his work.”
The social justice warriors who defaced and then pulled down a statue of Serra at Mission San Rafael Arcangel in San Rafael, California on October 12, 2020, would have a hard time understanding the concepts of “harsh asceticism” and the mortifying of the flesh in the name of a Supreme Being.
Leftists, after all, don’t “do things” for God or for the salvation of their souls. They “do things” to advance a revolutionary social agenda.
The San Rafael statue wasn’t the only image of Serra that was destroyed in 2020. On June 19, a statue of Serra was torn down in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. On July 4, rioters dismantled a statue of Serra in Sacramento. Serra’s “crime” was “imperialistic colonialism” or “cultural genocide,” both labels for the “forced” imposition of Catholicism and European culture on Native Americans.
That imposition, rioters claimed, involved the “problematic” introduction of foreign animals and plants by European conquerors into the southern California ecosystem, an activist analysis that has more to do with a contemporary understanding of science than what was known in the 18th Century.
The Serra statue destroyers also condemned the saint’s method of dealing with Roman Catholic converts/natives who may have changed their minds about their conversion and then made attempts to leave the missions.
Serra, the extreme ascetic who slept on boards and denied himself food, might be described as someone who was as hard on himself as he was on the natives under his charge.
Critics like to point out how he once worked as a field agent for the Spanish Inquisition, an association that looks worse on paper than how it played out in reality.
While Serra’s halo in the leftist media is referred to as a “halo stained with blood,” the saint’s strictness did not involve outright cruelty. In fact, his “medieval” way of dealing with issues like runaway convert natives was considered normal by 18th Century standards, yet when viewed through a contemporary lens that behavior appears skewed, unreasonable, and “bloodstained.”
Maureen Tilley, Professor of Theology at Fordham University, writes that once the natives were baptized, they were confined to mission territory, even though their families may have lived outside the mission.
“If they tried to run away, they were brought back and punished. Serra tried to mitigate punishments, tried to keep the Spanish soldiers from preying on Native Americans.”
Again, by 18th Century standards, the habit of restricting newly baptized natives to a confined territory implies a catechumen-like state that may have had more to do with ongoing religious instruction, a protection against the influence of pagan families on the outside.
While this ‘lockdown missionary mentality’ would never fly in the 21st Century, it still does not merit the scorn and contempt that has been heaped on this saint as if he alone were responsible for the multiple atrocities that occurred in the missions after Serra’s death in 1784.
Of course, the notion that a newly baptized person should be sheltered against persuasive outside pagan sources may appear to be quite insane to mostly (secular atheist) leftists who cannot conceive of souls being saved for eternity (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”)
“Saved from what?” they would surely ask.
Tilley and other Serra scholars also agree that what abuses did occur in the California missions happened post-Serra and were government-imposed penalties unrelated to Serra’s original mission to bring the natives to Christ.
The leftists’ beef with Serra comes down to the saint’s zeal for evangelization, or his daring to presume that the jimsonweed-hallucinogenic cult practiced by the Gabrielino-Tongva tribes of southern California was inferior to Christianity.
When Pope Francis canonized Serra in 2015, the leftist media reported that many Native Americans felt that his canonization was an affront to their culture and history. ‘Their culture’ in this case means a pagan culture since Christianity is viewed by leftists as a European import item on a par with foreign animals and plants.
“Who’s a Saint, Anyway?” The Atlantic magazine asked in 2015, while VOX upped the ante and declared that Serra was a “brutal colonialist,” and then went on to ask, “So why did the Pope make him a saint?”
These 2015 progressive media strikes against Serra made the soil ripe for the string of Serra statue attacks in 2020.
First you print distortions and lies, then you double down on character smears, then you wait for an opportune moment—the George Floyd riots of 2020—and watch as your work simmers to a boil.
As it did, in Serra’s case.
San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, as reported by the Catholic News Agency in 2020, praised the Marin County District Attorney for filing charges over the vandalism of the Serra statue at the San Rafael Mission.
“This is a breakthrough moment for California,” the archbishop declared. “This represents the first time that any of the lawbreakers attacking statues of St. Junipero Serra and other acts of vandalism on Catholic Church property across California will be held accountable for their actions in court,” Cordileone told CNA.
But on May 26, 2023, the Marin County DA’s office announced that it would reduce the charges against the San Rafael Junipero Serra statue vandals from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Archbishop Cordileone was quick to respond: “The lawbreakers came prepared with ropes, chisels and spray paint, clearly indicating forethought in committing this crime. If crimes like these are not punished, then the government is telling mobs they get to decide what symbols Catholics and other faiths may display.”
Cordileone added that if the same offense had been committed against another religious group, “it would almost certainly have been prosecuted as a hate crime.”