Healing Memory, Honoring History

A REGISTER EDITORIAL: Americans must work together to heal the memories of the past, and we must call out tactics that undermine, rather than strengthen, our constitutional freedoms including religious liberty.

Statue of St. Junipero Serra inside Golden Gate park before it was toppled June 19, 2020.
Statue of St. Junipero Serra inside Golden Gate park before it was toppled June 19, 2020. (photo: Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).)

A mob descended on Golden Gate Park in San Francisco June 19 and toppled statues of famous figures from history, including The Star-Spangled Banner composer Francis Scott Key and President Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general who helped end the U.S. Civil War in 1865 and, with it, the evils of slavery in the country.

But the greatest dishonor in Golden Gate Park was inflicted upon the statue of St. Junípero Serra. The Franciscan missionary’s statue was torn down and then vandalized. In response to the destruction, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco conducted a prayer service and exorcism; he also recited the Rosary at the site where the statue had stood, calling out the “sacrilege” committed against the saint long credited as the founder of the Golden State. 

“What is happening to our society?” asked Archbishop Cordileone in a statement released after the statue was torn down. “A renewed national movement to heal memories and correct the injustices of racism and police brutality in our country has been hijacked by some into a movement of violence, looting and vandalism.”

As a nation, all people of goodwill need to reclaim this national movement with calm, reasoned reflection, trusting our civil bonds run deep and strong enough to do so. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, now is the time to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

George Floyd’s tragic and unnecessary death in police custody, caught on video for all the world to see, vividly reflects a wounded nation. Unfortunately, this video documenting police brutality was neither the first nor the last in the short span of time since Floyd’s death.

Such horrific cases have not only shed a light on what African Americans have described as the wounded promise of America, but they have also revived a fraught national conversation regarding the presence of statues memorializing leaders and generals of the Confederacy, raising questions about whether their public display adds to the wounds by honoring men who fought to uphold slavery.

In a democratic society grounded in the rule of law, these are legitimate concerns. At such a time, the fate of these statues, and how we heal our national memory, is properly addressed through civil deliberations and the actions of elected authorities.  

Something else has happened, and as Archbishop Cordileone warned, it does not bode well for our nation.

We are seeing our fellow citizens succumb to the temptation that change must be imposed through force, not persuasion, in the public forum. Angry mobs imposed their own judgment on the fate of the statues, toppling and defacing them. But violence in return for violence is a dangerous contagion: Soon, statues of Christopher Columbus, George Washington and other Founding Fathers also were torn down.

The impulse to give into mounting frustrations by choosing violence over dialogue drove a mob to dismantle the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lost in the explosion of fury was the fact that the statue had been paid for by black men and women, including African American soldiers who fought in the Union Army, and it is the place where noted social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave one of his most magnificent orations.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, amid the images of mob rule flickering on social media and television news shows, has been the strange, eerie silence from many public authorities. Their passive acquiescence to these events betrays a lack of conviction in our liberal, democratic order. Yet what we need right now are precisely men and women of courage who will stand up to defend our civil and political institutions and make the case that they are strong enough to resolve controversies and secure necessary reforms without violence.   

Those who engage in or justify such behavior seek to erase all vestiges of what they deem to be a brutal and morally compromised political and social order. This, they contend, is the path to purification of our broken world. The record of history suggests otherwise, and without civil discussion and resolution, what memory will stand in place of broken pedestals?

“The secular iconoclasm of the current moment will not bring reconciliation, peace and healing,” wrote Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Wisconsin. “Such violence will only perpetuate the prejudice and hatred it ostensibly seeks to end.”

Violent mob action and violent counteraction hinder any real advance toward the reparation of the failures of a nation, the healing of the wounds of our injured peoples, and the establishment of justice and peace.

Perhaps we Catholics can show the way forward.

Our teaching offers a powerful response to political and social movements fueled by a Utopian vision of human perfectibility that ignores or rejects the truth of original sin. And this recognition that human beings are flawed is accompanied by a recognition that distinctions must be made between persons and political systems that have been thoroughly compromised and those that have done much good and hold the potential for helping to bring about more radical reform.  

As the California Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in response to the vandalism of St. Junípero statues in San Francisco and Los Angeles, “If this process is to be truly effective as a remedy for racism, it must discern carefully the entire contribution that the historical figure in question made to American life, especially in advancing the rights of marginalized peoples.”

The California bishops are right to note that “protesters have failed that test” by tearing down the statues to St. Junípero Serra. The vandals failed to see the full picture of the saint.

But in many ways, as the canonization cause of St. Junípero showed, the “Apostle of California” has a legacy that is not widely known or honored, and he deserves an honest and fair judgment.

“The historical truth is,” the California bishops wrote, “that Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities. 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. 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.”

An honest and fair judgment of history could bring about a reimagining of St. Junípero Serra’s statues that reflect the man who stood with Native Californians against injustice, the man who was held aloft by Native Californians much taller than he, and the man who was deeply mourned by Native peoples far and wide. Perhaps statues could be erected to honor the Native Californians who built those missions with the Franciscan missionary. We can recognize that these facts or features may not be evident in St. Junípero’s statues today — but only by civil dialogue and confidence in our systems can we heal our knowledge of history and erect monuments that truly reflect them.

The defense of St. Junípero Serra and our sacred art is not some denial of racism and prejudice in the historical and the present life of our country. It is about choosing a path that includes reconciliation and forgiveness. And, indeed, this discussion fosters an opportunity for Catholics to commit themselves to healing action: When considering the continuing injustices faced by Native peoples, we can say that St. Junípero’s legacy will be truly honored and his statues secure when their wounds are healed.

This was powerfully taught by Pope St. John Paul II, who used the occasion of the Great Jubilee in 2000 to issue an appeal for forgiveness for the failures of the Church’s members over the centuries. He also gave important advice.

“At the same time,” he said, “as we confess our sins, let us forgive the sins committed by others against us. … The Church today feels and has always felt obliged to purify her memory of those sad events from every feeling of rancor or revenge.”

Silence, fear and intimidation will not solve the challenges we face. Americans must work together to heal the memories of the past, and we must call out arguments and tactics that undermine, rather than strengthen, our political traditions and constitutional freedoms, including religious liberty. Our American experiment in ordered liberty, however flawed, is capable of addressing the injustice of racism, as long as we put our shoulders to this task, exercising the virtues that ground a nation in peace, justice and truth.

So let us fervently pray for discernment and courage, that Black Americans’ righteous hunger for justice will be fulfilled through the democratic system we are charged to protect and renew under God. Then may we be able to say, as Lincoln did, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”