How Will the Vatican Defend Its Saints?

COMMENTARY: What is being done to try to change the hostile public perception being fomented by St. Junipero Serra’s posthumous persecutors?

A statue with the bowed head of Saint Junipero Serra at the Serra Mission Museum, the former site of a fort and the first Pacific Coast European settlement.
A statue with the bowed head of Saint Junipero Serra at the Serra Mission Museum, the former site of a fort and the first Pacific Coast European settlement. (photo: Sherry V Smith/Shutterstock)

I recently wrote a piece for the National Catholic Register on the angry attacks on memorials to St. Junipero Serra throughout California, from San Francisco down the coast to Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, and more.

St. Junipero was a pioneer of California, a founding father. To rip him down throughout the state requires considerable effort, but his relentless detractors are eager to devote time and energy to the cause. This is a secular crusade to undermine the man who evangelized California, and who now is being characterized as nothing short of a genocidal racist.

Whether tearing down the statue with a noose and chains in San Francisco or spray-painting it red and sawing it apart at the neck in Santa Barbara, they are literally out for the saint’s head throughout California.

Since I published that article not even four weeks ago, the situation has only gotten worse. Not a statue of St. Junipero seems to be safe in the Golden State. In Sacramento on the Fourth of July weekend, in a display downright chilling to watch, a fuming mob blowtorched the face of a Serra statue, spray-painted it, pulled it down, jumped on it and hammered it, all the while chanting and cursing in the dark of the night in a disturbingly pagan-esque scene.

Which statue of the Father of California is next on the chopping block? Are there any left?

Well, the latest example comes from the town of Solvang, not far from Santa Barbara and Ventura. The very next day after the Ventura City Council voted 6-0 to take down statues of the Spanish missionary from both inside and outside City Hall, emboldened activists targeted the St. Junipero statue from the Santa Ines Mission in Solvang.

A petition presented to Solvang Mayor Ryan Toussaint calls for the removal of the statue of “a man who spent the majority of his life kidnapping, enslaving and stripping away the culture of indigenous peoples.” The charges leveled at St. Junipero in the petition are unbelievable. It claims of this alleged kidnapper-enslaver saint: “Throughout his life he spread pain, misery and disease to the point where it has been discovered that more indigenous people died under him than were born. We as a community need to say we acknowledge this little known history and not pay homage to this man causing further confusion and pain. We want the statue removed as keeping it standing shows reverence and respect for someone who murdered and enslaved so many.”

This is an absurd distortion of the historical record. It’s what Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez had in mind when he said that “those attacking St Junípero’s good name and vandalizing his memorials do not know his true character or the actual historical record.”

Yes, not by a long stretch. One wonder if there will be an end to such calumny — a form of character assassination that Pope Francis often warns about.

Speaking of whom, I asked in my Register piece what Pope Francis might think about this. It was Francis, after all, who canonized St. Junipero Serra in Washington, D.C., in September 2015, referring to him as someone who not only did not mistreat Native Americans but “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

Is the Vatican doing anything to counter the hysteria? Or, at the least, taking any quiet steps to try to change the hostile public perception being fomented by St. Junipero’s posthumous persecutors? What might Francis do?  mission founded by St. Junipero and named for Franciscan father St. Bonaventure. As announced at the mission’s website:

With all praise and glory to God, Pope Francis has elevated Mission San Buenaventura to the status of a Minor Basilica, the first basilica in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Archbishop Jose Gomez was notified of this status by a communication from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Our parish, now titled Mission Basilica San Buenaventura, is the seventh minor basilica in Alta California and numbers 88th in the United States.

 

We are most grateful to His Holiness, Pope Francis for this honor and to Archbishop Jose Gomez for his unwavering support for this petition. Bishop Robert Barron who also supported this petition, was installed as Episcopal Vicar for the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region in 2015 at our Mission….

 

Saint Junipero Serra founded Mission San Buenaventura on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1782. Our Mission church is the ninth and last he founded and one of six missions he personally consecrated. The mission is named after St. Bonaventure, Bishop and Doctor of the Church….

 

May we all praise God in all that we do. St. Junipero Serra pray for us. St. Bonaventure, pray for us.

This is impressive news. For Pope Francis’s Vatican to name the Ventura mission an official basilica was a wonderful show of solidarity. The Ventura newspaper grasped the significance of the Vatican overture, reporting it this way:

On the same day Ventura leaders voted to remove statues of Father Junipero Serra, Archdiocese of Los Angeles officials announced the local mission he founded has been designated a church of the pope.

Mission San Buenaventura, founded by Serra in 1782 as the last of his nine missions, has been named a minor basilica by Pope Francis. It becomes the first church in the Catholic archdiocese to claim the distinction and the seventh in California.

"It means this is holy ground," said Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, announcing the designation Wednesday from the mission's garden. "Something beautiful and important in the history of salvation happened here."

The public release of a decision made by the pope in June came during a Mass celebrating St. Bonaventure, for whom the mission is named.

The Ventura newspaper headline nailed it, “Amid Serra controversy, Pope Francis declares Mission San Buenaventura a basilica.” That’s precisely right. That captures it.

The priest at the Ventura mission, Father Tom Elewaut, connected the Vatican’s move not to the vote by the Ventura City Council but to the Feast Day of St. Bonaventure that (ironically if not Providentially) happened the exact same day. Well, I’d be one to suggest a little more to the timing (certainly, at the least, in the councils of heaven).

Bishop Barron said he was “absolutely delighted” by the decision of the Vatican. We all should be, even if it’s hardly enough to mollify the mob.

But even then, it certainly seems like the Vatican could do more. St Junipero’s Feast Day just passed. That would have been an ideal moment for the Holy See to step forward with statements and even instructional materials on the saint and his contributions.

It begs the question: Will the Church — and the Vatican — stand by its saints who are increasingly under fire?

To be doubly fair, what can the Vatican be expected to do? The Holy See is not about to dispatch the Swiss Guard to guard statues in California coast towns. City officials in those towns themselves aren’t willing to dispatch guards to guard statues. The best we’ve seen is a fence outside Ventura city hall to hold back protesters until the construction crews come to yank down and warehouse effigies of St. Junipero Serra.

Of course, this goes well beyond St. Junipero. Likenesses of St. Louis is threatened by mobs in St. Louis, Missouri. Parishes in the United States are suddenly experiencing a rash of vandalization, desecration and possibly arson. Statues of Mary and even Jesus are being attacked. This seems to be a quickly deteriorating situation.

Will the Roman Catholic Church support its saints?

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