July 10, 2020


Seeing beyond the times we live in

“St. Junípero Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers. …For the past 800 years, the various Franciscan orders of brothers, sisters and priests that trace their inspiration back to him have been exemplary of not only serving, but identifying with, the poor and downtrodden and giving them their rightful dignity as children of God.” (San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone)

On June 22, the California Catholic Conference of Bishops issued a statement in response to the tearing down of statues of St. Junípero Serra in San Francisco and Los Angeles and the increasing statewide pressure to remove all images of the saint known by many as “the Apostle of California.” Another statue of the saint was torn down in Sacramento on July 4. The rationale for “erasing” the public memory of Junípero Serra is similar to the arguments given for removing (or destroying) all statues of public figures whose lives did not completely conform to contemporary standards of behavior. As a result, even our nation’s most revered leaders (Washington, Jefferson and even Lincoln) are now considered unworthy of being remembered in public places.

In the case of Padre Serra, who was canonized by Pope Francis during his visit to the United States in 2015, it’s true that he supported aspects of the Spanish colonial system that are unacceptable to us today including disciplinary actions (flogging) of natives who ran away from the missions he founded. But it’s equally true that he argued passionately for the dignity and human rights of the people he was called to serve. According to the California bishops:

“The historical truth is 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.”

It’s not accidental that statues are being targeted in the effort to erase the public’s memory. When they are done well, works of art including paintings, sculptures, stained-glass windows (and, of course, poetry, music and dance), all invite and challenge us to see beyond our current reality. They remind us of truths that are often invisible to us—either because we are too distracted by false images or because we refuse to acknowledge that every human being, in spite of his or her flaws, is beautiful, created in the image and likeness of God.

The Catholic Church has traditionally supported the arts over iconoclastic tendencies—expressed in its radical form (tearing down statues) and its more benign forms (settling for mediocrity). We recognize that great art allows us to encounter realities that occasionally make us uncomfortable even as they reveal aspects of timeless truth and beauty.

In the case of Junípero Serra, we believe that God was actively directing his ministry, helping him to overcome the limitations imposed by his culture, and to move beyond his own sinfulness. Padre Serra is recognized as a saint not because he was perfect, but because he cooperated with the grace of God in transcending his human weakness in the service of indigenous peoples.

Tearing down statues or settling for safe (mediocre) images is a serious mistake, especially in the Church. We need more statues of saints—women like Mother Theodore Guérin and men like Junípero Serra—who overcame enormous external obstacles, prejudices and their own inner struggles to make the world a better place for all. And we need images (such as the miraculous “self-portrait” of Our Lady of Guadalupe revealed in the tilma of the indigenous St. Juan Diego) that we can relate to, at the same time that they allow us to recognize, and reverence, the awesome mysteries they unveil.

Now is not the time to tear down statues. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to the development of great art, the kind that helps us see beyond our narrowness as we gaze at the transcendent mystery revealed in the beauty of all God’s creation and the richness of our common humanity.

Iconoclasm (literally “image breaking”) is the recurring historical impulse to break or destroy images for religious or political reasons. Let’s resist this temptation in our churches and our public squares. Let’s use these very public reminders of our past to spur us to action, and contemplation, as we work to build a better future.

—Daniel Conway

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