I have just received word that, after voting to remove a large statue of St. Junípero Serra that stands in front of their City Hall, the government of Ventura, California (which is in my pastoral region) is now considering removing the image of Padre Serra from the city seal and from the badges of the Ventura police officers. This entire effort to erase the memory of Serra is from a historical standpoint ridiculous and from a moral standpoint more than a little frightening.
Let me address the ridiculous side first. To state it bluntly, Junípero Serra is being used as a convenient scapegoat and whipping boy for certain abuses inherent to eighteenth-century Spanish colonialism. Were such abuses real? Of course. But was Fr. Serra personally responsible for them? Of course not. I won’t deny for a moment that Serra probably engaged in certain disciplinary practices that we would rightfully regard as morally questionable, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that he was a great friend to the native peoples; that he sought, time and again, to protect them from mistreatment by civil authorities; and that he presided over missions where the indigenous were taught useful skills and were introduced to the Christian faith.
To suggest, as did some of those who were petitioning for the removal of his statue, that Serra was the moral equivalent of Hitler and his missions the moral equivalent of concentration camps is nothing short of defamatory.
It is no exaggeration to affirm that from the missions established by Junípero Serra came much of the political and cultural life of the state of California. Many of our greatest cities—San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and yes, Ventura—were built on the foundation of the missions. And I won’t hesitate to say it: the spread of the Christian faith in this part of the world took place largely because of the work of Junipero Serra and his colleagues—and this is a good thing!
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