RECENTLY, WE HAVE witnessed throughout the United States attacks on our Catholic heritage. Catholic churches and statues of saints have been desecrated, especially statues of St. Junípero Serra. This heroic and holy missionary has become the victim of a false history.
In the late 18th century, Father Serra walked from Mexico City up the coast of California, founding missions that became great cities. He demanded a declaration of rights to protect the native peoples. And he obtained it. At his death, the Native Americans who gathered around him referred to Junípero Serra as “el santo” — “the saint.”
Why is the truth about Father Serra not more widely known? Catholics should realize that, for generations, much of the history of Catholic missionaries in New Spain and New France was written by their historic competitors — that is, English-speaking Protestants. And today, the legacy of our missionaries is viewed by many through the distorting lens of a militant, anti-Catholic atheism.
Catholic missionaries sought to lead native people to the faith. They never sought to eliminate whole peoples, as the Puritans did when they destroyed the Pequots in Connecticut or other tribes during King Philip’s War. In fact, Junípero Serra sought to protect from the death penalty even Native Americans who had killed Europeans.
In the mid-1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in Democracy in America, recounted the condition of the Native Americans he observed. “I was the witness of sufferings which I have not the power to portray,” he wrote, concluding, “I believe that the Indian nations of North America are doomed to perish.”
None of these sufferings were caused by Catholic missionaries. They did not map out the Trail of Tears walked by the Cherokee, nor were they at the massacres of Sand Creek or Wounded Knee. Junípero Serra never called for the “extermination” of the native people of California as did the governor of that state after gold was discovered there.
We do not fear an honest review of the Catholic legacy in North America. Indeed, we welcome it. We urge every city, state and province to undertake a careful review of its own treatment of native peoples.
Tragedy and hardship are only one aspect of the story of Native Americans. For centuries, many tribes have also witnessed to their strong Catholic faith. As brothers and sisters in the faith, their story is part of our story. They, too, are part of the history of our Church in North America.
Native peoples have a right to have their story told with accuracy and integrity. Only in this way can we find a path of reconciliation, healing and justice. The Knights of Columbus is prepared to walk that path with them.
Twenty years ago, I dedicated the Knights of Columbus to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Just two years before the Virgin Mary’s appearance in 1531, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga of Mexico said of the situation in New Spain, “If God does not provide the remedy from His hand, the land is about to be completely lost.”
We know the land was not lost. Instead, millions were converted and a new Catholic culture emerged as a result of Our Lady’s message of love, hope and reconciliation.
Our Lady of Guadalupe was not imposed upon native peoples by Europeans. And her message was not introduced by the Spanish. To the contrary, St. Juan Diego, a Native American, brought her message to the Spanish.
It was with her image that missionaries such as St. Junípero Serra brought Christianity to the Indigenous peoples. St. John Paul II told us she is the “example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization” (Ecclesia in America, 11).
I believe she is Our Lord’s answer to the crisis our nation faces today. Our nation once again needs her message.
During the canonization Mass of Junípero Serra five years ago, Pope Francis said, “He was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth.’” Perhaps this is why today he is under such attack. His motto was Siempre adelante! Always forward!
So let us go forward with renewed confidence under the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe. May she again lead our Church to a new and inculturated evangelization!
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