Melancholy swept over me when I first read that Assemblymember James Ramos would carry Assembly Bill 338, a bill to permanently remove a statue of Father Junípero Serra from Capitol Park and replace the site dedicated to him with a memorial honoring Sacramento’s regional Native tribes.
Last year after the iconoclasts defaced Serra’s site and the state removed his statue from Capitol Park, I began praying a rosary at that spot on Friday mornings with friends from several Catholic parishes in the Sacramento area.
The joy and peace I feel every time after we conclude put a smile on my face that lasts the rest of the day. I get invigorated. Biting cold, we’ve had it; the energy still obtains. Roaring leaf blowers bellowing dissonance while we pray in unity, had that too; their wail has now become kind of a feature not a flaw. The place exudes joy and peace.
Hence, the sadness I feel about removing Serra from Capitol Park. I think the evils ascribed to him and the Franciscan missionary movement in California during the 18th century are dreadfully misplaced. Sure, he wasn’t perfect and his methods of evangelization were harsh when judged by today’s standards, but overall he and the missions were a force for good.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and through the Dark Ages, church and state were closely related. Then in medieval times common law begins taking shape. Western Civilization separates jurisdictions; certain types of crimes start being adjudicated in the courts of the monarchs while others were heard in courts where bishops presided. This bifurcation led to our enlightened constitutional ideal of separation between church and state.
While the age of imperialism galloped through the 18th century full of its mercantilist fury, Serra was walking barefoot up and down the California coast dedicating his ministry to the guardianship of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Yes, the Spanish army was aware of his ministry and Serra collaborated with soldiers at times, but his life’s work was saving the Native peoples from a ravaging imperialistic culture.
Moreover, if it wasn’t the Spanish from the south who overran California’s Native peoples, it would have been the British from the east or the Russians from the north. If not for Serra, how many more Native peoples would have died bloody and painful deaths trying to resist an inexorable imperialistic force?
God knows that the Roman Catholic Church is not perfect. The melancholy I feel when thinking about Serra’s statue is the strum of a single minor chord in comparison to the tragic opera of emotions resounding within when I think about our clergy diabolically abusing the innocent souls they vowed to protect.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is infinitely capacious, making room for saints and sinners alike. While not infinite, California is capacious as well. If we want, we can make room for all kinds.
God help us if we’re always pulling away from each other, tearing at our common foundations, fearing the other instead of being curious and approaching him or her with an open heart. God help us if we can’t laugh at ourselves and find friendship among critics. God help us recognize the greatness of California, the most populous state in the Union with an abundance of wise souls willing to work for the common good.
I applaud AB 338’s provisions for building monuments in honor of California’s Native peoples. In Catholic social teaching there’s a commodious “both/and” provision as opposed to a limiting “either/or” proposition. Both memorials to Native peoples and Serra can reside together in Capitol Park, and there will still be plenty of room for honoring others.
John Fairbanks, parishioner of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, is the publisher and editor of the Capitol Morning Report. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters