After the toppling of a saint’s statue in San Francisco, the city’s archbishop said Saturday that important protests over racial injustice have been “hijacked” by a mob bent on violence.
“What is happening to our society? A renewed national movement to heal memories and correct the injustices of racism and police brutality in our country has been hijacked by some into a movement of violence, looting and vandalism,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said in a statement June 20.
The archbishop’s statement came after a statue of St. Junípero Serra was torn down in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park Friday, along with statues of Francis Scott Key and Ulysses S. Grant.
“The toppling and defacing of statues in Golden Gate Park, including that of St. Junípero Serra, have become the latest example,” of that shift in the protest movement, the archbishop added.
“The memorialization of historic figures merits an honest and fair discussion as to how and to whom such honor should be given. But here, there was no such rational discussion; it was mob rule, a troubling phenomenon that seems to be repeating itself throughout the country.”
Cordileone emphasized the importance of calls for racial justice and an end to police brutality, which began after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
“Everyone who works for justice and equality joins in the outrage of those who have been and continue to be oppressed,” the archbishop said.
“It is especially true that followers of Jesus Christ – Christians – are called to work tirelessly for the dignity of all human beings,” he added, noting that St. Francis of Assisi, for whom San Francisco was named, is “one of history’s most iconic figures of peace and goodwill.”
“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,“ Cordileone said.
“St. Junípero Serra is no exception.”
Serra, who was canonized a saint by Pope Francis in 2015, was an eighteenth century Franciscan missionary who founded nine Catholic missions in the area that would later become California; many of those missions would go on to become the centers of major California cities.
Serra helped to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity and taught them new agricultural technologies.
Critics have lambasted Serra as a symbol of European colonialism and have characterized the missions as engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Bl. Serra himself was abusive.
But Serra’s defenders, including Cordileone, say that Serra was actually an advocate for native people and a champion of human rights.
“St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers. Even with his infirmed leg which caused him such pain, he walked all the way to Mexico City to obtain special faculties of governance from the Viceroy of Spain in order to discipline the military who were abusing the Indians. And then he walked back to California,” the archbishop said Saturday.
“And lest there be any doubt, we have a physical reminder to this day: everywhere there is a presidio (soldiers’ barracks) associated with a mission in the chain of 21 missions that he founded, the presidio is miles away from the mission itself and the school.”
Cordileone said he did not want to “deny that historical wrongs have occurred, even by people of good will, and healing of memories and reparation is much needed. But just as historical wrongs cannot be righted by keeping them hidden, neither can they be righted by re-writing the history.”
The archbishop praised the saint’s missionary zeal: “St. Junípero Serra also offered them the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, which he and his fellow Franciscan friars did through education, health care, and training in the agrarian arts.”
“Anger against injustice can be a healthy response when it is that righteous indignation which moves a society forward. But as Christ himself teaches, and St. Francis modeled, love, and not rage, is the only answer,” the archbishop concluded.