Bishop Robert McElroy, the new head of the San Diego diocese, has criticized a proposal to remove the statue of pioneering California missionary and soon-to-be saint Father Junipero Serra from the U.S. Capitol. Bishop McElroy told journalists on Wednesday that Fr. Serra is a “foundational figure” of California history. He noted that Fr. Serra is one of the few Hispanics honored in the U.S. Capitol and represents a state “rapidly becoming majority Hispanic,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The U.S. Capitol building houses two statues from each state, depicting renowned figures from the state’s history. On April 13, the California Senate voted 22-10 to remove Fr. Serra’s statue and replace it with a statue of Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space. The proposal must be approved by the California Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown if it is to take effect. Pope Francis will canonize Fr. Serra September 23 during his visit to the United States. In January, the Pope characterized Serra as “the evangelizer of the west in the United States.” The Franciscan priest played a key role in the evangelization of 18th-century California and founded some of the missions that became the centers of major Californian cities. The missions took in thousands of Native American converts to Christianity and taught them many of the skills and technologies necessary for cultural development. While some critics have depicted Fr. Serra as a harsh and malicious figure, his defenders say his life has been politicized and misrepresented. They point to the many natives who mourned his death and attended his funeral, as well as the work that the soon-to-be saint did to clothe, house and feed the native peoples. Pope John Paul II beatified Fr. Serra in 1988. Bishop McElroy’s comments on Fr. Serra came on the same day as his installation Mass as the sixth bishop of San Diego. The bishop’s April 15 homily stressed the theme of “mutual accompaniment.” He recounted the story of two free climbers in Yosemite Valley’s El Capitan rock formation. One of the climbers refused to abandon his friend for days, despite his friend’s repeated inability to complete a difficult, isolated section of a climb. The climber eventually succeeded in scaling the difficult section, and they were able to finish the climb together. Bishop McElroy said this kind of companionship “must form the heart of the relationship of a bishop with his local church.” He also stressed that bishops and lay Catholics share a common baptism, which is the “most important religious identity for disciples of the Lord.” “Saint Augustine expressed this reality clearly: for you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian,” he explained. Bishop McElroy listed three central challenges: the proclamation of God’s unlimited mercy, the need always to “witness to the grace of God which is present in the cultural diversity of the Church,” and the need to “seek to be a builder of bridges in our contemporary world.” He said San Diego has the opportunity to “reclaim our border with Mexico as a bond which unites us to the whole of the Americas, rather than as a barrier which divides us.” He advocated comprehensive immigration reform and stressed the need to recognize “the grace that immigrants from Latin America have provided to California.” He also recognized the ethnic and cultural diversity of San Diego, calling this “a powerful gift of the Holy Spirit.” The bishop said Catholics must bring “into the very heart of the Church and society those so often condemned to live or die on the periphery.” He included in these the poor, the homeless, the unborn, the aged and disabled, the imprisoned, and victims of sexual trafficking and abuse, “especially clergy abuse.” Catholics, he said, “are not called to separate from culture, nor to be coopted by our culture, nor to war against our culture, but to embrace our culture with a powerful and transformative love rooted in the gospel.” Bishop McElroy emphasized “the beauty of God’s design for humanity” and said that a Gospel-rooted “ministry of accompaniment” must reach out to society in a world where many are left “broken and separated, alienated and factionalized.” Christian ministry must “constantly build new bridges to recreate the unity of the human family and protect human dignity as God has intended.” The San Diego diocese is among the largest in the U.S., with almost 1 million Catholics. Bishop McElroy succeeds Bishop Cirilio Flores, who passed away in September after just one year in office.
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