As the U.S. prepares for Pope Francis' trip later this year, one Vatican official says efforts to remove the statue of Spanish missionary Blessed Junipero Serra from the capital offers a poor welcome for history's first Latin American pontiff. California's recent vote to replace the statue of the Franciscan missionary from the National Statuary Hall is “shocking,” especially ahead of Pope Francis' upcoming visit, said Dr. Guzman Carriquiry Lecour, Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. During an April 20 press briefing at the Vatican, Carriquiry Lecour questioned removing the statue of “this Hispanic saint from the Capital of Washington, at the precise time when the first Hispanic Pope in history” will come to the U.S. capital to canonize him. Axing the statue just months before the papal visit in September, “would not be an extraordinarily nice welcome from a country that proposes multicultural tolerance,” he said. Father Serra helped establish the California missions in the 1700s, many of which became the centers of major cities like San Diego. The state's government, however, is seeking to replace the statue of the Franciscan missionary with that of the late Sally Ride, the first female astronaut in space. The Vatican official criticized the Golden State's decision to bury “into oblivion or ideology the extraordinary contribution of the Hispanic Catholic missionary who has origins, not only in the United States, but in California.” Located in the Capital building in Washington, D.C., the National Statuary Hall houses statues from all fifty States. Each State is represented statues of two of its prominent historical citizens. Alongside former U.S. president Ronald Regan, Spanish-born Junipero Serra's statue represents California, which has a Latino population of more than 37 percent. “What can this initiative (to remove the statue from the capital) mean in a state in which many thousands of Hispanics live, the majority of whom venerate Blessed Junipero Serra?” Carriquiry Lecour said. California's senate voted 22-10 on Apr. 13 to replace the statue of Junipero Serra, although the decision awaits further approval from the state's assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown. Born Nov. 24, 1714 in Spain, Blessed Junipero Serra played a key role in the evangelization of 18th-century California. The missions he founded took in thousands of Native American converts to Christianity and taught them technological development skills. As part of the lead up to the canonization later this year, the Pope will visit Rome's Pontifical North American College on May 2 for a day of reflection on the California missionary. In an Apr. 20 interview with CNA, college rector Msgr. James Checchio said it would be sad if Junipero Serra's statue was removed, on account of “all the great contributions,” he made, “not just to the Church and evangelization of peoples, but also for California itself.” From the point of view of those receiving formation at the PNAC, Junipero Serra is “a man who was heroic in giving of himself for the mission of evangelization,” he said. “He’s a good example for us, and an inspiration for us, and so certainly our men see that — especially our Latino men, and our men from the Southwest and California dioceses.” Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Junipero Serra on Sep. 23 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
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