I have always loved how, in God’s providence, the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Junípero Serra three days before our nation celebrates its independence on July 4.
It is fitting, because St. Junípero was not only the Apostle to California, he was also one of America’s founding fathers, a fact that Pope Francis recognizes, even if many of our own historians still do not.
I am still struck at how the Catholic beginnings of this country are ignored in the telling of American history, even in otherwise excellent books. As I pointed out in my own 2013 book, “Immigration and the Next America,” such histories are not wrong, but they are incomplete.
History is what holds us together as one nation. How we remember our past shapes how we understand where we are at in the present, and helps define our meaning and purpose as a people.
We are in a period of deep division in our country. Not surprisingly, our anxieties about the present are playing out in fierce debates — in school boards, legislatures, and the media — over the meaning of American history and how to tell our national story.
Recovering the story of America’s “other” founding — which occurred more than a century before the Mayflower, Madison, and Jefferson — can help us see beyond our present polarization.
Beginning in the 1500s, missionaries from Spain were proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ to indigenous peoples from present-day Georgia and Florida to Texas and lower California. French missionaries were consecrating the lands from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico to the Virgin Mary.
It is true, these missionaries had no hand in developing America’s founding documents or institutions. But their mission gives witness to the authentic American spirit that runs through our history and finds expression in the “letter” of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
For the most part, America’s Catholic missionaries, like St. Junípero, were “doers,” men and women who preached through lives of self-sacrifice and service, rather than in eloquent speeches and letters.
The missionaries had profound respect for the indigenous peoples they served, learning their languages and traditions and defending them against the lusts and avarice of exploiters.
Enduring hardships and dangers, they testified to their belief that Jesus Christ is the greatest gift they could ever offer to their neighbors.
They also witness to what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others have called the “American creed” — the belief expressed in those founding documents that all men and women are endowed by God with a sacred dignity and undeniable rights to life, liberty, and equality.
Recovering the spirit of America’s “other founding” gives us a more solid grounding for American individualism, which is always tempted to fall into a kind of selfish pursuit of one’s own interests without regard to others.
We are far more than “expressive individuals,” the missionaries would tell us. We are creatures with bodies and souls, born not in isolation but in relation, in families and communities; not only with rights but also responsibilities to care for our neighbors and the world around us.
The missionaries’ example offers a deeper perspective to our current debates about race and group identity.
Individual identity for the missionaries is rooted in being a child of God and a brother or sister to everyone else. The Jesuits in upstate New York and the Franciscans in California envisioned communities that were multiracial and multicultural, reflecting the Christian belief that the human race is one family made up of a wonderful diversity of races and languages, tribes and peoples.
Finally, America’s other founding can help us to not become prisoners of our past, defining the nation’s future by the hypocrisy and injustices of our ancestors.
The missionaries’ own failings remind us that we are all sinners — decent people who want to do the right thing but very often do not.
In our current debates, we could use a little of their humility and realism about the human condition. It could help us to realize that America is not a nation whose founding ideals are false, but a nation whose founding promises have yet to be fully achieved.
The ongoing work of fulfilling America’s promise falls to you and me. That is why I am excited for our upcoming Jubilee Year to commemorate the 250th anniversary of St. Junípero Serra’s founding of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, which I announced formally last week.
I pray this Jubilee will inspire us to continue the work of those first missionaries — to be saints and missionary disciples proclaiming Christ and building an America that lives out its founding principles of equality, freedom, and dignity for every person.
Pray for me and I will pray for you.
And let us ask Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, to help bring a new awakening of our commitment to the American creed.