When St. Junípero Serra was appealing for more Franciscan missionaries from the College of San Fernando in Mexico, he told their superiors, “See to it that the new missionaries come well provided with patience, charity and good temper, for they may find themselves rich in tribulations.”

I thought of those words when I heard of the statues of the saint being toppled in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and defaced in his homeland of Mallorca, Spain. Such acts were examples of “memory violence,”  violence against monuments of a past too complicated to fit into a trending Procrustean vision of where we came from, as a symbol of what is wrong with us now.

And, I wondered, how would the saint, whom the great religious historian Sydney Ahlstrom described as “a friar who to an unusual degree combined an intense ascetic piety with great administrative ability,” react to the destruction of his memory? 

St. Junípero played a vital part in the complicated history of the mingling of cultures that occurred in the Americas. In our part of North America, this involved an imposition of British and French culture on a territory in which indigenous cultures were practically swept away or reduced to pockets barely integrated with national society. 

But in the Spanish-speaking colonies, a different, hybrid culture came about. While the Franciscan missionary has become a symbol of the conquest of California, in reality he made the Spanish administration of the territory more humane and his goals were religious and spiritual — not national. 

The blood, sweat, and toil of missionary work did not come naturally to Fray Serra. He had been a scholar, trained in the difficult philosophy of Father Duns Scotus, a brilliant Franciscan intellectual of the Middle Ages who created a synthesis that rivaled the systematic merging of Aristotle and Christian belief by the Church’s most famous theologian, the Dominican friar St. Thomas Aquinas. 

And so, a professor immersed in the tortuous and difficult scholastic teaching of Father Scotus was called to the missions. His first call was to work as a seminary professor in Mexico City. Then, in a tremendous departure from academic life, he was dispatched as a missionary to the indigenous people of what is today California. He went on to found nine missions that simultaneously served as both foci of Christian evangelization and of utopian experiments.

It would be very interesting to have known St. Junípero in person.

He was an intellectual whose interests ranged from sustainable agriculture to the construction of churches and dwellings, to fomenting structures of government and community living unknown to the many different tribes that lived in present-day California.

He was not only a pious follower of St. Francis, but one who would come to represent the power of the Church in the intrigue of the Spanish colony. 

He was a professor who founded cities and knew as many as 20 different languages. He was also a physically disabled man who limped practically the length of California on foot. 

His task, formidable beyond the dreams of his critics, was to integrate an indigenous culture into the New World version of the Western European Catholic cultural project. His success as a builder and a founder cannot be disputed, but his failure was as spectacular as his achievement: The utopian communities could not survive the rapaciousness of the newly independent Mexican republic, while disease decimated many of the converts to Christianity. His aim to integrate while respecting the uniqueness of the indigenous culture was realized only partially and for only a short time.

I think he would be as aware of the failure of his utopian evangelism as any of his critics. He would not blame Christianity or the missionaries who inevitably followed in the wake of the colonial expansion that saw England, Russia, Spain, and then the Mexican Republic vie for control before King Gold and American Manifest Destiny came to change everything. 

It is ironic that St. Junípero prayed for the success of the American Revolution that would eventually swallow California whole. He fought for the Native Americans’ survival in the face of the historical currents that transformed that part of the world. Unfortunately, history was not on the side of the creation of a hybrid culture of indigenous and European elements. 

He would criticize the violence of our society. He would be dismayed at the disintegration that is evidenced in our social turmoil because his whole project was one of peaceful development and integration of cultures. His master Father Scotus famously taught that “Love was superior to Knowledge.” I am sure the saint would love his “enemies” and be as dissatisfied with the materialist and divisive culture we live in today.

California would still be part of the American Imperium without the work of St. Junípero. I am sure the topography would be different, but I also think it would not be better than if he had not worked here.

He is not to blame for what he did not create. Rather, he should be credited with what he attempted, guided by his faith and his limited human abilities within a context in which he proved his basic human values many times.

The quarrel of those who hate St. Junípero is really with history. So let the activists strip the public square of history. The secularists will be happy, and the poverty of intellectual leadership among the elites of our society will be more evident. 

For our part, we can do what the monks did in the Dark Ages and keep the light of culture alive with our faith. Take the rejected statues to our churches, make our tradition a counterculture, strengthen our communal identity by embracing the good as St. Junípero did, until the day when our civilization is more welcoming to that uncomfortable stranger, the truth.

The saint was known to say “Always forward.” Our response should be guided by what St. Junípero would have seen as the priority in a society that seems to be imploding right now.

We build, we don’t tear down, would be what I think he would say to us. “Patience, charity and good temper,” he said, were needed. And not to be surprised to be “rich in tribulations.”