Some stat­ues are ex­am­ples to fol­low, not to tear down

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Kathryn Lopez Colum­nist

I con­fess, I had some un­holy anger to­ward peo­ple who van­dal­ized a Saint Ju­nipero Serra statue in Cal­i­for­nia re­cently. It was a some­what fa­mil­iar scene at this point. At the Old Mis­sion Santa Bar­bara, Serra’s im­age was de­cap­i­tated and cov­ered with red paint.

“Ho-hum,” you may be think­ing. We’ve seen this sort of thing hap­pen after the shame­ful vi­o­lence and ha­tred on dis­play in Char­lottesville over the sum­mer. But the sadly un­re­mark­able na­ture of the story seemed only to high­light what Pope Fran­cis said in cel­e­brat­ing Serra’s life when he vis­ited the United States two years ago this fall. His words shed light on our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion.

The pope’s theme was in­dif­fer­ence, as it hap­pens. He spoke on the steps of the Basil­ica of the Shrine of the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion, ad­ja­cent to The Catholic Univer­sity of Amer­ica in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., ac­knowl­edg­ing how over­whelmed we can get by ex­is­tence. He said: “Our daily rou­tine can of­ten lead us to a kind of glum ap­a­thy which grad­u­ally becomes a habit, with a fa­tal con­se­quence: Our hearts grow numb.

“We ought to ask our­selves,” he con­tin­ued: “What can we do to keep our heart from grow­ing numb, becoming anes­thetized? How do we make the joy of the Gospel in­crease and take deeper root in our lives?”

Isn’t that a ques­tion that gets right to the heart of our cur­rent ills?

Per­haps the ex­am­ple of Serra, a Fran­cis­can mis­sion­ary who wanted to bring the joy of the Gospel to the world, can help us see there’s an­other way of liv­ing.

Pope Fran­cis again got it exactly right: “Some­thing deep within us in­vites us to re­joice and tells us not to set­tle for place­bos which al­ways keep us com­fort­able.”

We do seem to live in hope that some­day ev­ery­thing will click into place, that cir­cum­stances will be­come per­fect or se­cure with, say, the right pres­i­dent. But life — as his­tory makes quite clear — doesn’t quite work that way. And maybe if we tear down some stat­ues of peo­ple we’ve de­cided didn’t do their best, we’ll feel bet­ter about not do­ing our best in im­per­fect sit­u­a­tions?

In the case of Serra, the ig­no­rance of the van­dal­ism adds to the scan­dal. In the wake of the crime, Gre­gory Or­falea, au­thor of “Jour­ney to the Sun: Ju­nipero Serra’s Dream and the Found­ing of Cal­i­for­nia,” wrote for An­gelus mag­a­zine about the re­spect Serra had for the Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes.

He writes that though “far from per­fect,” Serra “was dif­fer­ent.” He “was a brave ad­vo­cate of the in­dige­nous: op­pos­ing colo­nial over­lords, min­is­ter­ing to Cal­i­for­nia tribes he thought bet­ter Chris­tians than the Spa­niards, con­stantly clash­ing with the Span­ish mil­i­tary, chid­ing the Span­ish gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia, Felipe de Neve, for re­fus­ing to re­fer to In­di­ans as ‘gente de ra­zon’ (peo­ple of rea­son).” He in­structed the viceroy that should he be killed, no one should be pun­ished. His was an oth­er­worldy sense of mis­sion and for­give­ness.

Pope Fran­cis said: “Fa­ther Serra had a motto which in­spired his life and work ... ‘siem­pre ade­lante!’ Keep mov­ing for­ward! For him, this was the way to con­tinue ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from grow­ing numb, from be­ing anes­thetized.

He kept mov­ing for­ward, be­cause the Lord was wait­ing. He kept going, be­cause his broth­ers and sis­ters were wait­ing. He kept going for­ward to the end of his life. To­day, like him, may we be able to say: For­ward! Let’s keep mov­ing for­ward!”

That’s prob­a­bly the very op­po­site of the kind of de­struc­tion we see in the dam­age of Serra’s statue at the old mis­sion.

Saints aren’t saints be­cause they are per­fect, but be­cause they demon­strate heroic virtue in a world be­set with evil and com­plex­i­ties. They see good­ness, and they work to help oth­ers to do so as well.

Get­ting to know Serra be­fore tear­ing him down could help us in our own times.

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