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 one of America’s founding fathers, a fact that Pope Francis recognizes, even if many of our own historians do not.
I am 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 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….
The above comes from a July 2 statement by Archbishop Gomez in Angelus News.