LA Church’s Jubilee Year A Chance to Face the Sins of California Mission History

What was not said was as important as what was.

In his Homily for September 8 To kick off a jubilee year marking the 250th anniversary of the San Gabriel mission, Archbishop of Los Angeles José Gomez spoke of his effort to imagine the choices facing Junípero Serra and the Franciscans who founded the California missions.

“I wonder how it felt for these missionaries – leaving their homes and families behind, knowing they would never come back,” Gomez said. “What would make someone go to a place they’ve never seen, to serve a people they don’t even know?” “

Members of the Tongva tribe began the outdoor service with incense, flute, and incantations on a temperate late summer evening outside the Archdiocese’s founding mission in the now a suburb of San Gabriel.

But it was as if the natives were granted a ceremonial presence, but not a substantial one. Gomez finished pondering the difficult choices of missionaries and moved on. He made no mention of the choices the natives faced in Serra’s time as they considered the offer of Christian faith conditioned by the forced loss of their land, way of life and culture. .

To be Catholic in California today is to be hungry for the church to take the lead and openly face its problematic missionary past. The jubilee year in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles – until September 2022 – does not yet appear to be a vehicle for such accounting. It has a laudable goal: to renew the faith in a missionary spirit. But this remains within the framework of personal piety alone, not of historical recovery.

There must be a better way. Inspired by an initiative of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, I would like to offer five ideas for a better jubilee year. (I live this fall at Catholic Worker but I am not speaking here on behalf of the community.)

I was particularly influenced by the remarkable Jubilee Year of Pope John Paul II in 2000, when he apologized on behalf of the church for many historical misdeeds. In particular, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did not follow the model of John Paul II.

In any case, other years of jubilee could arrive while other missions mark the 250 years of their foundation (for example, San Luis Obispo in 2022). We should approach such opportunities ready to mend the past.

1. The spiritual is in the mess of the material

I noted Gomez’s disposition to reflect on the choices of missionaries but not on those of the natives. Three days after the service at Mission San Gabriel, this trend manifested itself again.

During the opening Mass of the Jubilee Year at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, the first reading of Leviticus proclaimed with piercing clarity the biblical meaning of a jubilee year: “It will be a jubilee for you: you will return, each of you, to your property and each of you to your family.

Truer words could hardly be said about the moral imperative of a jubilee year focused on California’s Indigenous past and its history of stolen land and family separation. But no one responded to the provocative words for the rest of the Mass, which was dedicated to fostering personal spiritual renewal.

As we face our difficult past, we cannot sequester the spiritual away from the messy realities that call for restoration.

2. Fr. Franciscan. Junípero Serra is a distraction from the cultural war

On September 24, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that requires the removal of a Serra statue from the state capital park. Gomez and Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal decrying the bill and arguing that “no serious historian” agrees with the legislative language, which states: “The slavery of adults and children, mutilation, genocide and assaults against women all part of the period of mission initiated and supervised by Father Serra. “

Here it is important to separate two questions. One is the complex question of the precise degree of responsibility Serra had for the mission system he founded and which continued long after his death. Does the new California law presuppose too much and the archbishops too little?

The question is a distraction from the question that really matters: the effects of the mission system on the Native.

Additionally, we are faced with the inconsistency at the heart of a culture war crusade: Those who denounce the removal of the statues from Serra as a violation of religious freedom are crickets when it comes to the myriad ways in which the statues of Serra are violated. mission system compromised religious freedom. of the native.

3. Accountability exists in systems

In its 2007 volume California: a story, the late California State Historian Kevin Starr said: “It is difficult … missionaries.

It is difficult to identify responsibility when talking about systems. But it is also incorrect to rule out the possibility of liability in such cases. For example, the Catholic Church acted as the agent of the Spanish Empire in creating the mission system.

“The missions were aimed at securing California for the Spanish crown,” said a group of academics from the University of Santa Clara. written in 2020. Can such collusion between church and crown be understood simply as missionaries ameliorating an imperial ambition that was to take hold of Alta California in one way or another? It’s too easy of a way out. In an age of growing religious nationalism, we need a broader understanding of the costs to the Catholic faith that have resulted from such systemic collusion with the crown.

4. Responsibility and the Mystical Body of Christ

Were missionaries responsible for the misdeeds of the missionary system? Is the church today responsible for acts that have gone by so long in the past? These questions hover over this year and over any future jubilee year. But, in a sense, these questions are irrelevant, at least from a faith perspective.

Subjective guilt is crucial. But objective evil remains the responsibility of God’s people, whether subjective guilt is established or not. The Vatican Act providing the theological justification for the Jubilee Year of John Paul II in 2000 clearly shows: Our efforts to redress the past are based on “the bond that unites us to one another in the Mystical Body, all of us, although not personally responsible and without interfering with the judgment of God, who alone knows all hearts, bear the burden of the errors and faults of those who have gone before us. “

5. Indian Christ

In 1989, John Paul II met the natives of present-day Argentina. They told him, “We were free, and the land that was the mother of the Indians was ours. We lived on what she gave us generously, and we all ate in abundance … the sword, the tongue and the cross and made us crucified nations. … In this cross they [the Europeans] changed the Christ of Judea for the Indian Christ. “

The Catholic Church in California today needs to hear the story of the crucified Indian Christ.

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