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.