The early Catholic missionaries to what became the United States were witnesses to the American belief that all persons have rights to life and liberty, Archbishop Jose Gomez wrote on Friday.
“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,” the Archbishop of Los Angeles wrote in his July 2 column at Angelus.
“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.”
He reflected there is a fittingness to celebrating the memorial of St. Junipero Serra three days before Independence Day “because St. Junípero was not only the Apostle to California, he was also one of America’s founding fathers.”
“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,” the archbishop wrote.
The division in the US is “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.”
Archbishop Gomez said that “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.”
“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.”
The archbishop said that “they also 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.”
He added that “the Jesuits in upstate New York and the Franciscans in California envisioned communities that were multiracial and multicultural, reflecting the Christian belief that the human race is one family made up of a wonderful diversity of races and languages, tribes and peoples.”
“Finally,” Archbishop Gomez wrote, “America’s other founding can help us to not become prisoners of our past, defining the nation’s future by the hypocrisy and injustices of our ancestors.”
“In our current debates, we could use a little of their humility and realism about the human condition. It could help us to realize that America is not a nation whose founding ideals are false, but a nation whose founding promises have yet to be fully achieved.”