LOS ANGELES — As the nation’ celebrates its independence on the Fourth of July, Americans should recall the country’s “other founding” by the missionaries who, beginning in the 1500s, came to proclaim “the love of Jesus Christ to Indigenous peoples,” said Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez.
While missionaries from Spain were spreading the good news from present-day Georgia and Florida to Texas and lower California, the “French missionaries were consecrating the lands from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico to the Virgin Mary,” he said.
“These missionaries had no hand in developing America’s founding documents or institutions,” he said. “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.”
The archbishop, who is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made the comments in his July 2 column “Voices” in the Angelus News, the archdiocesan news outlet.
“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,” he said.
“It is fitting, because St. Junípero was not only the Apostle to California, he was also one of America’s founding fathers, a fact that Pope Francis recognizes, even if many of our own historians still do not,” the archbishop said.
Serra, who was canonized by the pope in 2015 during his visit to the U.S., first arrived in Mexico from Spain. He made his way on foot up the coast of Mexico and to California, where he established a chain of missions that are now the names of well-known cities such as San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Barbara.
He personally founded nine of the state’s 21 missions, including Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in 1771 in what is now the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Later this summer, the archdiocese will open a jubilee year to mark the 250th anniversary of the mission’s founding.
“The Catholic beginnings of this country are ignored in the telling of American history, even in otherwise excellent books. … Such histories are not wrong, but they are incomplete,” Gomez said.
“History is what holds us together as one nation,” he said. “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.”
This country is currently “in a period of deep division,” he said. “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.”
What “can help us see beyond our present polarization,” the archbishop said, is “recovering the story of America’s ‘other’ founding — which occurred more than a century before the Mayflower, Madison and Jefferson.”
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,” he said. They 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,” he said, “they testified to their belief that Jesus Christ is the greatest gift they could ever offer to their neighbors.”
Gomez said these missionaries also witness to what the 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 said.
These missionaries would say “we are far more than ‘expressive individuals,'” the archbishop explained. “We are creatures with bodies and souls, born not in isolation but in relation, in families and communities; not only with rights but also responsibilities to care for our neighbors and the world around us.”
“The missionaries’ example offers a deeper perspective to our current debates about race and group identity. Individual identity for the missionaries is rooted in being a child of God and a brother or sister to everyone else,” Gomez said.
The Jesuits in upstate New York and the Franciscans in California, he said, “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.”
“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.”
Gomez said the missionaries were not perfect. Their failings “remind us that we are all sinners — decent people who want to do the right thing but very often do not,” he said.
“We could use a little of their humility and realism about the human condition,” the archbishop said. “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. The ongoing work of fulfilling America’s promise falls to you and me.”
He said he hopes the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel jubilee year “will inspire us to continue the work of those first missionaries — to be saints and missionary disciples proclaiming Christ and building an America that lives out its founding principles of equality, freedom, and dignity for every person.”
In closing, he wrote: “Let us ask Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, to help bring a new awakening of our commitment to the American creed.”