ROME — Despite calls to remove a statue from the US Capitol of 18th-century Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra, who worked in California but has been criticized for his treatment of Native Americans, California Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed the image will stay “until the end of time.”
Serra’s imminent canonization has stirred controversy because of accusations that he engaged in forced conversions and paved the way for the decimation of indigenous populations. Recently, some California lawmakers have called for replacing his statue with one of the late Sally Ride, the nation’s first female astronaut, who would also be the first LGBT person honored in the capitol’s statuary hall.
Pope Francis, however, has praised Serra as a US “founding father” and plans to formally declare Serra a saint during a stop in Washington, DC, in late September.
The statue of Serra has been on display in the US Capitol building since 1931, and in an interview Sunday, Brown told Crux that as far as he’s concerned, it will remain forever.
During a press conference in January, Brown, who studied at a Jesuit seminary for almost four years before turning to politics in the late 1960s, defined Serra as “a very courageous man and one of the innovators and pioneers of California.”
“We have to understand that saints, like everybody else, are not perfect,” Brown said then, saying that many groups in American history have suffered prejudice and misunderstanding.
Brown is in Rome to participate in two workshops on modern slavery and climate change Tuesday and Wednesday. He joins more than four dozen mayors and local officials from cities such as Boston, Paris, Teheran, Mexico City, and Stockholm in sessions co-sponsored by the Vatican’s Academy for Sciences and the United Nations.
The foray to Rome is the latest of several international trips Brown has taken to urge others to do more to curb climate change.
Among other things, Brown told Crux he was surprised by the absence of any US Republican participants. All of the 11 Americans taking part are, like Brown, Democrats.
Brown said he hopes mayors and governors who aren’t working on climate change could be in contact with the Catholic Church and with the pope, and perhaps be “converted to a more enlightened policy.”
A source working in the organization of the two-day event told Crux that a wide range of US politicians were invited to participate, but that only Democrats had accepted.
As for the topics chosen for the Vatican meetings — climate change and human trafficking — Brown said that although both are important and have are global in scope, the former is especially critical in California, where forest fires and rising temperatures are serious problems.
Brown also pointed to action lawmakers have taken to combat climate change by supporting renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electric cars.
Brown said Francis’ recently released encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, embodies “the third domain of religion,” in a climate change debate that so far has been dominated by oil companies and chambers of commerce favoring “business as usual,” and politicians dependent on those interests.
The pope, Brown said, can speak to the moral issue of partnership with the next generation in dealing with “greenhouse gases and the destruction of other forms of life, extinctions, habitat destruction.”
Both Tuesday’s workshop, titled “Modern Slavery and Climate Change: the Commitment of the Cities,” and the Wednesday symposium on “Prosperity, People, and Planet: Achieving Sustainable Development in Our Cities,” will be hosted by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences and funded by an Italian donor.
Pope Francis is scheduled to address the politicians Tuesday evening. Brown said his Jesuit background helps him appreciate Francis’ perspective.
“I recognize in the words of his encyclical, and in some of his talks, the Jesuit philosophy of concern for the poor and concern about consumption and extravagance,” he said.
“The rules of the Jesuits require that Jesuits live as ordinary men, not extravagant,” Brown said. “[Francis] is embodying that idea, and I’m aware of that because I was in the order for almost 4 years.”
Despite criticism from some in the United States of Francis’ anti-capitalist tone, Brown said the pope’s position actually resonates with an important strain in American culture.
“America’s funding principles were based in frugality, hard work, and simplicity,” he said, “not massive consumption and excessive novelty and all the rest that goes into hyper-consumption.”