Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Reconciling saints, sinners and California history

A painting of Rev. Junipero Serra has been placed above his grave inside the basilica at the Carmel Mission, Wednesday, May 6, 2015 in Carmel.
A painting of Rev. Junipero Serra has been placed above his grave inside the basilica at the Carmel Mission, Wednesday, May 6, 2015 in Carmel. AP

We believe what we believe even if we can’t be certain that what we believe is true. That’s called faith, even if the faith of one person is offensive to the next.

This year, many of us who are Catholic are going to have our faith put to the test by the pending sainthood of Father Junipero Serra – angelic founder of California’s missions to some; oppressor of native people to others.

Pope Francis will force the issue upon us this fall, when he visits the U.S. and presides over a September Mass in Washington, D.C., where Father Serra will be canonized.

It’s something that has me thinking in circles. I support Father Serra’s sainthood, but does that make me a sinner – a co-conspirator to the oppression of native people? Also, what does it say about California when the dream of living here amid such beauty was forged with the human suffering – some of it at the hands of God’s servants?

Doesn’t that undermine the essence of California – and of the church?

I don’t think it does, but many will disagree – loudly – in the coming months. Many will mock those who believe in saints at all in the age of information and moral relativism.

Some beliefs we hold true can be hard to reconcile with facts. For example, another candidate for sainthood with deep ties to California is Archbishop Oscar Romero – the Salvadoran church leader murdered 35 years ago in March.

Bishop Romero was beatified at a mass in San Salvador last month – a mass attended by Jaime Soto, Catholic bishop of Sacramento. For the trip, Bishop Soto put aside his daily vocation as a church leader to become a kind of pilgrim paying homage to a moral hero of his.

Soto was a young seminarian when Romero was murdered in March 1980. Soto believed then – and still believes today – that Romero was a “martyr” for the church. “Bishop Romero was an incredibly strong pastor,” he said. “He brought the anguish and suffering of the Salvadoran people home to us.”

It’s an uncomfortable truth that Salvadoran government “death squads” backed by American foreign policy killed Romero.

Romero spoke truth to power about the atrocities committed during a Salvadoran civil war in which the U.S. was interested in preventing leftist forces of linking with Cuba and the Soviet Union. “It was one of the last acts of the Cold War,” Soto said.

Romero called out President Jimmy Carter for supporting the Salvadoran “oligarchs” with money and military equipment. That support exacerbated bloodshed in a civil war that displaced thousands of Salvadorans in the 1980s.

The United Nations reported that 75,000 people were killed in El Salvador between 1979 and 1992. Countless others disappeared. Some of the displaced ended up in California, following a trail of despair. Once here, many young Salvadoran men turned to a very American form of crime – gang violence.

Violence begat violence: Some of the oppressed Salvadorans became oppressors of others and were sent to California prisons. When deported back to El Salvador, they took their American know-how with them.

Years later, organized crime in El Salvador contributed to a large numbers of kids traversing the length of Mexico to cross into California in a 2014 border surge that drew headlines. The story of the Central American kids flooding our border was framed as an offshoot of America’s “immigration debate.” What was overlooked was America’s role in the decades-old cycle of violence that contributed to the crossings.

“I am very concerned by the news that the government of the United States is planning to further El Salvador’s arms race by sending military equipment and advisers,” Romero wrote to Carter on Feb. 17, 1980 – one month before he was murdered.

“Instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights.”

The past 35 years have proved Romero correct. Injustice in all its forms caused the displacement of thousands of innocent people from El Salvador to the United States. Doesn’t this paint a different picture of President Carter, whose political legacy is steeped in his support for human rights?

Which narrative do we believe? The contradictions are many. When Romero’s beatification was announced, one of those praising the decision was President Barack Obama – who represents the government that contributed to Salvadoran bloodshed.

Junipero Serra spread the word of God and along the way established missions where the Gospel was preached – an undertaking that also led to the establishment of roads and commerce that led to modern California. It was a miracle of the human spirit guided by divine inspiration – and there is no doubt that native people suffered along the way.

In El Salvador, many wealthy parties do not believe that Romero was a saint. As The Associated Press and other media outlets reported last month, some believe he was murdered for being too closely linked to leftist guerrillas – not for preaching the Gospel.

Which narrative do we believe? Serra paved the way for California. Romero warned of what happens to humanity when brother kills brother. Catholics believe that makes them saints even as many scoff or take deep offense.