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Knights of Columbus’ Carl Anderson on the “Black Legend” and Blessed Junípero Serra

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Diane Montagna - published on 05/03/15

Our Lady of Guadalupe was Fr. Serra's true inspiration

VATICAN CITY — What is the “black legend”? To find out, Aleteia asked Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, who explained that the “legend” is actually a false retelling of the history of Spanish conquests of the New World. The legend, he said, was fabricated in part to malign the Spanish Franciscans who established the California Missions to spread Christianity among the local native Americans.

Anderson was speaking on Saturday at a conference on the Spanish missionary, Fra Junípero Serra, held at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Pope Francis is scheduled to canonize Fr. Serra during his apostolic visit to the United States in September. 

Opponents of his canonization protest — in line with the “black legend” — that the Spanish Friar was responsible for some of the same atrocities committed by his Spanish countrymen. Yet the historical evidence tells quite a different story.

Anderson’s talk was entitled: “Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother and Guide of Fra Junípero Serra, Patron of America.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, under the patronage of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. 

Mr. Anderson, what is the “black legend”?

The “black legend” is a term historians use to explain a propaganda war of English speaking nations against Spain. It originally arose when Spain had a vast empire and England was competing with Spain.

We all know, for example, the story of the Spanish Armada trying to invade England. It has come down through history as a prejudice against Spaniards as being unusually cruel, unusually greed, unusually untrustworthy. 

Now, if you apply that to the Catholic missionary tradition in the Southwest, you get a very distorted picture of what these men and women actually did. 

Therefore, part of what we did at today’s conference is talk about what the black legend is, what its effects have been, and why it is that we should not let it slander the honorable history of one of our great saints, Junípero Serra. 

According to the black legend, what happened in the missions?

The presumption of the black legend is that the Indians — the native peoples — were treated cruelly, maybe were tortured, were exploited. When the fact of the matter is, what drove and motivated Junípero Serra and the other missionaries was the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, that these people have dignity. When she appeared to Juan Diego, she said: “Am I not your Mother?” Did she not come with their appearance, as one of them. She also said: “I have the honor to be your mother.” 

Disciples of Our Lady of Guadalupe understand that she is coming out of respect. And therefore, evangelization does not mean domination; it doesn’t mean exploitation. It means bringing the Gospel to people and cultures that you respect. 

And that’s the key to understanding Junípero Serra. In fact, many of the horrible things that people want to say occurred under the Spanish missionaries actually occurred after Spain and Mexico were driven out of California. It is during the gold rush — in 1849 and 1850 — that you see the suppression of the Indian people, i.e. the natives of California.

Who was responsible for this suppression?

Unfortunately, it was the State of California. You even have the governor of the time saying the Indians must be exterminated. There was no thought of treating the native people with the kind of respect and multiculturalism that Junípero Serra wanted. The governor stated this quite clearly and used the word ‘extermination’, so it’s very clear what was going on.

Can you tell us more about the influence of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Fr. Serra’s life? You mentioned in your talk that he spent his first night in Mexico at her shrine, having just arrived by ship from Spain.

Yes, Our Lady of Guadalupe is a constant theme in his life and the life of the missions: the missions are named after her, the missions have her image.

You said in that she even “carried” JuníperoSerra to the US?

Yes, the ship that carried him to the New World was named “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Her influence is really the key to understanding him.

Why are the Knights of Columbus taking such interest in Fr. Serra’s canonization?

Well, we have always been concerned about defending the Church against prejudice and bigotry. We were active in the early 20th century in the fight against the Ku Klux Klan. We have also  sponsored various historical studies. Now it’s also important to set the record straight here.

Is it also time to regain Catholic history in the United States?

Yes. And it’s time to really devote more attention to Catholic history. In the early 1900’s, the Knights of Columbus founded the first Chair of Catholic History at the Catholic University of America, to begin this process of setting the record straight, precisely because of prejudice. We’ve got to do more of it.

What impact do you think Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September will have, in light of increasing the religious persecution and assaults against religious liberty we see in the United States and around the world today?

Pope Francis has been the most important spokesman worldwide on this subject. I’m sure he’s going to talk about religious liberty when he comes to the United States. And I hope it engenders a new spirit of solidarity among Christians around the world.

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

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