St. Junípero Serra on Trial

I was amazed by how a story in SF Weekly, a weekly tabloid newspaper in San Francisco, California, about frustration over partial historical narratives did not include those of a Catholic Church historian when it comes to Saint Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish priest who Pope Francis called “the evangelizer of the west in the United States.” Aside from that, I believe the author did a good job capturing the situation we are in regarding the vandalism of public statues of Junípero Serra (lest we forget those statues of Saint Junípero Serra desecrated four times on Catholic church property—Mission Carmel, Old Mission Santa Barbara, and at Mission San Gabriel).

What did the author capture? To me, the brutal truth behind the motivation of activists who deface images of Saint Junípero Serra.

Those that believe they are right taking matters into their own hands are in the process of becoming what they profess to hate most—intolerant bullies and bigots. They have a misinformed perception of the California mission, an understanding that they were full of tyrants living in an us versus them world. To them, there is no gray area and they use only fear tactics and spout outright lies and half-truths. What we have today among activists against Saint Junípero Serra seems to me reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor”.

The questioner in the 18th-century tale puts a man in a chair and makes inquiries into the miracles he performed. It is the beliefs in the inquisitor’s mind that he cannot let go of and with each question the man being interrogated remains silent. At the heart of the story is that the man asking the questions knows human freedom and that Jesus died for so many who cannot handle that gift. It is he, the representative of the Catholic Church, who knows better. The man the interrogator questions is Jesus himself who returned to earth. The reader knows this but the Grand Inquisitor does not. Those who are tearing down statues of Saint Junípero Serra are the modern version of the Grand Inquisitor, falsely putting Serra on trial.

The Catholic Church is confident about Serra. His life has been studied and researched with a fine-tooth comb. The ecclesial court proceedings to question Serra’s holiness began on December 12, 1948. The evidence brought forth were 2,420 documents (7,500 pages total) of Serra’s writings, 5,000 pages of materials written about him from those who knew him, and testimony of people inspired by his life. A summary of findings would be collected into the Positio (position paper)—Serra’s position was 1,200 pages. The evidence propelled Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, to share in the homily at Serra’s canonization on September 23, 2015 in Washington, D.C.,  “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

The Catholic Church is also open. Just before the canonization, the California bishops and Franciscans promised to reappraise what people learn at the California missions. Michele Jurich wrote in her Oakland Voice article that the study would focus on  “. . . the way the natives are depicted in exhibits and displays at the 19 California missions that are active Catholic parishes, and in the ways Catholic schoolchildren learn about Indians in third grade and missions in fourth grade.” The public schools already have a new framework in place that address such concerns.

The Catholic Church is also repentant for the challenges brought by colonization. Pope John Paul II begged for forgiveness on September 14, 1987, retired Bishop Francis A. Quinn of Sacramento on December 15, 2007, Pope Francis on July 9, 2015, and Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark of Los Angeles on July 21, 2016. The most beautiful act of reconciliation, in my opinion, was that Vincent Medina, who is outspoken against Serra, was invited by Church officials to recite the first reading at Serra’s canonization Mass, in the Chochenyo Native American language. This makes total sense in light of the history of the man who was recognized that day as being counted among the communion of saints in heaven. Serra, who died on August 28, 1784, saw God in all. On February 26, 1777, Saint Junípero Serra described the native people in a letter with Father Francisco Pangua, his guardian in Mexico City: “They are in places one cannot visit without walking a long distance and sometimes going on hands and feet, but I put my trust in the Lord, who created them, and redeemed them with the most precious blood of His Son.”

The Catholic Church is also not taking this sitting down. The California Catholic Conference of Bishops issued a statement in response to the removal of St. Junipero Serra statues in the state;  Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles wrote a letter to the faithful on the memorial of St. Junípero Serra; a lawsuit was filed by the Thomas More Society against the city of Ventura for its taking down a statue of Serra; a grassroots lay movement was founded called Defend Serra; the pastor at Mission Santa Inés told people who want a statue of Serra removed from church property to back off; Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco led prayer for the madness to stop and wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post; Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson of the Knights of Columbus took the cancel culture to task at the 138th Supreme Convention; Bishop Barron and people of goodwill took a stand against protestors demanding a statue of Serra on church property be removed; and last, but definitely not least, descendants of Mission Indians are going to the mat for Serra. What can you do?

First, pray for an end to this madness and healing in the American Indian communities. Next, learn more about the life of St. Junípero Serra. Third, contact your elected officials and say enough is enough! Demand that religious freedom guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution be protected.

Saint Junípero Serra, the first Hispanic saint of the United States and Pablo Tac, California Mission Indian, seminarian, and scholar, pray for us!


Christian Clifford is the author of four books about Catholic Church history in Spanish-Mexican California. His latest is Pilgrimage: In Search of the Real California Missions, the story of his epic 800-mile walk of the California Missions Trail. He can be reached at

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