Saint Junípero Serra and cancel culture

Re: Hannah Holzer, “San Francisco’s Toppled Statues”, SF Weekly (July 4, 2020)

It amazes how a story that is about frustration over partial narratives does not include those of a Catholic Church historian when it comes to Junípero Serra. Aside from that, I believe the author did a good job capturing the situation where we are in regard to 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. The front wooden doors and a side wall at Mission Santa Cruz were spray-painted in red with the message “Serra St. of Genocide”).

To me, what exactly did the author capture when it comes to Junípero Serra? Those that believe they are right taking matters into their own hands are in the process of becoming what they hate most—intolerant bullies. They have a misinformed perception of the California missions 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 seems to me reminiscent of Tolstoy’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 ideas 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 it is that the man asking the questions knows human freedom and that Jesus died for so many who cannot handle that gift and that the Catholic Church 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 Junípero Serra are the Grand Inquisitor of today and have falsely put Serra on trial. 

The Catholic Church is confident about Serra.  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 had been outspoken against Serra, recited the first reading at the September 23, 2015 canonization Mass, in the Chochenyo Native American language.


Christian Clifford is the author of books and articles about Catholic Church History in Spanish and Mexican California. For more information, visit