In recent weeks, statues of St. Junípero Serra have been attacked, toppled, and desecrated in cities throughout California. These alarming and infuriating events have left many Catholics with many questions—not only about the legacy of Serra himself, but also about what Bishop Barron as Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles has done and said in response.
The purpose of this page is to provide a thorough, objective, one-stop source for people looking for the facts in both of these areas.
St. Junípero Serra
Who is St. Junípero Serra?
St. Junípero Serra (1713-1784) was a Spanish friar and missionary who was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. As a very young man, he joined the Franciscan order, and when Padre Serra was thirty-six, he resolved to become a missionary in the New World. He undertook this mission out of a sincere and deeply felt desire to save souls, knowing full well that he would likely never return to his homeland. When he was around fifty years old, he was asked by his superiors to lead a missionary endeavor in Alta California, more or less the present-day state of California. He established a series of missions along the Pacific coast, from San Diego to San Francisco.
Why is he controversial?
Critics of Serra’s project claim that American Indians were compelled to join the missions, essentially as a slave labor force, and were baptized against their will. The consensus of responsible historians, however, is that both of these charges are false. In fact, the vast majority of the Indians recognized the advantage of living in connection with the missions, and only about 10% of those who had come to missions opted to leave. To be sure, those who left were hunted down and, upon their return, were sometimes subjected to corporal punishment. Indeed, there is real evidence that Padre Serra countenanced such violence: in one of his letters, he speaks of the need to punish wayward Indians the way a parent would chastise a recalcitrant child, and in another document, he authorizes the purchase of shackles for the mission in San Diego. Certainly from our more enlightened perspective, we would recognize such behavior as morally wrong, and it is no good trying to whitewash the historical record so as to present Serra as blameless.
If he is controversial, why is he a saint?
The lion’s share of the evidence we have strongly indicates that Serra was a steadfast friend to the native peoples, frequently defending them against the violence and prejudice of the Spanish civil authorities. Very much in the spirit of Bartolomé de las Casas, the great sixteenth-century defender of the Indians, Serra insisted, again and again, upon the rights and prerogatives of the native tribes. In one case, he spoke out against the execution of an Indian who had killed one of Serra’s own friends and colleagues, arguing that the whole point of his mission was to save life, not to take it.
One might ask why Pope Francis—who certainly knew all of the controversy surrounding Padre Serra—wanted to push ahead with his canonization in 2015. First, because declaring someone a saint is not to declare him or her morally flawless, nor is it to countenance every institution with which the saint was associated. Secondly and more importantly, Junípero Serra was someone who, with extraordinary moral courage, went to the periphery of the society of his time in order to announce Jesus Christ—and this makes him an extraordinary model of a Pope Francis-style missionary.
During the homily at the Mass for his canonization, Pope Francis underscored both Serra’s defense of the native community of California and his missionary spirit: “He was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God. . . . Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”
Did the attacks on his statues start in 2020?
No. While the attacking, toppling, and desecrating of Serra statues has been reignited as part of broader cultural trends this year, this is not a new phenomenon. Below are some of the attacks on statues of Serra in California over the past forty years, including the statue in Ventura:
- May 1980: primer paint is poured over the concrete statue of Serra in Ventura.
- January 1991: four glass jars of orange and blue paint are thrown at the bronze cast of Serra in Ventura; the words “Spirit of Crazy Horse” and an image of a clenched fist are also spray-painted at the base of the statue.
- May 1992: the hand of the bronze cast in Ventura is painted red.
- October 2015: a statue of Serra in Monterey is decapitated.
- September 2017: a statue of Serra at Santa Barbara mission is decapitated and covered with red paint.
- August 2017: the Ventura County Star publishes an op-ed calling for the removal of Serra statues.
- November 2017: the statue of Serra located at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel is vandalized with red paint and suffers damage during an attempt at decapitation using a reciprocating saw.
What is Word on Fire’s position on St. Junípero Serra?
Fr. Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, answers:
When Bishop Barron first arrived in California as auxiliary bishop, both Bishop Barron and myself journeyed to Monterey, California, to pray at the tomb of St. Junípero Serra and ask for the saint’s intercession. From the beginning, Bishop Barron has been deeply concerned about the legacy of Junípero Serra, and the saint is for him, and for myself, an exemplar and model for evangelization. All of us are embedded in historical circumstances, and we make decisions in those circumstances out of our limitations. Though Junípero Serra, in his humanity, was limited in some of his judgments, he remains a saint of the Church and a friend and intercessor—not only to the indigenous people whom he served but to Catholics everywhere.
What has Bishop Barron done to promote and defend Serra’s legacy?
Bishop Baron has long been a supporter of Serra and an advocate of his canonization. In articles and videos, he has taken on Serra’s critics and defended him as a holy man. Much of his work on Serra is available on a website dedicated to him and his legacy, which was launched by Word on Fire in advance of the canonization in 2015. However, below is a list of Word on Fire’s resources on Serra:
- July 2015: Bl. Junipero Serra and Our Shifting Catholic Landscape (by Fr. Steve Grunow)
- September 2015: Bishop Barron on the Canonization of Junípero Serra (Video)
- September 2015: Why St. Junípero Serra Matters Today (Article—also published in Vibrant Paradoxes in 2016)
- July 2020: God, Equality, and the Founding of America (Video)
- July 2020: St. Junipero Serra’s Last Mission gets Big News from the Vatican (Video)
- July 2020: Canceling Padre Serra (Article)
- July 2020: Bishop Barron on Canceling Padre Serra (Video)
How has Bishop Barron responded to the recent events in California?
In the wake of more recent events in California and the response by the California bishops, some critics have contended that Bishop Barron either did not care about defending the Serra statues, or took no action as a bishop to defend them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In light of the answers above, it should be clear that Bishop Barron does indeed care about Serra’s life and legacy. And in answer to the second charge, we encourage you to read the timeline below outlining what precisely has happened in California—especially in Ventura, which, unlike the other locations, is located in Bishop Barron’s pastoral region—and what steps Bishop Barron has taken in response.
TIMELINE OF RECENT EVENTS
Mid-June, 2020: Ventura petition circulates; Bishop Barron learns of joint statement and begins taking action.
A statue in Ventura, California, depicting Junípero Serra—commissioned by Ventura County through the Works Progress Administration as part of the Federal Art Project—was placed in front of the Ventura County Courthouse in 1936. The Courthouse was repurposed as Ventura City Hall in 1972. A wood replica was created and has been displayed in the atrium since 1988. The replica was used to create a mold from which a bronze cast was made, which replaced the deteriorating concrete statue in 1989. This was done decades before Serra was named a saint and was not a “saint statue” or a work of sacred art commissioned by the Church—it was a city statue honoring a civic hero.
However, in mid-June 2020, amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd and systemic racism, a petition begins circulating online calling for the removal of the Father Serra statues in Ventura and the change of two elementary schools’ names. The petition states: “Black Lives Matter has evolved into a nationwide movement to seek justice and equality for all Black and Indigenous people. . . . The Father Serra statues in downtown Ventura (both outside and inside City Hall) are offensive and must be taken down by the City of Ventura.”
Around the same time, Bishop Barron learns about a plan—agreed to by the city of Ventura, Mission San Buenaventura, and the Chumash—to peacefully remove the statue and transfer it to another location, preferably on the property of the mission. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles had agreed to the removal in order to protect the statue from vandalism and desecration. Although Bishop Barron, as auxiliary bishops, has no canonical authority to make decisions in this regard, he begins working behind the scenes to offer recommendations regarding the situation to the Archbishop of Los Angeles, and begins a plan with the California bishops to publicly defend Serra’s life and legacy.
June 18, 2020: Joint statement in Ventura released; protest scheduled.
A joint statement is released by Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere, Father Tom Elewaut (the pastor of Mission San Buenaventura), and Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, tribal chair of the Barbareno/Ventureno Band of Mission Indians (Chumash). The statement reads, in part:
The three of us are confident that a peaceful resolution regarding the Father Junipero Serra statue can be reached, without uncivil discourse and character assassination, much less vandalism of a designated landmark. . . . We have listened and we have heard the calls from those in the community and believe the time has come for the statue to be taken down and moved to a more appropriate non-public location.
The Ventura County Star reports that a protest is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. that Saturday, June 20, to demand that the statue be taken down.
June 19-20, 2020: San Francisco statue toppled; LA statue toppled; Ventura statue remains. Bishop Barron urges bishops to take action.
The next day, June 19, protestors tear down a statue of Serra, along with statues of Francis Scott Key and Ulysses S. Grant, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The following day, June 20, protestors tear down a statue of Serra in downtown Los Angeles. That same day, Archbishop Cordileone releases a statement in response to the incident in San Francisco. After the scheduled protest in Ventura, which is also attended by local Catholics defending Serra’s legacy, the Serra statue remains standing.
In the wake of the events in San Francisco and LA, and infuriated by what he has seen, Bishop Barron reaches out to his brother bishops in California, urging them to make a strong statement against these outrages.
June 22, 2020: California bishops release statement.
The California Catholic Conference of Bishops releases a statement on the removal of Serra statues in California. While the bishops state that they “vigorously and wholeheartedly support a broad national coalition, especially in its peaceful dedication to eliminating racism against members of the African-American and Native American communities,” they add that Serra “was a man ahead of his times who made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population and work against an oppression that extends far beyond the mission era. And if that is not enough to legitimate a public statue in the state that he did so much to create, then virtually every historical figure from our nation’s past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today’s standards.”
June 24, 2020: Bishop Barron addresses pushback in article.
In response to the statement, some critics online—encouraged by certain internet provocateurs—insist that Bishop Barron should do more than release a statement; that he should be showing up in person to guard the statutes and defend them against vandalism. In response, Bishop Barron releases an article laying out the clear teaching of the Church that the clergy are meant to sanctify the people of God, who are meant to go out and sanctify the world.
July 4, 2020: Bishop Barron prays with Ventura counter-protesters; Sacramento statue toppled.
In response to news that a march in Ventura would move west to the Serra statue, a group of local Catholics once again gathers together there. Bishop Barron attends the gathering and addresses the crowd, prays the rosary with them, and blesses them. While some read this as a change in Bishop Barron’s position, it is, in fact, perfectly consistent with what he previously laid out in his article: the clergy teaches and sanctifies the laity, thereby equipping them to take up their proper role in the secular sphere.
About 400 people coalesce at the statue, now encircled by a chain link fence put up by the city. One news outlet reports that seventy-five activists remain and surround the Serra statue to protect it from possibly being damaged by the marchers. Once again, the statue remains standing.
That evening, a third California statue of Serra is toppled—this time in Sacramento on the grounds of California’s state capitol. A crowd tears down the statue, sets fire to it, and beats it with sledgehammers.
July 7, 2020: Ventura decision delayed.
The Ventura County Star reports that a decision on whether to remove the Ventura statues on the night of July 7 is delayed to the following Wednesday “due to a technical oversight.”
Later that evening, “a couple of young people” reportedly tear down a Save Serra banner and a flag placed on the chain link fence surrounding the statue.
July 11, 2020: San Gabriel Mission fire.
A fire erupts around 4 a.m. at San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles, destroying the roof and interior of the church. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles calls the fire at San Gabriel Mission church, founded by Serra, “devastating.”
July 15, 2020: Ventura votes to remove statue.
The website of the City of Ventura invites the public to join the Ventura City Council for a virtual community discussion regarding the next steps for the Serra statue at 6 p.m. The special public meeting includes the City Council and City leadership, and invites community members to engage with the City to help determine the next steps for the Father Serra statue.
Despite many members of the public voicing their desire to keep the statue or put the issue on a ballot, the unanimous decision is made by the council, 6-0, to remove the statue (as well as the wooden replica inside) and put it in storage, with the goal of moving it to Mission San Buenaventura.
There is little more that could have reasonably been done by Bishop Barron in Ventura, given that the statue is a civil monument belonging to the city, not the Church. Yet while statues of Serra have been attacked, toppled, and desecrated in three major cities in California, the Ventura statue at least—through a just and peaceful process involving both clergy and laypeople, and both religious and civil authorities—remains unharmed.
UPDATE: July 23, 2020: Ventura statue removed.
The Ventura statue is removed from in front of City Hall early in the morning.
UPDATE: August 23, 2020: Bishop Barron counters Mission Santa Inés protest with prayer.
Bishop Barron spends Sunday, August 23, at Mission Santa Inés in Solvang, CA, where a planned protest is set to appear in opposition to a Serra statue on church property. Bishop Barron joins Franciscan friars and novices, the Knights of Columbus, and other local Catholics at the mission to defend Serra’s legacy. He celebrates the Mass, prays the rosary, and joins the group in singing hymns. The day ends peacefully without incident. In the wake of the day’s events, he posts a video, reflecting: “I think it was just a good model of how to deal with this sort of situation. I don’t think the Church should simply roll over when people want to remove statues of our saints on our own property. By the same token, of course, we don’t want to fight fire with fire. We don’t respond with contention or with violence, but with prayer.”
UPDATE: September 23, 2020: Bishop Barron speaks about St. Junípero Serra at National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.
At the 2020 National Catholic Prayer breakfast—which features a greeting from Pope Francis through the apostolic nuncio, and statements by both the President of the United States and the Attorney General—Bishop Barron delivers a keynote address on the importance of the deep connection between our democratic form of government and biblical faith by looking at the lives of Thomas Jefferson and St. Junípero Serra. “Some of the most iconic figures in our tradition, both civic and religious, are under attack,” Bishop Barron explains at the start of the address. “In my part of the world, attacks on statues of St. Junípero Serra are very common.”
(Note: For more on the life and legacy of St. Junípero Serra, we encourage you to read Jared Zimmerer’s interview with scholar Robert Senkewicz on the Word on Fire Blog: “Shadows and Light: Junípero Serra, Mission, and the Colonial Mind.”)
Header image: CC By 4.0. Edits made.