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Who was Junípero Serra and why is he becoming a Saint?

August 23, 2015
Junipero Serra in US Capitol Statuary Hall
During his Apostolic Visit to the United States of America next month, Pope Francis will celebrate the Mass of Canonization of Blessed Junípero Miguel José Serra Ferrer  (Fray Junipero Serra) at 4:15 p.m. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday afternoon,September 23, 2015. Earlier that same day, he will be formally welcomed at the White House by US President Barack Obama and also meet with the Bishops of the United States at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
Blessed Junipero Serra (1713 – 1784), a Franciscan Missionary, died at the aged of 70 at the St Charles Borromeo Mission in Carmel, Monterey (California) in 1784, where he is now buried under the sanctuary floor. Pope Francis has recently said that Serra's work of evangelization "reminds us of the first “12 Franciscan apostles" who were pioneers of the Christian faith in Mexico… . He ushered in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California, which, in the previous two hundred years, had been reached by missionaries from Spain.”
Some experts are writing these days about Serra’s negative effects and impact on indigenous persons, Serra defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers. The canonization of Blessed Serra, like those of other American saints, speaks to the deep spiritual roots and holiness of America. Among the many questions I have received about Blessed Junipero Serra’s life, ministry in California in the 18th century, and appropriateness and timing of his canonization, are those regarding the very meaning of canonization and holiness as well as the potentially negative impact that this canonization could have upon Native (indigineous) peoples throughout the world.
When social justice struggles become the ideological test for the veneration of martyrs, blessed and saints, we must ask some deeper questions. That persons are declared “Blessed” or “Saint” is not a statement about perfection. It does not mean that the person was without imperfection, blindness, deafness or sin. Nor is it a 360-degree evaluation of the pastoral agenda of the Petrine Ministry of the current Pope or of the Vatican.
Martyrdom, beatification and canonization mean that persons lived their lives with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving one’s enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope, and leaving the world a better place. Though they may have experienced moral solitude, they manifested incredible hope and peace and brought many people to God. The proclamation of new saints and blesseds invites us to look beyond the labels and stereotypes that we often place on the martyrs, blessed, saints and all holy men and women, and consider the ultimate witness and gifts of their lives to God. We must learn from their examples of how they transformed hatred and violence into love, and only love. Having willed the one thing in their lives, the martyrs, saints and blesseds allowed themselves to be touched by God at the core of their beings that was beyond words, conceptualization, imagination and feeling. Such persons let those around them know that there is a force or spirit animating their lives that is not of this world, but the next.  They let us catch a glimpse of the greatness and holiness to which we are all called, and show us the face of God as we journey on our pilgrim way on earth.
It is hoped that this background information would address the matters of the meaning of canonization and holiness as well as provide for you numerous texts of both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis that provide important elements of Blessed Junipero Serra’s life and ministry. The frequent references to Blessed Serra by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis answer some of the questions people are asking on the eve of Serra’s canonization in Washington.
Who Was Junipero Serra?
Junípero Serra was born in 1713 in Majorca, Spain, a son of Antonio Nadal Serra and Margarita Rosa Ferrer who spent their lives as farmers. In Petra, Spain, Serra attended the primary school of the Franciscans conducted at the friary of San Bernardino. At the age of fifteen he was taken by his parents to Palma to be placed in the charge of a cathedral canon, and he began to assist at classes in philosophy held in the Franciscan monastery of San Francisco.
He took the name Junípero when he joined the Franciscan order in 1730. He taught for more than a decade before going to Mexico in 1749. After working as a missionary in Sierra Gorda and Mexico City, Serra was sent to California. He made the trip by foot despite having terrible sores on his legs. Once he reached California, Serra established his first mission, San Diego de Alcalá, in 1769. He built eight more missions over the next thirteen years: San Antonio de Padua; San Gabriel, Arcángel; San Luis, Obispo de Tolosa; San Juan Capistrano; San Francisco de Asis; and San Buenaventura. Serra worked tirelessly tirelessly to maintain the missions and is credited with helping the Spanish establish a presence in California.
Serra died in 1784 at Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo located in present-day Carmel, California. The site is now home to the National Shrine to Blessed Junípero Serra, and many visitors go there each year to honor the famous missionary.
Full Text of Biography of Serra from Franciscan Website.
Serra Stamp
Excerpt of HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
EUCHARISTIC CELEBRATION AT THE PONTIFICAL NORTH AMERICAN COLLEGE
Janiculum Hill, Rome
Saturday May 2, 2015
“What made Friar Junípero leave his home and country, his family, university chair and Franciscan community in Mallorca to go to the ends of the earth? Certainly, it was the desire to proclaim the Gospel ad gentes, that heartfelt impulse which seeks to share with those farthest away the gift of encountering Christ: a gift that he had first received and experienced in all its truth and beauty. Like Paul and Barnabas, like the disciples in Antioch and in all of Judea, he was filled with joy and the Holy Spirit in spreading the word of the Lord. Such zeal excites us, it challenges us! These missionary disciples who have encountered Jesus, the Son of God, who have come to know him through his merciful Father, moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit, went out to all the geographical, social and existential peripheries, to bear witness to charity. They challenge us! Sometimes we stop and thoughtfully examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and their shortcomings. But I wonder if today we are able to respond with the same generosity and courage to the call of God, who invites us to leave everything in order to worship him, to follow him, to rediscover him in the face of the poor, to proclaim him to those who have not known Christ and, therefore, have not experienced the embrace of his mercy. Friar Junípero’s witness calls upon us to get involved, personally, in the mission to the whole continent, which finds its roots in Evangelii Gaudium.
Full text found here.
Excerpt from ADDRESS OF POPE JOHN PAUL II
TO THE BISHOPS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
ON THEIR «AD LIMINA» VISIT
Wednesday June 8, 1988
“One event of those days has a very special relevance now. It is the visit that I made to the Basilica of Carmel and to the tomb of Fray Junipero Serra. In less than three months from now, some of us will gather again here as the Church beatifies him, officially proclaiming him worthy of honour and imitation by all. In venerating “the Apostle of California” at his tomb I spoke of his contribution, which was “to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the dawn of a new age.” I also endeavoured to present his essential message, which is the constant need to evangelize. In that context I stated: “Like Father Serra and his Franciscan brethren, we too are called to be evangelizers, to share actively in the Church’s mission of making disciples of all people”.
Full text found at here.
Excerpt from ADDRESS OF POPE JOHN PAUL II
Basilica of the Mission of San Carlos in Carmel
Thursday, September 17, 1987
Junipero SerraI come today as a pilgrim to this Mission of San Carlos, which so powerfully evokes the heroic spirit and heroic deeds of Fray Junípero Serra and which enshrines his mortal remains. This serene and beautiful place is truly the historical and spiritual heart of California. All the missions of El Camino Real bear witness to the challenges and heroism of an earlier time, but not a time forgotten or without significance for the California of today and the Church of today.
These buildings and the men who gave them life, especially their spiritual father, Junípero Serra, are reminders of an age of discovery and exploration. The missions are the result of a conscious moral decision made by people of faith in a situation that presented many human possibilities, both good and bad, with respect to the future of this land and its native peoples. It was a decision rooted in a love of God and neighbour. It was a decision to proclaim the Gospelof Jesus Christ at the dawn of a new age, which was extremely important for both the European settlers and the Native Americans.
Very often, at crucial moments in human affairs, God raises up men and women whom he thrusts into roles of decisive importance for the future development of both society and the Church. Although their story unfolds within the ordinary circumstances of daily life, they become larger than life within the perspective of history. We rejoice all the more when their achievement is coupled with a holiness of life that can truly be called heroic. So it is withJunípero Serra, who in the providence of God was destined to be the Apostle of California, and to have a permanent influence over the spiritual patrimony of this land and its people, whatever their religion might be. This apostolic awareness is captured in the words ascribed to him: “In California is my life and there, God willing, I hope to die”. Through Christ’s Paschal Mystery, that death has become a seed in the soil of this state that continues to bear fruit “thirty - or sixty - or a hundred-fold” (Matth. 13, 9).
Father Serra was a man convinced of the Church’s mission, conferred upon her by Christ himself, to evangelize the world, to "make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Ibid. 28, 19). The way in which he fulfilled that mission corresponds faithfully to the Church’s vision today of what evangelization means: "... the Church evangelizes when she seeks to convert, solely through the divine power of the message she proclaims, both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieux which are theirs" Pauli VI Evangelii Nuntiandi, 18).
He not only brought the Gospel to the Native Americans, but as one who lived the Gospel he also became their defender and champion. At the age of sixty he journeyed from Carmel to Mexico City to intervene with the Viceroy on their behalf – a journey which twice brought him close to death – and presented his now famous Representación with its "bill of rights", which had as their aim the betterment of every phase of missionary activity in California, particularly the spiritual and physical well-being of its Native Americans.
Father Serra and his fellow missionaries shared the conviction found everywhere in the New Testament that the Gospel is a matter of life and salvation. They believed that in offering to people Jesus Christ, they were doingsomething of immense value, importance and dignity. What other explanation can there be for the hardships that they freely and gladly endured, like Saint Paul and all the other great missionaries before them: difficult and dangerous travel, illness and isolation, an ascetical life-style, arduous labour, and also, like Saint Paul, that "concern for all the churches” (2Cor. 11, 28) which Junípero Serra, in particular, experienced as Presidente of the California missions in the face of every vicissitude, disappointment and opposition.
Dear brothers and sisters: like Father Serra and his Franciscan brethren, we too are called to be evangelizers, to share actively in the Church’s mission of making disciples of all people. The way in which we fulfil that mission will be different from theirs. But their lives speak to us still because of their sure faith that the Gospel is true, and because of their passionate belief in the value of bringing that saving truth to others at great personal cost. Much to be envied are those who can give their lives for something greater than themselves in loving service to others. This, more than words or deeds alone, is what draws people to Christ.
This single-mindedness is not reserved for great missionaries in exotic places. It must be at the heart of each priest’s ministry and the evangelical witness of every religious. It is the key to their personal sense of well-being, happiness and fulfilment in what they are and what they do. This single-mindedness is also essential to the Christian witness of the Catholic laity. The covenant of love between two people in marriage and the successful sharing of faith with children require the effort of a lifetime. If couples cease believing in their marriage as a sacrament before God, or treat religion as anything less than a matter of salvation, then the Christian witness they might have given to the world is lost. Those who are unmarried must also be steadfast in fulfilling their duties in life if they are to bring Christ to the world in which they live.
“In him who is the source of my strength I have strength for everything” (Phil. 4, 13). These words of the great missionary, Saint Paul, remind us that our strength is not our own. Even in the martyrs and saints, as the liturgy reminds us, it is "(God’s) power shining through our human weakness" (Praefatio Martyrum). It is the strength that inspired Father Serra’s motto: "always forward, never back". It is the strength that one senses in this place of prayer so filled with his presence. It is the strength that can make each one of us, dear brothers and sisters, missionaries of Jesus Christ, witnesses of his message, doers of his word.
Full text found at here.
MEETING WITH THE NATIVE PEOPLES OF THE AMERICAS
Excerpt from ADDRESS OF POPE JOHN PAUL II
Memorial Coliseum, Phoenix
Monday September 14, 1987
Serra in US Capitol Statuary Hall 2“One priest who deserves special mention among the missionaries is the beloved Fray Junipero Serra, who travelled throughout Lower and Upper California. He had frequent clashes with the civil authorities over the treatment of Indians. In 1773 he presented to the Viceroy in Mexico City aRepresentación, which is sometimes termed a "Bill of Rights" for Indians. The Church had long been convinced of the need to protect them from exploitation. Already in 1537, my predecessor Pope Paul III proclaimed the dignity and rights of the native peoples of the Americas by insisting that they not be deprived of their freedom or the possession of their property. In Spain the Dominican priest, Francisco de Vitoria, became the staunch advocate of the rights of the Indians and formulated the basis for international law regarding the rights of peoples.
Unfortunately not all the members of the Church lived up to their Christian responsibilities. But let us not dwell excessively on mistakes and wrongs, even as we commit ourselves to overcoming their present effects. Let us also be grateful to those who came to this land, faithful to the teachings of Jesus, witnesses of his new commandment of love. These men and women, with good hearts and good minds, shared knowledge and skills from their own cultures and shared their most precious heritage, the faith, as well. Now, we are called to learn from the mistakes of the past and we must work together for reconciliation and healing, as brothers and sisters in Christ. “
Full text found at here.
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