Say the name Junípero Serra in American church circles and you are likely to get a mixed set of reactions. Some will tell you he is the saintly Franciscan who evangelized what is today the U.S. Others will tell you this is the man who forced the natives to convert by confining them to the Mission and through threats of physical punishment. With two such opposite viewpoints, surely neither one is entirely true. At the same time, neither one is entirely false.
Junípero Serra was born Miguel José Serra on the Spanish island of Majorca. He entered the Franciscan order at age 15 and began what seems to have been a life dedicated to studying. By the age of 24 Serra was a professor at the Lullian University (today the University of the Balearic Islands in Palma de Majorca). He was quite happy with this academic life, yet at a certain point realized he yearned to do something “more” than studying and teaching in a university. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Francis Solano, the Franciscan missionary to Peru who was canonized in the period when Serra joined the Franciscan order.
In 1749 Serra and a group of other Spanish Franciscans travelling across the Atlantic, across the continent, to Mexico City. Serra left behind his promising academic career and his ageing parents to bring the Gospel to the “new world”. Serra, along with his companions,set sail for Mexico City. He soon moved to the Sierra Gorda missions where he discovered the locals where both spiritually and economically poor. He learned their language and made a point of showing that he was there to serve them. During the worst of the droughts they experienced, he led his confreres in ensuring the locals were fed. He helped build a church that is still used today, and encouraged the natives to produce crops and wares that they could sell to support themselves. All this to keep Spanish land interests at bay. Going against what was normal at the time, Serra referred to the natives as “gentiles”, refusing to use the terms “barbarians” or “pagans.”
Why the negative reaction to Serra? Converted natives were moved into the Mission and were under the authority of the Franciscans. As was normal at the time, they could be hunted down if they left and either whipped or shackled if they were disobedient. While all of this was considered normal practice at the time, today it is viewed as a tragic part of North American history.
The realities of life in the missions coupled with the fact that Serra was, reportedly, not a cheerful person, helps take attention away from his heroic christian virtues. One biographer wrote that he was not prone to laughter...ever. Thankfully the Church does not recognize saints because of their cheery dispositions.
This piece was originally published in the new 2015 Salt + Light Magazine. Order your copy of the magazine by phone 1.888.302.7181 x238
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