Born at Petra on the Spanish
island of Mallorca on November 24, 1713, Junipero Serra entered the
Franciscan Order at the age of sixteen and was ordained a priest in 1738. He
received the doctorate in theology even before his ordination. For eleven
years he taught philosophy in the Lullian University at Palma.
He won great fame as a
pulpit orator. As a teacher he was equally successful. The pathway to fame
and honor was clearly open to him, but he willingly turned his back on all
this, and longed to be a missionary to the Indians of the New World. His
superiors yielded to his request and allowed him to join a band of
missionaries who were getting ready to go to Mexico.
It was on New Year’s Day,
1750, that he entered the portals of the College of San Fernando in Mexico
Form 1750 to 1758, in the
wild and isolated Sierra Gorda near Querétaro, Mexico, he taught the fierce
Indian worshippers of the sun the way of civilization together with the
truth and the life of the Faith. For the next ten years he criss-crossed
Mexico for Christ, preaching missions in rowdy seaports, crude mining camps,
and cultured cities, recalling innumerable sinners to repentance.
At the age of fifty-six,
after a year in the peninsula of Lower California where he founded one new
mission, Father Serra began his greatest work, founding the first of many
missions along the coast of the state of California. The first mission
founded after the 900-mile journey north was San Diego de Alcala (1769).
That year a shortage of food almost canceled the expedition. Vowing to stay
with the local people, Junipero and another friar began a novena in
preparation for St. Joseph’s day, March 19, the scheduled day of departure.
On that day, the relief ship arrived. At San Diego he confirmed nearly 6,000
Indian converts. “As long as life lasts,” he said on one occasion, “I will
do all I can to propagate our holy Faith.” Combining a deep spirituality and
joy in the service of God with a down-to-earth practicality, he laid the
foundations of California’s present-day agriculture and stock-raising.
Other missions followed: San Carlos Borromeo, Monterey/Carmel (1770); San
Antonio and San Gabriel (1771); San Luís Obispo (1772); San Francisco and
San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara (1777); San Buenaventura (1782),
Mission Santa Barbara (1786). Twelve more were founded after Serra’s death.
The state’s great coastal cities grew out of the missions he established.
His zeal and vision caused him to urge explorations by sea to Alaska, and
overland to New Mexico. In thirty-five years as a missionary, he walked
10,000 miles despite an ulcerated leg. His was a life-long martyrdom of
labor, loneliness, and sacrifice.
To become a canonized
saint, the candidate must have practiced the three divine virtues and four
cardinal virtues in an heroic degree. Father Serra’s faith is seen in his
apostolic life; his hope in his spirit of piety; and his charity in both.
His prudence is discernable especially in the wise measures he adopted on
behalf of the Indians. These Indians often made his labors difficult because
of their superstitious ideas. For instance, just as he raised his hands to
pour water over the first child offered for baptism, the fearful parents
snatched away their babe and fled. The faithful discharge of his duties
despite disappointments, opposition, and bodily sufferings gave evidence of
his fortitude. He strenuously defended the Indians and the rights of the
Church throughout his hard mission life. His temperance manifested itself in
his life of mortification. Already on his journey to America he manifested
unusual heroism. The voyage lasted more than ninety days, during which the
travelers suffered from want of water. He took the scarcity of water as a
training for the future and naively remarked when he was asked whether he
was not suffering from thirst, “Not especially, since I have found the
secret of not feeling thirsty, which is, to eat little and talk less, so as
to not waste the saliva.” Another proof of his heroic virtue is found in
his refusal to avail himself of the transportation provided from Vera Cruz
to Mexico City. He and a companion started on that tramp of a hundred
leagues, relying solely upon Providence and the goodness of the people whom
they would meet.
Father Serra died at
Mission San Carlos, also called Carmel, on August 28, 1784, and was buried
in the mission church. In 1934 preparations began to present him as a
candidate for sainthood, and legal proceedings held in California were
forwarded in 1950 to Rome. He was beatified in 1988 by Pope John Paul II.
ON THE EFFECTS OF PENANCE
1. The genuine spirit of
penance leads us to sanctity. This we perceive in all holy penitents. It was
this spirit of penance also that played such an important role in the
sanctification of Father Junipero Serra. All the penances he performed led
him to greater perfection. Because he was motivated by sincere intentions,
he excelled not only in the spirit of penance but also in “love, joy, peace;
patience, mildness, meekness, fidelity, temperance, chastity” (Gal 5:22). –
Do these virtues appear in your conduct as evidence of the genuine spirit of
penance you possess?
2. The true spirit of
penance rejoices in tribulations. Father Junipero had much to contend with
in his dealings with the Indians as well as with the Spanish governors in
California. But he had bargained for hardships, had even prepared himself in
advance so that he might accept those hardships in the true spirit; so he
was not heard to complain when they actually came his way. By cheerfully
accepting the involuntary ones, he gave proof that the voluntary ones were
not prompted by self-deception. – Do you belong to the class of Christians
who stubbornly follow their own inclinations, but who are found wanting in
the time of sorrow and tribulations?
3. The sincere spirit of
penance effects much good for others. Christ is “the propitiation for our
sins” (1 Jn 4:10). He who unites himself with Christ in a true spirit of
penance can achieve much good in the work of the conversion of sinners.
Father Serra’s great purpose in life was the conversion of the Indians,
among whom he chose to live and labor, whose sad lot had inspired him
already during his novitiate to offer himself for this arduous task. The
history of California testifies to the success he achieved. – You can share
in this missionary activity if you offer your slight acts of mortification
and of penances for the conversion of sinners.
PRAYER OF THE CHURCH
O God, who despised no
one, no matter how grievously he may have sinned, but art moved to mercy by
penance; graciously look upon the prayers of our lowliness and enlighten our
hearts so that we may observe Thy commandments. Through Christ our Lord.
from: The Franciscan Book
of Saints, ed. by
Marion Habig, ofm., © 1959 Franciscan Herald
Press. Used with written permission from the publisher /NAFRA