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Celebrating Junipero Serra: The Saint Who Founded California


Brother Silas Henderson, SDS - published on 07/01/15

Franciscan missionary to be canonized by Pope Francis in Washington, DC


Unlike many other American saints and beati, Blessed Junipero Serra has received an unprecedented amount of press since his beatification by Saint John Paul II in 1988. Honored as the man credited with founding the Franciscan Missions of California, his reputation and legacy have also been tainted by recent critics who claim that the missionaries—and Serra in particular—used violent tactics against the native population in efforts to force conversions to Christianity and suppress indigenous cultures.

Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Padre Serra during his upcoming visit to the United States has reignited debate over the friar’s mission, particularly in these days when questions of racism and civil rights form so much of our national conversation. However, during a recent Mass celebrated in Serra’s honor at Rome’s North American College, Pope Francis effectively addressed these criticisms when he praised Serra as being among a number of missionaries who “brought the Gospel to the New World, and, at the same time, defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers.”

Who was Junipero Serra?

Jose Miguel Serra was born on the island of Mallorca (Spain) in 1713. In 1730, he entered the Franciscan Order, receiving the name Junipero. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1737, he was awarded a doctorate in theology and spent a number of years teaching philosophy at the University at Palma de Mallorca.

In 1749, he sailed to “New Spain” and, for nearly ten years, traveled throughout Texas and Mexico, preaching and serving in a variety of administrative positions. In 1767, Serra was chosen padre presidente of the missions of Lower California and, in 1769, he founded the first mission of Upper California at San Diego, serving as superior of the Franciscan friars and of the missions themselves. In the years that followed, he established nine other missions throughout California. During a 1987 visit to the Basilica of Mission San Carlos in Carmel, California, Saint John Paul reflected:

[The missions] and the men who gave them life, especially their spiritual father, Junipero 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 neighbor. It was a decision to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the dawn of a new age, which was extremely important to both the European settlers and the Native Americans.

While Padre Serra followed the traditional methods for administration of the missions, the early efforts of the missionaries bore little fruit. In the early years, two friars were assigned to each mission and Serra was insistent that, while Spanish would be the common language, the friars learned the language of the area in which they served; in some missions catechisms were translated into the local language.

Serra and the friars frequently came into conflict with military officials and soldiers assigned to each mission. The close relationship of the missions to the military praesidios led to numerous instances of abuse, exploitation, drunkenness, and rape, all of which threatened to undermine the friars’ work and the future of the missions. In an effort to ensure the protection of the local populations, Serra twice traveled to Mexico City and succeeded in having a series of initiatives approved by the colonial governor. This “bill of rights,” known as the Representación, sought to limit the influence of the soldiers in the work of the missions, particularly focusing on the physical and spiritual well-being of the native populations. Under Serra’s administration, the missions eventually flourished and it is believed that some 6,000 Native Americans received the Sacrament of Baptism.

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