Blessed Junipero Serra died in Monterey, California, on August 28, 1784. His commemoration is celebrated in the United States on July 1. He will be canonized by Pope Francis on September 23.
Junipero Serra was first and foremost a missionary. He recognized that the Gospel was a matter of life and salvation. Serra and his fellow missionaries “believed that in offering people Jesus Christ, they were doing something of immense value, importance, and dignity” (Saint John Paul II). In this sense, Serra was a true pastor. His primary concern was for the welfare of the friars and the converts. Sadly, in the decades after Serra’s death, the missions went into rapid decline, particularly after they were secularized and the government assumed control of both the missions and their inhabitants, increasing a process of exploitation and abuse against which Serra had fought so strongly.
Although his efforts and the Spanish friars’ “paternalistic” attitude toward the new Christians (including strict rules and the use of corporal punishment) is an affront to our contemporary sensibilities, we can’t allow this to eclipse the sacrifices and motivations of both those early friar-missionaries and their native converts.
But to limit our understanding of Blessed Junipero and his Franciscan collaborators to sound bites and polemics is to ignore the overwhelming charity and personal holiness exhibited by this tireless missionary. “Our purpose was to attempt,” he wrote, “each in his place, to win for his Most Holy Majesty, a multitude of souls.” And, as a pastor of a “multitude of souls,” time and again Serra’s words and actions reveal a father’s care for his children. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles reflected on this, when he said,
All of his writings reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways. It is sometimes said that Father Serra was a “man of his times.” But to tell the truth, he really wasn’t. He was far ahead of his times…
Father Serra rarely used the ordinary terms used by colonial authorities and the society of his time—words such as “barbarians” or “savages.” Instead, he referred to the native people as “gentiles”—using the biblical term for those who do not yet know the living God…He loved his people with a father’s love. Father Serra once wrote: “They are our children, for nobody except us has engendered them in Christ. And so we look upon them as a father looks upon his children”…
But at the heart of everything Father Serra tried to accomplish every day was his conviction that the indigenous peoples of the New World were children of God, created in his image and endowed with God-given rights that must be promoted and defended.
Finally, it is worth noting that, in all his efforts, Junipero Serra trusted his “children” to the maternal care of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1750 he had walked barefoot from Vera Cruz to her shrine in Mexico City, to dedicate his mission vocation to her service.
The Legacy of Blessed Junipero Serra
In a very real sense, the great legacy that Serra offers us today is his evangelical witness. Both Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis have praised Serra’s untiring apostolic zeal, recalling that his efforts reflect the primary vocation of the Church and each Christian: the proclamation of the Gospel.
In his homily at the North American College, Pope Francis asked if we, today, “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, 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 Mercy.” The great missionary saints—including Junipero Serra—challenge us to move to the periphery to share the message of Christ’s saving power with those who have been overlooked or left behind. This common mission requires a true level of personal involvement from each member of the Church, especially in the care of the poor. In