Faith, Mercy, and Perseverance: What We Can Learn from Saint Junípero Serra
Saint Junípero Serra has been in the news a lot recently. Canonized by Pope Francis in 2015, Saint Junípero has been deemed a controversial figure under the accusation of oppressing indigenous peoples. This came to a head in 2020 when many statues of Saint Serra were torn down under the pretence of social justice. Known for the founding of the California Missions, Saint Junípero's story is actually one of sanctity that extends deeper than the cities he founded for the Faith. He was baptized Miguel Jose on the day he was born, November 24, 1713. He spent his early life serving Mass at the local Franciscan friary in his local town of Petra on the island of Mallorca, Spain. He was sickly and small as a child but showed a natural desire toward the Faith and academics. His parents sent him to the port town of Palma to study under the formation of a secular priest. In his early teens, he studied philosophy at the nearby monastery of San Francisco and his vocation to religious life was fostered.
He was accepted into the Franciscan novitiate at age sixteen in the Convent of Jesus right outside of Palma. He remained small and too frail for many of the tasks assigned to novices so he was appointed to serve the daily Masses. He read voraciously through the lives of the Franciscan saints. There were already 24 friars who had been canonized and nearly half of them died as martyrs. This edified him greatly and deepened his desire to give his entire life to Christ, in hopes of following in their footsteps. On September 15, 1731, he took vows ending his novitiate, and chose the name Fra Junípero, in honor of Saint Junípero, a beloved friend of Saint Francis and zealous missionary. He spent six additional years studying in Mallorca and became a professor of philosophy even before being ordained a priest. Soon after ordination he received a doctorate in theology. His ability to teach afforded him many opportunities to preach throughout Mallorca.
Father Serra, despite enjoying religious life in Mallorca, deeply desired to go to the New World. On Palm Sunday in 1749, he received orders that his desire would be granted. He left for the New World as soon as the Easter celebrations ended. The journey was long and arduous. Saint Junípero Serra spent the majority of the trip in prayerful solitude. Food and water were scarce and rationed. When asked by his shipmates how he could handle the conditions so calmly he responded, “Eat little, talk less, save saliva.” When they landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Father Serra saw a great need and immediately preached a mission. “I was hearing confessions every day, morning, afternoon, and evening. I went to the confessional at three or four o’clock in the morning, and heard confessions in the evening until midnight.” The people of San Juan were so responsive, the ship was delayed two weeks so that the mission could continue. After an additional three month difficult journey at sea, the ship finally made it to Mexico. Although offered a carriage ride to Mexico City. Father Serra declined and made the trip by foot. It was during this trek that his leg was infected. It would remain injured and cause intense pain for the rest of his life. After only five months in Mexico City, he asked to be sent to do missions in Sierra Gorda which was still primarily influenced by paganism. He worked in the fields and physically labored to build the stone church. Amidst the difficult work, he saw the Faith of the native people deepening.
After nine years in Sierra Gorda, he returned back to Mexico City, aspiring to go to the missions in Texas where a few of his brothers recently died as martyrs. But that was not God’s plan for him. He spent eight more years preaching missions and retreats all throughout Mexico and then became the superior of Baja California. Shortly after he arrived in Baja, the Inspector General for the Spanish King arrived. The two of them determined to found three missions in Alta California. One in the port of San Diego, one in the port of Monterey, and a third in the middle. As we know, Father Serra successfully founded these three missions as well eight others along the California coast. He made the journey, by foot, between them from San Diego to Monterey five times, even at the age of seventy. After a lifetime as a missionary, he died peacefully after receiving Viaticum on August 28, 1784. Soldiers, sailors, and Native Americans kept watch over his body and asked immediately for relics of the “holy Father” after his grave was closed.
Saint Junípero Serra’s life was extraordinary. Life in the New World was extremely difficult. He worked alongside the Native Americans and Spaniards. He had to evangelize pagan practices like human sacrifice and tortuous violence as well as the wayward selfishness of drunkenness, debauchery, and fornication. He lived and preached mercy. Despite what the current culture says, history shows that Saint Junípero established a self-sustaining mission system that attracted the Native people on their own accord. They quickly saw a more efficient means to cultivating and storing food amongst other aspects of improving difficulties in daily life. He never forced the Faith upon others. It was through the means of this mission system and working alongside Father Serra that they saw his exemplary life of faith. The native people encountered the Love of Jesus through his example. This brought about the thousands of conversions and he is the first to admit that it was not easy, but siempre adelante - always forward.
St. Juníperro Serra's life is truly worthy of personal research. So many additional details could be provided: his actual words in the many letters he wrote, his rigorous schedule of daily life filled with mortification and prayer, how he set up the missions, the difficulties he faced and the ability to overcome the difficulties in each mission location, the amount of converts he administered the Sacraments to, the mottos he lived by - exemplifying his great virtue and zeal. He is truly a saint for our times.