On September 23, 2015, in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis canonized Fray Junípero Serra, a Spanish-born Franciscan Friar known for founding Spanish missions in California in the 1700’s. He performed the canonization ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception saying that Washington would be a fitting location as there is a statue of Blessed, now Saint Junípero, standing in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Pope Francis had pointed out earlier, while visiting the Pontifical North American College in Rome, “He (St. Junípero Serra) was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the Church’s universality.”
Fray Junípero Serra was born on November 24, 1713 in Majorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands off the eastern coast of Spain. Baptized Miguel José, he was the son of Antonio and Margarita Serra, who soon after the birth of their baby boy, made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Nuestra Señora de Buen Ano (Our Lady of the Good Year) and consecrated their son to her loving care. He was ordained a priest in the Franciscan Order on Sept. 15, 1731 (Feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows), making the formal profession of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He chose the name, Junípero, to honor the first companion of St. Francis of Assisi.
The Immaculate’s choice
Being St. Junípero Serra had such a great love for Our Blessed Mother, he added a fourth vow of “propagating Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception”. This truth that Christ’s mother, was conceived without original sin from the first moment of her existence, was not proclaimed a dogma of the Church until December 8, 1854, 123 years later, by Blessed Pope Pius IX. Truly then, we can conclude that Pope Francis’ decision to perform the canonization ceremony in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was inspired by Our Blessed Mother, the Immaculate herself. It was only fitting that the one who had honored her Immaculate Conception during his lifetime, should also be celebrated in her National Shrine, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, on the occasion of his canonization.
Fr. Serra began his vocation as a successful teacher and preacher, obtaining his doctorate in theology in 1742 from the Lullian University, Palma. He was called to the chair of theology at the same university as the primary professor. Very soon though, feeling a special calling by God, he chose the more dangerous role of missionary, and travelled to North America where the Franciscans already counted 115 martyrs who had died spreading the Gospel in the New World. It was while waiting to set sail that Serra wrote a long letter to a colleague back in his hometown of Majorca, asking him to console his parents — now in their 70’s — by reading to them his letter. (Fr. Serra’s parents had never attended school.) The following is an excerpt:
”Words cannot express the feelings of my heart as I bid you farewell, nor can I properly repeat to you my request that you be the consolation of any parents to sustain them in their sorrow. I wish I could communicate to them the great joy that fills my heart. If I could do this, then surely they would always encourage me to go forward and never to turn back…”
These words, Siempre adelante y nunca atrás, “Always go forward and never turn back” became the motto for Serra’s missionary life.
He left Cadiz, Spain in 1750, and arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico where he then set out on foot to Mexico City on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Kneeling before the holy tilma of St. Juan Diego, he dedicated his entire mission to the Blessed Mother, setting right to work, beginning in north-central Mexico, and laboring for over seventeen years among the people there, before moving on to Baja, California.
The apostle of California
Fr. Serra was in his mid thirties when he reached California, and he suffered from asthma and an inflamed ulcerated leg. Despite his poor health, he worked tirelessly among the natives and endured many hardships, traveling between missions by foot or by mule, rather than by the easier, more comfortable mode, by horse or ship. Some accused him of being a strict disciplinarian, but there was no doubt that he was strictest with himself, wearing a hair shirt and lashing himself regularly with iron chains.
His first established mission was in San Diego where, before leaving there to found another mission in Monterey, Fr. Serra left Friar Luís Jayme to take over. Fr. Luís was a clever and talented man and had devoted himself to mastering the complexities of the local native language. He was able to compile a polyglot Christian catechism for use in their catechesis. When there was a surprise attack upon the San Diego mission by the Yuman Indians, Fr. Luís tried peacefully to defend the mission. The attackers seized him, stripped him of his robes, then pierced his torso with eighteen arrows and pulverized his face with clubs and stones. His last words were, “Love God, my children!” Fr. Luís Jayme was California’s first martyr.
When Fr. Serra received word of the attack, he was at the Monterey mission, San Carlos Borroméo, in Carmel. Prophetically he declared, “Thanks be to God! Now that the terrain has been watered by blood, the conversion of the Indians will take place”…and so it did. Twenty-one missions were established throughout California, nine of which were founded by St. Junípero Serra. His mission prospered through the introduction of domestic animals, the fostering of agriculture, and the development of commerce. He also defended Indian rights against non-native settlers in protracted contests. During building operations on his missions, he worked as an ordinary day laborer. About ten percent of the population of presentday California were brought into the Church. He baptized 6,000 natives and confirmed 5,000, including three of the Indians that had murdered Fr. Jayme, another poignant demonstration of Divine Grace and Mercy.
It was his devotion to the Blessed Virgin that gave him the strength and the courage to continually forge ahead. He had been given a statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem at the very beginning of his mission on this continent by the Archbishop of Mexico City, the Most Reverend Francisco de Lorenzaña, with the instructions that she be the Conquistadora of the new land. The statue which, coincidentally, measured Fr. Serra’s own height of 5’2”, was placed in honor in his first mission, then carried with him to the mission ôf San Carlos Borroméo in Carmel. This statue can still be seen today and is visited by thousands of pilgrims yearly.
Today, the humble Mission of San Carlos Borroméo has been granted the honor of the title, Basilica, and is a witness to Fr. Junípero Serra’s life and the place where the saint’s remains were laid to rest. But most especially, it is a witness to the perseverance and bravery of all the many missionaries who leave home and family to travel to a new and untamed world to preach the Gospel and bring the Love of Christ to a new people.
Many do not know that in 1847, the United States Catholic bishops, led by Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, received approval from Blessed Pope Pius IX to consecrate the United States to Mary under Her title of the Immaculate Conception. This was seven years before Pope Pius IX did proclaim the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854.
In 1943, when a count was made of all the churches in the United States, of the 4,817 churches dedicated to Our Lady, 637 of these were named in honor of her Immaculate Conception. The United States is indeed the land of Mary Immaculate. Fr. Junípero Serra being raised to the altar as a saint of the Church in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, is no mere coincidence; Heaven desired it.
Anne Marie Jacques
1. What is Serra’s legacy today?
As the Father of California, Serra today represents multicultural appreciation and tolerance. Serra worked tirelessly for — and treasured — the Native Americans as human beings and treated them with dignity and respect. Today he is a model of evangelization, a man who truly went to the peripheries of civilization and sacrificed everything to minister to those who had yet to hear the Gospel. His impact on California continues to be felt in ways large and small throughout the state.
2. What is canonization?
Canonization is an affirmation on the part of the Catholic Church that an individual is in heaven. It does not mean that this individual was a perfect human being, but rather that they exemplified heroic goodness and virtue during their life.
3. Why is Father Serra a saint?
Father Junipero Serra left behind a life of academic prestige and renown to take on a life of hardship, sacrifice and toil in order to become an advocate and spiritual minister to the Native California Indians. Defying many obstacles, including, at times, members of the civil government, Serra devoted himself to attracting hearts to Christ. He exemplified heroic virtues in the California frontier, and through his grace and perseverance he brought the Gospel of Christ to many who had not heard it before.
4. Was Serra a colonist whose culture conquered the Native Californians?
Serra was a citizen of an empire, but his mission was one of evangelization, not of politics. Serra’s driving motivation was to win the natives’ hearts for Christ. When he saw injustice and abuse in the Spanish political system, he advocated for the natives’ rights and dignity. Serra was more than a man of his times; he was ahead of his times, and he is being canonized for his heroic virtues.
5. Would the Indians have been better without Spain?
The European colonization of North America was inevitable, and given the disparity in technology between Europeans and Native Americans, it was almost completely assured of success. If Spain had not colonized California, Russia would have done so from the Pacific Northwest, or Britain would have done so from the east. In areas where both of these countries colonized, Native American populations were almost entirely wiped out. Though American history is usually seen through a more British lens, the fact is that Natives Americans generally fared better under Spanish rule than under the British and enjoyed certain protections, some of which Father Serra went to great lengths to secure for them. As Gregory Orfalea states, “After two hundred years of conquest in Spanish America, half the population was still Indian, whereas east of the Mississippi in English America, only 6 percent remained Indian.”
6. What about whipping as a form of punishment in the missions?
There is no documented evidence that Serra himself employed corporal punishment on the Native Californians. What we do know, however, is that corporal punishment was a widely accepted form of punishment in both the Old World and the New World in Serra’s time. Militaries throughout Europe, including the Spanish military, widely employed flogging on their own sailors until 1824, and the U.S. military did so until 1861 — a century after Serra’s arrival in the New World. Monastic orders such as the Benedictines also prescribed corporal punishment as a form of moral chastisement. Additionally, the Aztecs, who were among the first Native Americans whom Serra encountered, employed such disciplines on children as beating and breathing in the fumes from smoking chilies.
7. Were the Natives forced to convert to Catholicism and be the padres’ slaves?
Forced conversions were forbidden in the Catholic Church as they are today. Native Californians were not permitted to enter the missions unless they had chosen freely to do so and had undergone a lengthy process of catechesis. They were also not admitted unless the padres could guarantee that the missions had enough food and resources to provide for the needs of each Native Californian. Once they entered the missions, the natives had daily responsibilities for maintaining the missions, working side by side with the friars.
8. The Native Californian population declined after contact with Europeans. Is Serra responsible?
Ironically, the greatest decimation of the Native American population in California occurred after the missions were secularized and California was ceded to the United States. At that point, the population of the Native Californians fell by about 80 percent. During the mission era, most Native Californians who died prematurely did so because of European diseases to which the Indians had no immunity. It is clear that the native population suffered losses, but it was not because of Father Serra, who, if anything, probably ameliorated their situation. Rather, it was the spread of diseases which neither the Spaniards nor the Indians of the 18th century had the technology to address. There was a population decline among the Native Californians as a result of this disease during the mission period, but it was a fraction of the complete collapse of the population that followed Americanization.
9. Would the Indians have been better without Serra?
In a word, no. Many scholars of the period agree that, on balance, without Father Serra’s presence and advocacy, things could have been much more difficult for the Indians. Serra devoted his life to the hearts and souls of the Native Californians, fighting abuses against them. Among his many efforts to defend the rights and dignity of the Native Californians, Serra secured rights intended to prevent the Spanish soldiers from abusing and exploiting the Natives; he refused to permit the Spanish government to tax the Indians; and he succeeded in having the Spanish General Fages fired for his treatment of the natives and for allowing the rape of native women.
10. What motivated Serra to become a missionary in the New World?
Serra’s deepest motivations were love of God and love of neighbor. As a young seminarian, Serra read the works of the great medieval missionary and evangelist Raymond Lull and internalized deeply Christ’s call to “go forth and preach to all nations.” Although he held an endowed chair as a professor of theology and philosophy in Mallorca (Majorca), his heart yearned to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the native people of the New World who had not yet heard the Good News. A desire to win hearts for Christ caused him to give up his academic position, leave his family, cross a vast ocean, and devote the rest of his life to serving and ministering to the native people of California.
11. How did the Indians interact with him at the time?
Serra’s deep compassion and grace was evident to the native Indians of Alta California. He was deeply affected by the natives’ generosity and gentleness toward him. Serra wrote several times of one incident where several members of the Chumash Tribe met him as he was walking through a mountain pass shortly after a rain storm. Since the ground was muddy and Serra’s leg was wounded, two Chumash Indians held him on either side and carried him over the mountain pass. Serra wrote afterwards in several letters that he would never be able to repay the kindness that they had shown to him.
12. What did Indians say about him after his death?
Serra’s biographer, who was present in his last days on earth, wrote that as Serra lay dying, the mission Indians wept outside his room. At his funeral, the friars eventually had to intervene because the Indians cut off pieces of Serra’s hair and vestments to treasure as relics. To the Indians, Serra was a spiritual father and a protector, and they deeply mourned his death.
Maynard Geiger conducted a series of oral interviews with the descendants of mission Indians who had known Serra. Even for several generations after Serra’s death, the Indians referred to him as “el santo”— the saint.