“I want to be a missionary.”
Brother John Samaha, S.M.
During this Year of Faith we will mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Junipero Serra on November 24. Blessed Junipero Serra (1713-1784), the first apostle and colonizer of Alta California was a model evangelizer and is a benchmark for the missionary spirit for spreading and renewing the faith in the Year of Faith we are now celebrating. The church celebrates his feast on July 1.
A native of Petra on the Spanish island of Majorca and baptized Miguel Jose, he followed in the footsteps of his early educators, the Franciscans, and took the name of Junipero, who was a disciple of St. Francis himself. After a decade of service as a noted preacher and professor of philosophy, he rekindled his early desire to be a missionary and requested to be sent to Mexico in the new World. In 1749 at the age of 36 he wrote a formal petition to his provincial superior: “All my life I have wanted to be a missionary. I have wanted to carry the Gospel teachings to those who have never heard of God and the kingdom he has prepared for them.”
Fray Junipero was missioned to the New World in Mexico, where he served the native populations for twenty years. When Spain decided to complete the occupation of California, he and other specially trained Franciscan missionaries accompanied the military and the colonists. During the ensuing fifteen years in Alta California, he founded the first nine of the twenty-one missions. In this period Serra was compelled to confront the military and civil authorities concerning the mistreatment of the Native Americans. He drafted a statement of thirty-two grievances which he personally presented to the Viceroy in Mexico. Some of his recommended improvements were implemented and some were overlooked.
Though afflicted with an ulcerated leg wound, Padre Serra frequently visited his missions, often walking rather than riding horseback because St. Francis al Assisi had always walked. Records show that he baptized and confirmed thousands of natives without neglecting the colonists and the soldiers. He was beloved by all. While concentrating on the spiritual needs of the neophytes and catechumens, he and his collaborators did not forget their material welfare. The natives were taught methods of farming, cattle raising, along with arts and crafts. The native peoples were educated to shift from an unsettled lifestyle to a stable domestic way of life. Serra’s extensive written reports filed with government and religious authorities reveal a saintly man who loved and served his people as an adept teacher, organizer and manager.
Although some Spaniards were guilty of abusive treatment, Padre Serra had never been guilty of mistreatment. On the contrary, he defended them from harm. In 1784 Father Serra died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, and later he was buried in the sanctuary of its church. When Pope John Paul II beatified Junipero Serra on September 25, 1988, he praised the Apostle of California as “an exemplary model of the selfless evangelizer, a shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit.” These are the traits we are challenged to exhibit in this Year of Faith.
A statue of Junipero Serra represents California in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Imposing statues of the colonizer of California also grace Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and are also prominently placed in many other cities throughout the state. His name has been adopted by the international lay organization of men and women known as the Serra Club, which is dedicated to fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Blessed Junipero Serra witnessed to the holiness of the Church and its concern for all people. As an extraordinary missionary and an exceptional example of the Church’s apostolic calling to preach and exemplify the Gospel to everyone, he personifies the spirit of the new evangelization that characterizes the current Year of Faith.