The Apostle to “Upper” California: Bl. Junipero Serra

In his last moments on earth, Jesus commissioned His apostles, “Go … and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19), and he promised that they would be witnesses “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the latter half of the eighteenth century, few places were geographically farther from Judea than Alta, California, and the native peoples of that region had likely not heard the Gospel message. So it seemed to be fertile ground for shepherding new souls to the Lord. In this historical milieu, Bl. Junipero Serra stands as a shining example of fidelity to the missionary apostolate commanded by Christ.

Miguel Jose Serra was born on the Spanish island of Majorca into genteel surroundings. Yet, the young man’s vocation traversed paths other than expected. Before the age of seventeen, he entered the Franciscan order and his first name was changed to Junipero, in reference to one of St. Francis’s favorite first-generation friars. He progressed quickly in his studies, so quickly, in fact, that he seemed destined to assume a noteworthy post in the Church or in state government. According to this scenario, upon completion of doctoral studies, he began lecturing as a professor of theology, just before his ordination to the priesthood in 1737. The trajectory turned westward, however, in 1749. After more than a decade at the university, Serra determined to leave and serve as a missionary in the new world. His vocation and desire to share the Gospel with those who hadn’t encountered Christ overpowered other inclinations and plans.

Thence, Serra served quietly in various regions of Mexico for nearly twenty years before he was appointed president of the Baja (Lower) California Missions in the late 1760s. Quickly thereafter, during the spring of 1769, the new leader began traveling northward with some confreres and a company of explorers. Their express purpose was to establish Franciscan missions in Alta (Upper) California. By July of that same year, they reached San Diego Bay and founded the first of twenty-one mission churches in the territory. These missionary churches and outposts, which stretched from San Diego to present-day Sonoma County, served as the first communal establishments in the development of what would become the state of California. Serra joyfully and diligently lived out his days in the territory, always growing in his affinity for the land and the people, always working to bring the Gospel to new ears. He died in 1784 and was laid to rest at Mission San Carlos (also known as Carmel).

From the beginning of his missionary ventures, Serra knew that he must conform to Jesus’ teaching on discipleship: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23-24). The friar wrote candidly in his journal on several occasions that one purpose of the mission was to help him become detached from his beloved “creature comforts.” In another letter to a government official, Serra noted, “It is a grievous thing for me … to find myself well provided with religious [men to accompany him] and with provisions, while no steps are taken … towards some spiritual labor.” It was almost as if he would next quote the words of Christ, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk 9:25).

 

It was important to Serra that he always focused beyond the conditions of earthly life, which had very practical implications for his mission. During the trek toward San Diego, Fray Junipero described many personal tribulations in his personal journal. Along the way, his skeletal and muscle structure was bruised and battered, and he suffered wounds and severe illnesses that nearly killed him. On top of these conditions, he recounted the obstacles created by weather and terrain, which could have only exasperated a less-saintly man. Instead, on each day of the journey, Serra wrote of his hope to continue the pilgrimage during the ensuing days. Perhaps the spirit of St. Paul, another great apostle in Gentile lands, was alongside Serra. The latter must have been hearing from the former: “present your [body] as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.… Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:1, 11-12).

As this itinerant preacher moved throughout his mission field, his attraction to and appreciation for the native populations could not be clearer. He referred to himself as “the most affectionate and humble servant and chaplain” to those whom he sought to lead toward the truth and life of Christ. In humility and patience, he always waited for Californians to approach him rather than overzealously confronting them and causing fear or discord. Additionally, at every opportunity, Serra directed his pilgrim party to exemplify virtuous conduct toward the natives. Such historical evidence belies the modern assumption that all missionaries asserted their cultural and moral superiority at the same time that they forced Indians to convert. The authentic record vindicates Serra against modern historical claims, even as he has posthumously borne the promise of Christ, who said, “Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils … and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake…” (Mt. 10:17-18).

The humility and patience of the saintly leader and his adjutants eventually came to fruition. The journal entry from the day of their first encounter with natives captured his sentiments well. Serra recalled the alert that an assembly was approaching, and then his reaction: “I praised God, kissed the ground, and gave thanks to Our Lord for granting me this opportunity to be among the gentiles in their land, after longing for this for so many years.” Years later, in a letter to a fellow priest, Serra commented about the treatment that he received from those whom he was to evangelize. He wrote that they “treated us with as much confidence and good will as if they had known us all their lives.” Undoubtedly, this virtuous friar cherished these natives as children of the One True God. He stated as much over and again, and he desired to show that sentiment in various ways.

So, Fray Junipero knew that his vocation was to bring Christ to people, and to bring people to Christ. Such an understanding pervades almost every piece of correspondence and recording over nearly a decade. For example, he authored a novena to the Immaculate Conception, and its introductory prayer acknowledged that the greatest offering to be made to God, through Mary, was a redeemed soul. Also, in an exchange of letters to the Viceroy of New Spain, he announced his appreciation for frequent directions to move, as they were opportunities to “plant a new mission” and feed the native Americans “in a perfectly fitting way with spiritual food.” Toward the end of his travels, he admitted that apostolic ministry was the “best and most fruitful” time ever spent. In the same letter, he intimated his greatest frustration: that “our efforts could not equal our ardent desires.” Clearly, this friar always bore in mind that he was on mission with and for Christ, and that he would be called to give an account of such at the end of his earthly life.

A contemporary Franciscan priest commented on the missionary zeal and works of Serra: “In very truth, on account of these things, and because of the austerity of this life, his humanity, charity, and other virtues, he is worthy to be counted among the imitators of the apostles.” Commendations like these illustrate that Serra epitomizes the missionary attitude of the Church. Without a doubt, Junipero Serra was an apostle to the land now known as California. Indeed, he carried the Good News to the furthest nations he could find as best he knew how in his own age. As such, Serra must be counted among the missionary priests whose work and legacy are intimately associated with the development of Catholicism along the Pacific coast of North America.

Derek Rotty

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Derek Rotty is the Director of Adult Faith Formation at Catholic Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, TN. He holds the M.A. in history from the University of Memphis. He has written for The Sower Review (an international catechetical journal) and the West Tennessee Catholic, as well as maintaining an active blog where he explores the life of Christian virtue, at derekrotty.blogspot.com/ and www.facebook.com/lifeofvirtue.

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