The major reason I’m drawn to Saint Junípero Serra (1713-1784) is that his story is that of a classic underdog. At birth he wasn’t even expected to live a few days, and we know this because his baptism happened only hours after he was born.
Not only did he survive, he went on to be a great academic in Mallorca, Spain, and then heeded the call to be a missionary abroad. He left the comforts of home, knowing he would never return.
By the time he set foot in present-day California to bring the Gospel to the West Coast of what would eventually become the United States, he was a very old man. He was 5’2”, short even for his day, and traveled thousands of miles mainly by walking, often on an ulcerated leg. He was asthmatic, and averaged 4-5 hours of sleep a night.
Yet he ended up living 70 years, twice the average lifespan for his day. He is still studied some three-hundred plus years after his birth, because he never ceases to inspire.
I went on my own personal fifteen-year quest to get closer to the truth about this eighteenth century Hispanic Franciscan priest. Throughout the process, my understanding and appreciation of Serra was truly deepened.
I was able to see Serra in a clear, concise way, and it’s become a precious help on my own humble faith journey.
His story includes a powerful witness to love, mercy, courage, perseverance, fidelity, sanctity, dedication, pain, and joy. In my research I uncovered the powerful witness of Sister Dyrda, the nun miraculously cured in 1960 of lupus after praying to Serra.
Thomas G. Keene of the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed her September 16, 1987 at Carmel Mission Basilica, the day before Pope John Paul II’s visit. She said, “I only know that he [Serra] was a very saintly man, and I pray to him every day.”
When Pope Francis announced the canonization of Serra in January 2015, I followed media reports very closely. Some opposed his canonization, such as California legislators who want his statue removed from the U.S. Capitol. Currently, there is a movement at Stanford University to erase the name “Serra” from locations on campus that bear it.
In general, those critics charge that Serra was an agent of colonialism complicit in abuses inflicted on the native populations of the New World.
The press also, however, reported on the reasons why Pope Francis referred to Serra as the “Evangelizer of the West”, why Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego termed Serra a “foundational figure”, and why Governor Jerry Brown acknowledged him as “one of the innovators and pioneers” in California history. (In a Crux interview in July 2015, Brown said he wanted the Serra statue to remain in the Capitol “until the end of time”.)
However, finding in mainstream media reports a Native Californian voice in support of the canonization was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
After many years of researching Serra, I can confidently say that he was a great example of a concerned, just, forgiving, dedicated, holy man. As Pope Francis eloquently put it in his homily at Serra’s canonization Mass last September, “He [Serra] was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.”
“Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life,” the pope said. “He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life.”
“He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”
Saint Junípero Serra can help us, if we are willing to get to know him, in spreading Christ’s message.
On January 7, 1790, he wrote to Neve, Governor of Nueva California: “…we [Fathers] came here. . . for the single purpose of doing [Indians] good and for their eternal salvation.” May we be so inspired to show our love of God through our love for neighbor.
Christian Clifford is the author of Saint Junípero Serra: Making Sense of the History and Legacy and coming soon from Tau Publishing, Who Was Saint Junípero Serra? For more information, visit www.SaintSerraBook.com.