Social media makes it so easy for someone to note the happenings in one’s life, from the mundane to the profane. As I get older, events like when I had my first haircut, scored my first goal, the date of my first kiss, are distant memories I am sure happend, but the details are lost.
But for some mysterious reason, I am pretty accurate when it comes to when I first heard certain songs. I can also tell one the date of my son’s first communion. Luckily for me it fell on his seventh birthday.
Time tends to play tricks on the memory and forces us to note what is most important.
Pope Francis has pointedly explained why the Christian should celebrate the date they were baptized. He shared with a general audience on January 8, 2014, “To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. The danger of not knowing is that we can lose awareness of what the Lord has done in us, the memory of the gift we have received.”
Saint Junípero Serra (1713-1784) took his baptismal promises very seriously and lived them to a heroic degree.
His life can teach us a lot about what the author of the letters to Timothy wrote over ninteen-hundred years ago. The Christian is to “. . . proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. . . . But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.”
We are to give thanks for this solemn charge.
Serra received this instruction on November 24, 1713. Born this day in Petra, Mallorca, Spain and named Miguel Jose Serre i Ferrer, his loving, faithful, illiterate, hard working parents Antoni and Margarita had their newborn, sickly son baptized at San Pedro Church only hours after he entered this world.
He would go down in history as the Catholic Spanish Franciscan priest who brought Catholic Christianity to what is present-day California. Under his leadership, the first nine of the eventual twenty-one missions were founded, from San Diego in south to Sonoma in the north.
The theme of persistence in the face of overwhelming odds is ever present in the life of Serra. In addition to the fact that he was not expected to live long, hence his baptism on the same day of his birth, he would heed the call to be a missionary abroad. He left the comforts of home and knew he would never return.
By the time he set foot in present-day California, he was a very old man. He was 5’2”, short even for his day, traveling thousands of miles mainly by walking (on an often ulcerated leg), was asthmatic, and averaged 4-5 hours of sleep a night. He would struggle against all odds to bring the gospel to this part of the world.
Serra’s leg was flaring up on the expedition to found the first mission at San Diego in 1769, When others noticed his pain and tried to come to his aid, he supposedly responded, “But even though I die on the road, I will not turn back (Etiamsi in via moriar non revertar).”
It is difficult to verify that he actually said this because it was recorded by his fellow missionary Father Francisco Palóu, who was not present. However, it is consistent with what historians have gathered about him, the most prominent evidence being what he had written home on August 20,1749.
In the letter he attempts to console his parents while waiting for the ship to New Spain in Cadíz, that surely they would encourage him “to move forward and not turn back” (siempre adelante, nunca para atrás).
With all his foibles, Serra endeavored to personify Christ. Mission San Diego was attacked in November 1775, and three Spaniards were killed. Serra would ask for leniency for the murderers.
On December 15, Serra wrote to Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa in Mexico City reminding him, “One of the most important requests I made . . . was that if the Indians, gentile or Christian, should kill me then they should be forgiven.”
Serra challenged men of power, both civil and military. What is clear is that he struggled with them over a single goal, to spread the gospel.
On January 7, 1780, Serra wrote to Governor Felipe de Neve: “. . . when we [Fathers] came here, we did not find even a single Christian, that we have engendered them [Indians] all in Christ, that we, evryone of us, came here for the single purpose of doing them good and for their eternal salvation; and I feel sure that everyone knows that we love them.”
In 1773, Serra travelled to Mexico City to speak directly about the state of the missions with the most powerful man in New Spain, Viceroy Bucareli. Serra’s many grievances were written down in what is known as the Representación.
Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez asserted that “. . . at the heart of [Representación] is a radical call for justice for the indigenous peoples . . .”
Gomez is referring to what Serra included in the Representación on June 11, 1773: “That at the first request of the Missionary Father . . . he [Commandant of the Presidio] should remove the soldier or soldiers who may have given bad example [to the neophyte], especially in matters of incontinence, and that they be withdrawn to the presidio and another or others be sent in their place who are not known as indecorous and scandalous.”
At Serra’s canonization on September 23, 2015 in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis bluntly shared in the homily, “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”
When Serra was canonized the Church was not celebrating the catastrophes that came with cultural exchange, but a man who rose above the norms of his day and lived a life well-lived—one devoted to Christ, His Church, and love of neighbor.
Having a devotion to Saint Junípero Serra has helped me be more grateful for my baptism (at Pope Francis’s urging I looked it up—May 9, 1971). He has helped me to be more thankful for those who nurtured the seed of faith through the years. I am inspired by his acts of courage to call out injustice, even when I am fearful. My prayer is that he may help you too.
¡Siempre adelante! Saint Junípero Serra, pray for us!
Christian Clifford is the author of Saint Junípero Serra: Making Sense of the History and Legacy and Who Was Saint Junípero Serra? For more information on this saint of the Americas, visit www.SaintSerraBook.com.