Father Junípero Serra

The Canonization of the Father of California

"Friar Junípero’s witness calls upon us to get involved, personally, in the mission to the whole continent." In light of the canonization of Father Junípero Serra, we publish an overview of his life, his call to mission and his canonization.
Damian Bacich

Miguel José Serra was born and baptized on November 24, 1713, in the small town of Petra on the island of Mallorca, Spain. Though small for his age and somewhat sickly, as a boy he was filled with grand aspirations. The young José had developed an interest in reading the lives of the saints, fascinated in particular by the descriptions of St Francis of Assisi.

At the age of fifteen, José left home to enter the Franciscan University in nearby Palma to study philosophy. When he was seventeen, his intelligence and maturity permitted him to be admitted into the Franciscan Order, in spite of his superiors’ concerns about his health. Upon assuming the habit of St Francis, he took the name Junípero, which means “Jester of God,” his namesake being a real-life companion of St Francis of Assisi. In 1737 Serra was ordained a priest, and taught theology for seven years at the Llullian University of Mallorca.

Though he received great acclaim as a professor, Serra was not content with an ordinary academic career. He was imbued with the zeal to visit other lands, so common to Mallorcans like him, who had been seafarers and cartographers for centuries, and indeed common to many Spaniards of Serra’s own time who wished to sail to the far-off “Indies” (as the Americas were commonly called). In addition, he could not forget the heroic tales of the saints that he read as a young man.

Serra’s dream did not involve discovering wealth or gaining fame as a soldier, but rather announcing the Christian event to those who had not yet encountered it. He was aware, however, that the first disciples had been sent by Christ in teams of two, and so for many months Serra prayed that God would send him a companion.

In 1749, his dream became reality, when he met another Franciscan of his province who wished to become a missionary in the Americas. His name was Francisco Palou, who would accompany Fr Serra on many of his journeys and eventually become the author of his posthumous biography. Together with several other Franciscan missionaries, they sailed for the Americas.

Despite the arduous overseas voyage, when Friar Junipero and his companions finally landed at Vera Cruz on the coast of Mexico, he decided to traveled on foot to Mexico City, while the others et off on horseback. On that journey, Serra’s leg became swollen from an insect bite. This would physically hinder him for the rest of his life, especially in walking.

When he arrived in Mexico City, he studied and prepared for missionary work at the College of San Fernando. Not long afterwards, Serra began missionary work with other Franciscan friars in Mexico’s Sierra Gorda Mountains, where he preached to the native populations and founded new missions in territories that had earlier been extremely hostile to the Christian faith.

While in the Sierra Gorda, Serra earned the respect of his superiors and was named ‘Presidente’ of the missions of the region. He then returned to San Fernando College in 1758, where he once again took up the mantle of professor and taught philosophy for nine years until receiving another call to the missions, in what was considered at that time to be the farthest reaches of the world: Baja California.

The founding of the Mission San Diego de Alcala, California. Via Wikimedia Commons

In 1768 he was appointed to lead a group of fellow Franciscan missionaries to take over the missions of Baja California that had been founded by the Jesuit order. He arrived in Loreto, Baja California in April of that year. In March of 1769 he founded his first mission, San Fernando, Rey de España de Velicatá, in the northern part of the Baja California Peninsula. Serra did not remain in Baja California for long, however. In July of 1769 he joined an expedition to Alta (upper) California. He consecrated the first mission there on July 16 in what is today San Diego. During his time in Alta California, Serra oversaw the founding of nine missions. He died at the San Carlos (Carmel) Mission, on August 28, 1784 after having spent the remainder of his life tirelessly spreading the gospel to the native peoples of Alta California.

Even while alive, he had gained a reputation as an apostle of Christ, but the political instability and upheaval of the next several decades would mean that the move to elevate him to the altars would have to wait until long after he had passed out of living memory.

“Fortunately, the friar’s life is an open book,” according to Msgr. Francis Weber, in his book, Blessed Fray Junipero Serra: An Outstanding California Hero. The official proposal of Serra’s canonization was sent to Rome in 1934, followed by fourteen years of gathering of documents regarding his life, together with interviews with descendants of those who knew him, both Indian and Hispanic. Weber’s book offers some more insight into the process: “Formal court proceedings began on December 12, 1948 at Fresno, presided over by Bishop Aloysius J. Willinger. Oaths of fidelity and secrecy were taken by all attached to the cause. Specially chosen judges were empowered to interrogate witnesses with questions submitted by the Promoter of the Faith, or the ‘Devil’s Advocate.’ At this hearing the 2,420 documents (7,500 pages) of Serra’s writings were carefully examined for doctrinal content.”

The thousands of pages of documents and testimonies revealed that the people who knew Serra considered him to be a saint — both Spanish and Indians alike — including some of those who had been his adversaries. Even officials who had opposed his policies, especially in holding the military accountable in its dealings with indigenous people, could not deny that Serra did what he did out of love for God and for his fellow human beings, and not for personal gain.

According to Weber, the case was strong: “The monumental testimony presented to the Sacred Congregation for Saints in the 620 page Summarium and its lengthy supplementary volume indicates that in life, at death and ever since there has been an unending chorus of encomiums concerning Fray Junípero Serra’s worthiness for beatification.” Fray Junipero’s beatification would have to wait until the first miracle was approved by Rome – a nun was cured of lupus in 1987 thanks to his intercession.

Despite the mountains of documentation on Serra’s life, there was vocal opposition when Pope John Paul II declared him “Blessed” in 1988. For many believers and non-believers sensitive to the negative effects of European colonialism, the idea that a Spanish priest associated with it should be named a saint was cause for concern. Opposition became even more pronounced when Pope Francis announced his intention to finalize the canonization in January 2015.

In addition to new documentation supporting Serra’s sainthood, Pope Francis had several reasons to go forward, including the support of a number of scholars who have made an in-depth study of Serra’s life and historical context. Archaeologist Dr. Ruben Mendoza, an expert in Latin American indigenous cultures, has spent years working on mission sites all over California. He is considered one of the world experts on Serra and the California missions. “He was a man ahead of his time. He went to lengths to advocate for Native Americans,” Mendoza said in a recent interview. Drs. Robert Senkewicz and Rose Marie Beebe, a team of historian/translators who have written extensively on the California mission frontier, compiled an authoritative 500- page biography of Serra released in 2015. For Senkewicz, there is no contradiction in canonizing Serra, even though he had flaws, “My sense is that people are not canonized because they are perfect — otherwise, presumably, St. Peter would never have been canonized.”

Serra’s canonization takes place on the eve of an “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” aimed at encouraging Christians to both practice and seek mercy and forgiveness. One of the most noted episodes of Serra’s life speaks directly to his concern for mercy and forgiveness. In 1775, when several hundred Indian warriors attacked the San Diego mission and killed the resident missionary, Fr. Luis Jayme, Serra immediately wrote to the Viceroy (Spanish king’s representative in Mexico) to remind him that he had earlier asked, “In case the Indians, whether pagans or Christians would kill me, they should be pardoned.” The friar asked for a formal decree of the Viceroy extending the policy to all missionaries, present and future, including the recently murdered Fr. Jayme. “It will give me special consolation to have it in my hands during the years that God may deign to add to my life.”

In a recent homily, Pope Francis outlined why he had chosen to finalize the sainthood process for Serra. The main reason: “He was a tireless missionary.” Francis is not a fan of colonialism, as he has made clear in other speeches, but he still believes in “mission.” For Papa Bergoglio, a Church that doesn’t go out into the world to announce the Gospel, especially to the poor and marginalized, has become closed and irrelevant. And mission is something the pope wants to especially emphasize in his own home hemisphere: “Friar Junípero’s witness calls upon us to get involved, personally, in the mission to the whole continent.” He also cautions that we need not whitewash figures like Serra, but rather “thoughtfully examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and their shortcomings.” As Serra biographer Gregory Orfalea has suggested, “Francis identifies Serra’s faith with the heart,” a kind of heart Francis believes is needed today, full of the “generosity and courage.”