On September 25th, 1988, Pope St. John Paul II beatified a swarthy, Spanish, asthmatic priest of small stature who was a dazzling scholar, a tireless apostle, and the founder of many missionaries from San Diego to San Francisco—Junípero Serra, who walked the western desert to irrigate souls with the water that becomes a spring welling up to eternal life.
Born Miguel Jose Serra Ferrer on November 14, 1730, in Petra, Majorca, Spain, this servant of God and God’s people became a Franciscan after a brilliant career as a scholar of philosophy, taking a name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s companion, St. Juníper. After his ordination, Fray Junípero earned his doctorate in theology and thereafter joined the missionary college of San Fernando de Mexico in 1749. That same year, he taught the Faith to the natives, converted many souls, helped integrate Spanish culture to the land, developed agriculture, founded trade schools, and introduced new domestic animals to the people.
It was during this early period in his vocation that, according to some accounts, traveling on foot from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, Fray Junípero was bitten by a serpent, suffering a wound that would plague him all his life—especially since it was his way to walk wherever he went, from mission to mission, town to town, carrying the Word and work of God with him to those who yet thirsted for the Truth.
The event stands as a symbol of the devil’s devices against those who would march fearlessly to shake the earth with the joy of heaven. As is often the case, those whom the fiend strikes in hatred are the ones that frustrate his attempts to arrest them through their acceptance of suffering. Blessed Junípero Serra was preeminently one of those heroes, who walked on his snake-bitten leg mile after mile, finding and bringing Christ as he served the Indian missions of Pacific America.
There is a wonderful story about Blessed Serra the Walker that Willa Cather recounted in her book Death Comes for the Archbishop that illustrates the miraculous force that walked with this missionary across the desert plains.
Fray Junípero traveling on foot with Fray Andrea, a member of his order, arrived late one night at a remote monastery. They arrived without cloak or fare, prompting the astonishment of their brethren who believed it impossible that they could have thus crossed the wide desert stretch without provision of any kind. When asked by the Superior of the monastery to explain this marvel, adding some admonishment towards the mission from whence they came for allowing them to proceed on so a dangerous journey so unprepared, the holy man grew even more surprised to hear what the good Blessed Serra had to report as to how they had survived.
Fray Junípero told the Superior that they had met a Mexican family living in happy poverty along their way and that they had provided for their every comfort. At this, a passing muleteer bearing wood for the priests’ fire laughed—there was no house for twelve leagues in any direction, he said, and not a soul who lived in the wasteland that Fray Serra had mysteriously traversed. His words were corroborated by several of the brotherhood; but nevertheless, Fray Serra continued his strange story with a stranger conviction.
Though they had begun their journey with a day’s supply of bread and water, they found that they had underestimated the time it would take them to cross the desert. At the close of the second day, their bodies and hearts weak with fear and exhaustion, they rejoiced to discover a small house sitting in the shade of three great cottonwood trees among the cacti. The trees were green and lush and, beneath them, a donkey was tied to a stump by a wall of the house where peppers hung, and a small Mexican stove stood by the door. The travelers called out and a Mexican peasant clad in sheepskin clothing appeared and welcomed them with a mighty kindness. He brought them within his home, asking them to stay the night as his beautiful wife stirred a pot by the fire. Their child, wrapped in a simple garment, sat on the floor by his mother playing with a lamb.
Fray Junípero and Fray Andrea found this family hospitable, happy, and holy. They told them that they were shepherds as they shared their supper and followed their guests in the evening prayer of the Church. Afterwards, though they would have liked to continue speaking with their hosts, the priests were suddenly overcome by weariness and fell into a deep sleep in the places provided for them. When they awoke with the dawn, there was no one to be seen. Supposing that the good people were off tending their flocks, the two wayfarers took up their road again and arrived in health and safety at their destination.
As before, the brothers of the monastery were astounded by this account, declaring that there were three great cottonwood trees in that part of the desert: indeed, they were a well-known landmark, but there was no house by them. So great was their wonder that some of the brothers took Fray Junípero and Fray Andrea to the very spot, and though they found the same cottonwoods, there was no house, no donkey, no oven, and certainly no inhabitants. It was then that the priests, following Fray Junípero Serra and Fray Andrea, sank to their knees and kissed the blessed ground, “for they perceived what Family it was that had entertained them there.”
From Death Comes for the Archbishop:
Fray Junípero confessed to the Brothers how from the moment he entered the house he had been strangely drawn to the child, and desired to take him in his arms, but that he kept near his mother. When the priest was reading the evening prayers the child sat upon the floor against his mother’s knee, with the lamb in his lap, and the Fray found it hard to keep his eyes upon his breviary. After prayers, when he bade his hosts good-night, he did indeed stoop over the little boy in blessing; and the child had lifted his hand, and with his tiny finger made the cross upon Fray Junípero’s forehead.
This beautiful tale serves as an icon of the man who, like the Holy family, brought greatness with him through simplicity and love. Thus the Holy Family welcomed Fray Junípero Serra as their own honored houseguest, appearing to him as those very people whom he had given his life to serve: the poorest of the poor of Mexico’s children, “in a wilderness at the end of the world, where the angels could scarcely find them!” And thus was the mission of this holy priest: to find and further the Holy Family of the Universal Church.
By the time Blessed Junípero Serra passed to his eternal reward in Monterey in 1784, his establishments were regarded as the best in the Provincias Internas, and the strength of the Californian missions were attributed almost wholly to his zeal and industry, and his eager, optimistic, and persevering character that sought with a lion’s heart to extend the membership of the Holy Family as far as his legs would carry him, rendering the life and labors of the missionary Junípero Serra exemplary of the mission of the Catholic Church.
Reminiscing on his experience of Blessed Junípero Serra, a certain Fray Pablo Font wrote:
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. His memory shall not fail, because of the works he performed when alive shall be impressed in the minds of the dwellers of this New California; despite the ravages of time, they shall not be forgotten.
image: Jim McIntosh / Wikimedia Commons