How Junipero Serra Faced His Own Death

I am saddened by political division, and so I avoid it as much as possible, but even I am aware that there is some controversy between the world and the Church on this matter of Father Junipero Serra’s sanctity.

My nutshell response: Isn’t there always? Jesus predicted it in his incomparable discourse at the Last Supper: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you.” (John 15:18)

The English Catholic convert Robert Hugh Benson, in his book The Mystical Body and Its Head, uses this verse of Our Lord’s, this fact of our similarity to Him in the world’s hatred of us, as an argument for the truth of the Catholic Faith. So as Jesus also said, “Let not your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

It is nothing new for the world to ignore, suppress or purposely re-write history as the world would have it (if you don’t accept human nature—an incontrovertible fact of the present—why  should you accept factual evidence from the past?), but for those who seek the truth, it is not hard to find.

If you need help finding the truth in this matter of Father Serra, follow the paper trail of Monsignor Francis J. Weber, archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His books, articles, and bibliographies are a feast of facts abounding in human interest, sympathy, and literary style, and they are eminently reliable. Oh, and widespread, for Monsignor Weber has been vastly prolific, thanks be to God. His writings aren’t hard to find, and neither is he—if you want a glimpse of him today, look for him standing beside Pope Francis in Washington, D.C., witnessing first-hand a moment of great joy in what tomorrow will be history.

Meanwhile, to do my part in healing division, I offer the following passage, a taste of truth for this great feast in honor of Father Serra (which comes, incidentally, on the proper day of St. Padre Pio, who modestly steps back to allow his fellow Franciscan center stage).

Of special note: “Palou,” mentioned below, is Fray Francisco Palou, Fray Junipero’s friend and first biographer, author of Relación Histórica de la Vida y Apostólicas Tareas del Venerable Padre Fray Junipero Serra, a monumental work upon which nearly all subsequent biographies have been based.

“Death, the Deliverer”

from the biography Junipero Serra (© 1933) by the Dean of American Essayists, Agnes Repplier

Serra was medieval. He had the qualities of those emotional, penitential and migratory years, when endurance was the keynote of existence, and when the love of life was balanced by the honor paid to death. His harsh asceticism, the boards on which he slept, his meager diet, the cruel mortifying of his flesh, all savored of the Middle Ages; and so, too, did his habit of putting his mind and soul into his work. The great cathedrals are not the only indications of this habit of men who dwelt in the centuries we call dark. Europe is full of small things—the lock of an old chest, the hinges on an old door, a stone piscine sunk in a sacristy wall—that are beautiful for all time because medieval artisans conceived of work as a thing to be well done.

Serra was unfitted physically for his laborious life. A puny and delicate boy, he was so undersized that, as a novice, he could not read at the choristers’ desk, and was employed in serving Mass. Later he gained height, but was always frail in appearance and in reality. Like Joubert he had a sound mind in an unsound body; and his mind so dominated his body that it responded obediently to every demand and lasted seventy years. He did not preserve vitality by suppressing all extremes, which is the wisdom of the moderns. Being medieval, he dealt habitually in extremes, and made them serve his turn. Even when death had laid its chilling hand upon him, he drew strength from an unknown source. Palou had come to San Carlos to be with his old friend to the end; and when he saw him walking in a procession, and heard him singing “Pange, lingua, gloriosi,” he said to one of the soldiers from the presidio: “The presidente is, thank God, much stronger than I thought to find him.” To which the man answered with deep conviction: “He is always strong when he sings or when he prays. Nevertheless, he is dying.”

One indication Serra gave that he had abandoned all thought of life: He let the doctors have their will with him. Unhappily for his remaining days, a transport, summoned, it is said, by Palou, arrived from San Francisco, and the ship’s surgeon hastened to the sick man’s side. He found him employed in cutting out garments for the children, and asked leave to cauterize the ulcerated chest. This time he was not repulsed. Serra had made his fight as long as there was work to be done. Now it was merely a question of undergoing needless pain before he died, and to this he submitted, remembering perhaps that there is nothing the body suffers that the soul may not profit by. The cauterization, says Palou, was of no benefit to the patient, but left him weak and weary…

It was an inestimable comfort to Serra that Palou who, although much younger, had been his close and dear friend, had come hurriedly from San Francisco to bear him company in the last weeks of his life… Palou told Serra that he would not remain in California, but was going back to San Fernando to write the Relación Histórica and the Noticias for which he had been sedulously collecting material. The two friends knew that, in Fray Fermín Francisco Lasuén, Serra would have a worthy successor…

Serra’s preparations for death were as simple as had been his manner of living. He made a general confession to Palou, he asked to be buried by the side of Crespi, and he expressed a desire to receive the viaticum in the church instead of in his cell. The officer in charge of the presidio came with his soldiers to San Carlos to attend this ceremony. They saw the sick man kneeling at the foot of the altar, they heard him intone the Tantum ergo Sacramentum, and they marveled, knowing that the end was at hand. Afterwards a cup of broth was brought him which he drank quietly. It had been his custom since he came to California to eat and drink a portion of whatever was attainable, making no parade of austerity, and expressing no preference or distaste.

The last night brought little sleep to the sufferer; but at dawn there came to his bedside two old friends, Captain José Canizares, who commanded a frigate that had just anchored at Monterey, and the ship’s chaplain, Don Cristóbal Díaz. They had heard of his illness, and had hurried over the five miles to see him before he died. Serra received them with courtesy, ordered the bells to be rung in their honor, and bade them tell him of Peru, from which country they had recently returned. This they endeavored to do (though why talk of Peru to a man about to leave the earth?), and when they had finished and were taking their leave, he said to them: “I thank God for sending you to me, and I thank you for bearing me in mind, and for coming so far to throw a little earth upon my grave.”

After the leave-taking of these kind and well-mannered gentlemen, Palou remained alone with Serra, who lay quiet for a long time. Then suddenly he said in a troubled voice: “I have come under the shadow of fear. Read the Recommendation.” Palou knelt by his side, and read the solemn words with which the Church Militant bids farewell to the departing soul, and recommends it to the care of the Church Triumphant. As the familiar invocations fell upon Serra’s ears, fear faded away. “In the name of the Angels and Archangels…In the name of the Powers and Principalities…In the name of the Cherubim and Seraphim…In the name of the holy Martyrs and Confessors…In the name of the holy Monks and Hermits…” How many old friends had sped before him on the path that he was taking? How many new friends awaited his coming? “Now I shall rest,” he said, and Palou left him to see that the visitors were properly entertained. When he returned, Serra was sleeping his last sleep, his worn old face relaxed and peaceful. Clasped in his arms was the wooden cross he had brought with him from the Lullian University at Parma, and from which he had never been parted.

When the San Carlos bells tolled the death of the presidente, Indians and Mexicans left their work and swarmed to the adobe hut, bewailing their loss, and clamoring for relics of the man whom they deemed to be a saint. The body was placed on a bier in the church, covered with the well-loved rosas de Castilla, and guarded day and night to protect it from the relic hunters, who nevertheless contrived to carry away many snippets from the habit, and even a few locks of the white hair which still fringed the tonsure. Palou had constituted himself executor, in view of the fact that there was no estate to be administered, and no personal property except some necessary clothing, a few devotional books, and the wooden cross. Yet the office was not the sinecure it seemed. No rich man’s heirs were ever greedier for gold than were Serra’s friends and neophytes for anything that he had worn or used. The soldiers and sailors were especially clamorous; “because,” says Palou, “of their larger knowledge.”

The dead friar was buried in his one comparatively sound habit; but there was an old and ragged one which had been kept for the laudable purpose of patching its successor; and this was cut into squares like scapulars and distributed. His handkerchiefs were disposed of in the same fashion, save that one whole one was given to the surgeon, Don Juan Garcia, who vowed that it would be a more efficacious cure than any of his remedies—which might easily have been the case. The commanding officer of the Monterey presidio, who had shown to Serra the respect and devotion of a son, begged for a pair of worn-out sandals, and received them. A little store of medals which had been kept for distribution to neophytes was given away. Also the books, save only the breviary, which Palou kept for himself—sole memento of an enduring friendship. The wooden cross was laid under the dead man’s hands in his coffin, and buried with him.

+++

And a further detail about one of these coveted relics. They have not disappeared; historical facts are not so easily dismissed…

Viltis Jatulis, faithful Lithuanian librarian of St. Bernardine Library at Thomas Aquinas College, once received a donation of books that had belonged to a great Catholic lady (she and her husband, and then their son and his wife, all generous benefactors). Upon perusal, Viltis found that one of the books was an old diary. A really old diary. A really old diary of Father Junipero Serra. Viltis, a less grasping and a holier hunter-of-relics than I, contacted the donor and arranged for the diary to go where it belonged—to one of Father Serra’s beloved missions and home of the archivist Monsignor Weber, the San Fernando Mission.  

For those of us who wish we had a relic of Father, let us not forget that we have the largest relics of all—the California missions. And for those who live too far to visit, a yet more valuable gift is available upon request—his friendship. Thanks to God’s mercy, this day Junipero Serra is enrolled in the canon of the Saints; there is no distance between Heaven and earth, only a thin veil, and today that veil is lifted. Behold Father Serra in Heaven, but he is looking down kindly, desiring more than ever to show God’s great love to us. So ask him today—ask for the desires of your heart, and let one of those desires be for the conversion of a relative, a friend, our country and its leaders. Surely Father Serra—Saint Junipero Serra—who traveled so many miles to bring the Good News to America, will gladly present these many petitions to Jesus, his best Friend and Savior, and ours.

Suzie Andres

By

Suzie Andres lives and writes in sunny Southern California, although her new webpage at suzieandres.com hails from Australia. She is the editor of Selected Sermons of Thomas Aquinas McGovern, S.J., and author of Homeschooling with Gentleness, and A Little Way of Homeschooling. Her debut novel is The Paradise Project, whose heroine loves Jane Austen almost as much as Suzie does.

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  • Claire

    Gorgeous reflections, so moving. Saint Junipero Serra has been a loving friend of our family for many years. He found my husband his wonderful job, which he is now retired from, a good house in a sweet neigjborhood to finish raising our family. He is a wonderful loving father and friend. My heart is so full knowing he is officially a saint. I thought this day would never come. Praise be to God. Thankyou Pope Francis.

  • Suzie Andres

    Claire,
    How beautiful that you have been invoking St. Serra from the days when he was simply Father Serra 🙂 and I rejoice with you in all the favors he has obtained for your family. Alleluia that this great missionary, this humble Franciscan, is now set forward for all of us as a loving friend and model! God bless you!

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