The Newest American Saint: Junípero Serra, Apostle of California

American saints are a rarity. Currently there are three native born saints and another nine who labored and died within the United States. On September 23rd, a thirteenth North American saint will be canonized by Pope Francis at the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC: Bl. Junípero Serra, O.F.M. (1713-1784).

Bl. Serra, the Apostle of California, was born on the island of Majorca, off the coast of Spain. He grew up on a farm where he learned many skills he would bring to his ministry of organizing missions. At 17 he became a Franciscan friar. Though known for his work in the missions, Serra initially served as a philosophy and theology professor, before unexpectedly volunteering for ministry in the New World at the age of 36. It was an intensely personal decision: “I have had no other motive but to revive in my soul those intense longings which I have had since my novitiate when I read the lives of the saints.” Serra set off from his homeland to become a saint.

After arriving in Mexico, Serra’s first mission work took place in the mountainous region of Sierra Gorda north of Mexico City, where he constructed a new Church and worked for eight years. Returning to Mexico City he spent time as a travelling preacher, known for his dramatic exhortations to penance, even demonstrating this penance on himself from the pulpit by pounding his chest with a rock! He was again sent to the mission field, this time to the long peninsula of Baja California, though he found it a rough desert like place without much prospect for growth. It was from this disappointing vantage that Serra’s main breakthrough occurred.

Serra was personally selected to spearhead a new mission to uncharted territory. Along with a relatively small contingent of Spanish soldiers, he would travel to Alta California (the present day state of California), where he would found 9 missions. The main Spanish fort was at the Presidio in Monterey, and his 9 missions spanned the territory from there south to San Diego. Serra has been called not only the Apostle of California, but also its founder. In his post as Father President of the Missions, Serra not only ministered to the Indian population, but his missions provided the foundations for many of California’s later cities. In his work, he travelled nearly 25,000 miles on foot (with a decades long leg injury) and performed countless baptisms and Confirmations.

The work proved grueling and even dangerous. When entering the territory of his first mission at San Diego, the friars and soldiers were greeted with a shower of arrows. The customs of the natives shocked the Spaniards, especially their nakedness, and the missionaries saw it as their mission not only to preach, but also to bring to their neophytes the basics of civilization. Once a native received baptism, the missionaries insisted that the new Christian live within a mission under the Franciscans’ authority, where they would be taught agriculture and trades and followed a schedule of prayer. Serra labored in California for about 15 years, serving as leader and father to the Franciscan missionaries and his converts.

Serra’s canonization on September 23 will take place in Washington, DC at the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, during Pope Francis’s visit to the United States for the World Meeting of Families. Francis explained that Serra’s canonization is part of a larger effort to provide us with examples of evangelization. His surprise announcement of the canonization came back in January aboard a flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines. Pope Francis explained how Serra met his personal criteria of “persons who were great evangelizers.” He continued: “In September, God willing, I will canonize Junípero Serra in the United States, since he was the evangelizer of the western United States. These are figures who were impressive evangelizers along the lines of Evangelii Gaudium. That is why I chose them.” Pope Francis waived the requirement of a second miracle for Serra, overriding the normal process in what is called an equipollent or equivalent canonization.

Pope Francis has told us that his decision to make Serra a saint reflects the Franciscan missionary’s embodiment of the landmark document of his papacy, Evangelium Gaudium. In this apostolic exhortation, Francis lays out his vision of how we can take up the mantle of evangelization in our time, following the example of saints, such as Serra:

We do well to keep in mind the early Christians and our many brothers and sisters throughout history who were filled with joy, unflagging courage and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel. Some people nowadays console themselves by saying that things are not as easy as they used to be. . . Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, self-absorption, complacency and selfishness, to say nothing of the concupiscence which preys upon us all. . . . Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. But let us learn also from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day.

Francis’s personal decision to canonize Serra during his visit to the United States provides our country with a strong example as we learn to evangelize in the midst of our own opportunities and challenges. In particular, it should embolden us in the face of the ever increasing attacks on life and the family.

Serra’s canonization, however, has resurfaced a long controversy concerning his legacy. Many critics portray Serra as spearheading efforts to enslave or even kill the Indians of California. There has even been a push to remove his statue from the United States Capital, where it represents the State of California. Christopher Blum’s review of Stephen Hackel’s recent biography of Serra brings to light how many historians distort the details of the missionary’s life. Though it is true that Serra used corporeal punishment in his missions, he was actually a defender of the natives against the cruelties associated with Spanish colonialism. He used his significant clout even to have a governor of California removed for interfering with the work of the missions.

One of the best testimonies of Serra’s success is the great devotion the peoples of the missions bore him. He was a beloved father, whom the natives knew loved them deeply. He always wished well of the Indians, even when they committed crimes, and resisted their punishment by Spanish forces. The most poignant example of this came after the burning of the mission of San Diego, which included the murder of one of the friars. Writing to the Spanish viceroy, Serra pleaded for clemency: “As to the killer, let him live so that he can be saved, for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification.” Here we see the heart of Serra’s great missional love and zeal: he served in California only to further the work of the Gospel. This is the example of evangelization Pope Francis is providing us with the canonization of Bl. Junípero Serra later this month.

image: Supannee Hickman / Shutterstock.com

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

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  • Robyn Dolan

    This is so timely. My son just read about Fr. Serra in Catholic history.

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