Father Junipero Serra, missionary, and possible saint, is a man for these volatile times.
At only 38 year old, this priest was put in the unenviable position of balancing church vs. state ambitions. Called to evangelize the native people of California, the position was ostensibly created to solidify Spain’s holdings in the New World, while thwarting any potential claims made by Russia.
In the midst of geopolitical considerations, Father Serra dealt with military obstacles, geographical obstacles, cultural obstacles, and a good deal of personal issues as well.
Having injured his leg during his travels from mission to future mission, an injury which was to plague him for the rest of his life, Father Serra then found himself butting heads with military and government officials while trying to fulfill the obligations of his religious calling. At one point, tensions between Church and State got so tense, that the local governor forbid Fr. Serra from administering the Sacrament of Confirmation. The good and holy priest refrained, until higher heads prevailed, and Fr. Serra was once more allowed to continue administering the Sacrament.
Even beyond his death, controversy plagued him. When Pope Francis announced plans to canonize him, modern day indigenous groups came forth to denounce the good priest’s actions, once viewed through a modern lens. Claims were made that the priest, by sharing the Gospel of Christ, did “incalculable damage to a whole culture.”
Yet Fr. Serra himself was known to oppose the power structure of the day in regards to the native peoples- even calling for the pardon of two native Californians who were eligible for the death penalty. Through his works, the indigenous groups were moved from the un-Catholic status of “non peoples”, a title bestowed upon them by the Spanish government, to the very human wards of the Franciscans.
Throughout his life, Fr. Serra’s motto, “Always forward, never back,” dictated his actions. Not one to dwell upon the machinations of governments or geopolitics, he kept moving ever closer to God with his actions, bringing as many people with him as possible.
In the current political climate here in America, Fr. Serra is truly a saint for our time. Particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s sudden discovery and decision of gay marriage as a Constitutional right, it is vital that American Catholics adopt Fr. Serra’s motto of “ever forward, never back” in our daily life.
It is too late and too ineffectual to try to recall the social mores of a golden yesteryear—when birth control hadn’t severed the marital act from the creation of children, when no fault divorce laws hadn’t severed the unbreakable marital covenant from civil laws. These things are the very soil in which gay marriage germinated and was allowed to flourish. And it is too late to go back and change the formula.
Now, in honor of Fr. Serra, we need to go forward. We need to embrace all those around us, to help elevate them from “lost and broken” to “valued child of God”. We need to show the world what Sacramental Matrimony looks like—not to recall some long-lost era, but to show the world a better option. We need to show the world what unafraid, unflinching marriage looks like, open to life, open to love, open to grace. We need to show the powers of the land a better option- one so shining and bright that they want to grasp it, and thereby let loose the counterfeits they’ve clung to.
We need to look forward—to the Kingdom of God, and not back, which contains the wreckage of all our mistakes in the area of human sexuality, and pray confidently that a little priest of humble beginnings who took on the political powerhouses of his day will see us and understand.
Always forward. Never back.