Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Blessed Junipero Serra, ofm (1713-84)

July 1. On this day in the year 1769, Fray Junipero Serra, ofm, arrived at the port of what is now the city of San Diego. Later that month, he established the first of what was eventually to become a veritablel rosary of twenty-one missions extending a distance of 700 miles along the length of the Spanish colony which is now the state of California. By virtue of his passion, leadership, and tenacity, Serra played a seminal role in the establishment of the Catholic faith, as well as European presence and culture in this part of the world.

It is in recognition of this dual role, that Junipero Serra is regarded as a pivotal figure in both religious and secular arenas. As the late Pope John Paul II stated on his visit to Serra’s burial place at Carmel Mission (Mission San Carlos Borromeo) in 1987, “Very often at crucial moments in human affairs God raises up men and women whom he thrusts into roles of decisive importance for the future development of both society and the Church…. So it is with Junipero Serra, who in the providence of God was destined to be the apostle of California and to have a permanent influence over the spiritual patrimony of the land and its people.” The following year, 1988, Serra was beatified, or declared ‘blessed’, a stage in the canonization of saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

It is as a man of faith, ardent missionary, and witness to the Gospel that Junipero Serra is respected among Catholic Christians today as the virtual ‘apostle of California.’ At the same time, his life and work have become a flashpoint in the controversy over the role of missionaries in the context of colonial conquest and oppression.

Blessed Junipero Serra

In terms of a brief biographical sketch, Miguel José Serra was born on the island of Mallorca, Spain, in 1713 and entered the Franicscan order at the age of seventeen, taking the name of ‘Junípero’, in honor of one of the first companions of St. Francis. He studied at the Lullian University in the city of Parma (Mallorca) and subsequently taught philosophy and theology there for some twelve years. In 1749, at the age of 37, Serra was sent to Mexico, and for an additional 15 years, was associated with the College of San Fernando in Mexico City. Consequently, it was late in life (at age 54) and only after a long academic career that Serra actually became an active missionary.

In 1768, upon the expulsion of Jesuit missionaries from New Spain, Serra was given leadership as presidente over the fourteen missions of Baja (Lower) California. In 1769, after founding the mission of Santa Maria de los Angeles, Serra focused his energies on Alta (Upper) California—a region the Spaniards were eager to secure for the Crown in the face of threatened expansion by both Russian and British interests. It is here, we are told, that Serra worked tirelessly for the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity. Eventually, he would found a total of nine missions in California. Biographers are quick to point out, not only Serra’s exceptional gifts of organization and administration, but also his extraordinary faith, perseverance, and asceticism: “His Herculean efforts subjected him to near-starvation, afflictions of scurvy, and hundreds of miles of walking and horse riding through dangerous terrain. Moreover, he was notorious for his mortifications of the flesh.” Serra accomplished much of his work on foot; a chronically ulcerated leg provided an additional physical challenge to the intrepid missioner. He died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel), California in 1784.

In our own time, Serra, and by extension, missionaries in general have been criticized for their alleged cooperation and complicity in the extension of colonial rule over native peoples. Nevertheless, most historians would concur in the intrinsic danger posed by projecting our twenty-first century values and understanding upon the vastly different social and cultural landscape of 18th century colonial rule in America. That said, the biography of Junipero Serra speaks of a man who was frequently at odds with the political and military" powers that be" in his active defense of the rights of of natives. While the entire system of colonization is rightly challenged, Serra was no mere pawn of that system; he was known to be a frequent and outspoken critic of the abuse of political and military power.

In today’s world, missionary presence and witness have taken on an entirely different aspect from the time of Junipero Serra. While the proclamation of the Gospel remains central and consistent to all missionary endeavors, the voice of the Christian church has in many circumstances become increasingly independent of and even critical of political and economic power when such power deprives people of basic dignity and justice. We are not called to imitate Serra’s way of being a missionary; we are challenged to be inspired as he was to be more deeply committed to living and sharing our Christian faith with our entire being.

We Franciscans take pride in the faith and witness of Blessed Junipero Serra. Here in the province of St. Barbara, we take special pride in the several restored missions that have been entrusted to our care: Mission Santa Barbara, Old Mission San Luis Rey (Oceanside), and Mission San Miguel (San Miguel). A fourth mission, Santa Inez, is in the care of our Capuchin Franciscan brothers. We join with our Mexican conferes of the Province of Blessed Juipero Serra/ la provincia de Beato Junipero Serra, in Baja California, Mexico, in celebrating their patronal feast. http://www.ofmjuniperoserra.org/modules/news/.
We are also deeply appreciative of the efforts of Serra International, an organization of Catholic women and men who dedicate themselves to the promotion and support of vocations to religious life, the diaconate, and priesthood in the Church: http://www.serra.org/. Together, all of us continue in our commitment to live and share the Gospel, inspired by the words of Serra himself: Siempre adelante! Nunca para atrás! Always forward! Never turn back!//

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