Saturday, July 1, 2023

Saint Junipero Serra: Faithful to His Mission

July 1st is the feast day celebration of Saint Junipero Serra, who remains the patron saint of California and one of the crucial saints for all the people of the United States of America, even (perhaps especially) for those who have slandered and attacked him in recent years.

Father Serra is a saint; we know this from the Holy Spirit’s guarantee that insures the veracity of a formal canonization by the Church. Certainly, Father Serra was a man shaped by his times and constrained by the limitations of the evangelizing methods available to him in 18th century Spanish America. But this only makes his heroic dedication to the spiritual and temporal welfare of the indigenous peoples more remarkable. 

In spite of a painful physical disability that made him virtually lame, Serra traveled thousands of miles on foot up and down the coast and the mountains from San Diego to the Bay Area during the last 14 years of his life (1770-1784), establishing mission communities, serving his people, and defending them tirelessly against the powers of the military forces and the colonists who would have otherwise pushed the natives to the ground without a thought. 

Becoming a saint does not mean never making mistakes, or always enacting miraculously visionary judgments and having perfect solutions to every complicated problem. Father Serra knew he was a sinner, but he had a passion for the glory of Christ and he allowed the grace of the Holy Spirit to transform him by leading him from the comforts of his home and his university professorship in Mallorca to serve Christ in His poor brothers and sisters on the other side of the world. He became a saint by persevering in following Christ and fulfilling his vocation, with a humility that the millions who have come to California in the past two centuries and live from the wealth of its land would do well to admire.

Our family made many journeys to the California Missions in our younger days, when we visited Eileen’s parents in California. But it’s been eleven years since the last time we all traveled to California together—eleven years since the last time I was there. I miss California! The tall redwoods and the dry sea air always seemed to rejuvenate me.

Saint Junipero Serra no doubt continues to have a special solicitude for the people who live in California today: such multitudes of people—the few remaining descendants of the indigenous inhabitants (many of whom continue to foster their own historical identity in relation to the Missions that were homes to their forebears) as well as Anglos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and others whose ancestors came (or have come themselves) from all over the world—and with every one of them in need of the Gospel and the experience of a new encounter with the love of God in Jesus Christ.