July 1: Saint Junipero Serra, Priest

Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of California and vocations


<<<      “Always forward!” was his motto and his life     >>>

The United States of America’s impressive Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., includes the majestic, semicircular Statuary Hall. Each of the fifty states chooses two citizens of historic importance to represent it in the Hall. Statues of one nun and four Catholic priests, two of them saints, grace Statuary Hall, including today’s saint. Junipero Serra was the founder of California. He was the pathbreaking, indestructible priest who trekked California’s mountains, valleys, deserts, and shores to found nine of its eventual twenty-one missions. California’s rugged cattle culture, its luxurious orchards and rolling vineyards, its distinctive Mission architecture, and its blending of Mexican and Native American heritage are the legacy of Father Serra and his Franciscan confreres. The Franciscan city names tell the story: San Francisco, Ventura (Saint Bonaventure), San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, Our Lady Queen of the Angels (Los Angeles) and on and on. The Franciscans simply made California what it is.

Father Junipero Serra was baptized as Michael Joseph on Mallorca, an island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. He grew up dirt poor and devoutly Catholic. He joined the Franciscans as a youth and moved to the large city of Palma de Mallorca, where he took the religious name of Junipero in honor of one of Saint Francis of Assisi’s first followers. After priestly ordination, Father Junipero obtained a doctorate in philosophy and taught Franciscan seminarians. He was destined to lead a successful life as an intelligent, holy, and pious intellectual. But in the Spring of 1749, he felt the Lord calling him to become a missionary to New Spain (Mexico). On the fateful day of his departure from his large Franciscan monastery, he kissed the feet of all his brother Franciscans, from the oldest to the youngest. He then boarded a ship and sailed away from his native island for the first time and the last time. He would never see his family again. Our saint’s life began in earnest in middle age. Long years of intellectual, spiritual, and ascetic preparation steeled his body, mind, and will for the rigors to come.

Arriving in the port of Veracruz, Father Serra walked hundreds of miles to Mexico City rather than travel on horseback. Along this first of many treks, he was bitten by either a snake or a spider and developed an open wound that never healed, causing him near constant pain for the rest of his life. Father Serra spent the first several years of his missionary life in a mountainous region of Central Mexico among an indigenous population that had encountered Spaniards, and the Catholic religion, two centuries before. Father Serra wanted a rawer missionary experience. He wanted to meet and convert pagans who knew nothing of Christianity. After years of faithful service as a missionary, church builder, preacher, and teacher in Central Mexico, Father Junipero finally had his chance. The Franciscans were tasked with leading the religious dimension of the first great Spanish expedition into Alta California, the present day American state. If Father Serra had never gone to California, he may still have been a saint, but one known to God alone. It was the challenge of California that made Father Junipero into Saint Junipero.

Already in his mid-fifties, Father Serra was the head priest of a large migration of men, women, soldiers, cattle, and provisions whose goal was to establish Spanish Catholic settlements in California. Integral to this cultural and evangelical effort was the founding of California’s missions, the vast farms, cattle ranches, churches, communities, and schools that have left such an enduring mark on California. For the last fifteen years of his life, Saint Junipero was seemingly everywhere in California—walking, confirming, working, building, preaching, fasting, planning, sailing, writing, arguing, founding, and praying. He exhausted his poor, emaciated body. He was recognized by all as the indispensable man.
Father Junipero died quietly at the San Carlos Mission in Carmel just as the United States was becoming a country on the other side of the continent. He did for the West Coast what George Washington and better known founders did for the East Coast. He founded a society, in all of its complexity. Decades later, Americans migrated to far-off California, newly incorporated into the federal union, looking for gold, and were surprised to discover a distinctive culture as rugged, layered, and rich as the one they had left behind.

California’s foundational events were distinctly Catholic just as the Eastern colonies’ were distinctly Protestant. When ceremoniously inaugurating an early mission, Father Junipero said a High Mass, sang Gregorian chant, processed with an image of the Virgin Mary, and had the Spanish galleons offshore fire their cannons at the consecration. What powerful solemnity! The roots of large regions of the United States run deep into Southern, not Northern, soil, and were watered by the Catholic faith, not dissenting Protestantism. The United States was baptized Catholic but raised Protestant. Father Junipero represents the best of that “other” founding of the United States of America.

Saint Junipero Serra, inspire us to follow your example of physical perseverance, doctrinal commitment, and spiritual discipline for the good of the Church. You were a model priest, missionary, and Franciscan. May we, too, be great in all that we do. Amen.

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