Franciscan Friar Junípero Serra lived a successful, comfortable 18th-century life as a scholar and university lecturer on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca, where he preached a theology of God’s incredible, unreasonable love. Saint Junípero Serra abandoned that life, taking with him only the certainty that God was calling him to discipleship, to be a witness of God’s love.
On Sept. 23, during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis canonized Serra, saint of missions and patron of vocations, in Washington, D.C. The pope has described Serra as one of the “founding fathers” of the United States, a protector of the native peoples, devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and “the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth.’”
“The pope is calling us to live a new way of life, to take risks ourselves,” said Deacon Bill Ditewig, diaconate director for the Diocese of Monterey, California. “He’s telling us to model this aspect of Serra’s life, calling on us to be the hands of God’s mercy in the world.”
Ditewig added, “The pope wants us to have the courage that Serra had, to leave behind our own comfort zone and proclaim Christ to the modern world.”
Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall said that Serra’s canonization should prompt Catholics to “awaken our mission spirit in the United States. His missionary dedication is an inspiration for our own missionary efforts.”
Serra was born on Mallorca, Spain, in 1713, entered the Franciscan order when he was just shy of 17, and became a brilliant scholar and lecturer. He sailed to Mexico in 1749.
After a brutal 99-day crossing, he landed in Veracruz and chose to walk to Mexico City. He was following an older Rule of St. Francis, which discouraged travel by horseback or carriage. During his walk Serra was tortured by mosquito and spider bites, and his legs and feet swelled and ulcerated. At times over the rest of his life, he would sometimes be unable to stand.
The pain, however, didn’t stop him from eagerly volunteering to serve away from the more sheltered life at the college, instead working as a missionary in the Sierra Gordas, mountains northeast of Mexico City. The area was an especially difficult and unpopular assignment. Missionaries sickened in its humid climate. Serra’s zeal, however, inspired others and the Sierra Gordas were re-evangelized.
In 1769, Serra traveled to what would become the state of California. From 1769 until 1782 he founded the first nine of California’s 21 beautiful Franciscan missions, institutions inseparable from Serra himself.
When hundreds of Kumeyaay Indians attacked the San Diego Mission in 1775 and killed two Christians and a priest—a friend of Serra’s—the Spanish military governor captured several of the Kumeyaay warriors and intended to execute them. Serra appealed to the viceroy. “As to the killer, let him live so that he can be saved,” Serra wrote, “for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification.” He saved the Kumeyaays’ lives.
Rubén Mendoza, an archeologist of tribal descent and a professor at California State University, Monterey Bay, also traveled to Washington to attend the canonization. He said, “If you analyze Pope Francis’ message, it’s one of faith, charity, hope and humanity— which is the work of the missionary.”
Missionaries, both yesterday and today, he continued, go into communities wracked by poverty and crime, and they go in with both the news of redemption and faith and also with the hope of bettering life for their adopted community. “That’s what Serra represents,” said Mendoza.
Speaking to American seminarians earlier this year, Pope Francis praised Serra’s zeal. Serra, he said, was part of a missionary corps who “went out to all the geographical, social and existential peripheries” of their time to proclaim the Gospel. “Such zeal excites us,” the pope said.
During the canonization Mass, the pope recalled Serra’s motto, “Siempre Adelante” (Always Keep Moving Forward). “He kept going forward to the end of his life,” the pope said. “Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward.”