(Address delivered at “Day of Reflection on Fra Junípero Serra: Apostle of California, Witness to Holiness,” hosted by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles at the Pontifical North American College, May 2, 2015)
Blessed Junípero Serra is one of the great figures in the history of the Church’s mission ad gentes — “to the nations.”
When he is declared a saint later this year, Father Serra will be the latest in a line of “missionary saints” from the Americas that Pope Francis has elevated during his pontificate.
It is clear that Pope Francis — the first pope from the New World — understands the Christian “roots” of the Americas and the continent’s importance for the Church’s mission in the 21st century.
For those of us from America, the canonization holds a rich symbolism and spiritual significance — it is even more powerful and more personal for those of us who are Hispanic and Mexican.
As we know, Hispanic immigration — and especially immigration from Mexico — is changing the face of the Church and the broader society in the United States.
So it is significant that Blessed Junípero will be America’s first Hispanic saint. He can also in some ways be described as a Mexican immigrant, having lived and worked for more than a dozen years in Mexico before coming to California.
He will be the first American saint to be canonized on American soil. And of course, he is being canonized by the first Hispanic pope — the first to speak the Spanish language as his native tongue, and a pope who himself is an immigrant’s son.
The rich symbolism of his canonization matches a time of deep uncertainty and social change in the United States.
Right now, as we know, American society is caught up in a divisive political and cultural debate over immigration and the future of its historic identity as a multicultural nation of immigrants.
This canonization also comes at a time when American society and culture are being aggressively secularized and “de-Christianized.” This process — being carried out by governing and cultural elites — raises grave questions about America’s national identity and its historic commitment to freedom of conscience, religious liberty and to a civil society that respects the rights of believers and religious institutions to help shape the common good.
Against the backdrop of these profound changes and challenges in American life, Father Serra’s canonization is providential. I believe it is a prophetic response to the signs of the times.
Father Serra’s canonization in the nation’s capital will bring graces and blessings. But it should also send a message.
His canonization should sound a call for America to return to its deep religious and intercultural roots — as a nation born from the universal mission of the Catholic Church and the encounter of the Gospel with the first nations, cultures and peoples found in this land.
His canonization should also embolden the Church with new zeal to continue her mission in our time — the continental mission of the new evangelization, creating a new world of faith and building a new city of truth and love, mercy and justice.
Towards a new conversation
But in order for his canonization to bear spiritual fruits in America, I believe we need to start a new conversation about Father Serra and the missionary era.
As we know, the pope’s announcement has opened old wounds and revived bitter memories about the treatment of Native Americans during the colonial and missionary period of America’s history.
To my mind, the critical reaction highlights just how distorted Father Serra’s legacy has become over the years. Sometimes it seems like scholars and activists have made Father Serra a symbol for everything they believe was wrong with the mission era.
Unfortunately, a lot of the arguments out there resort to old stereotypes that can be traced back to the anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda of the “black legend.” Even in the best scholarly writing, we can detect strong prejudice against Catholic beliefs and deep skepticism about the Church’s missionary project.
All of this prevents us from making an honest appraisal of Father Serra and America’s religious beginnings.
So we need a new conversation. As a way to begin that conversation, I want to offer some pastoral reflections on Father Serra’s life and ministry this morning.
In these reflections, I think we will start to see a different picture of Father Serra than the one that is often portrayed. I also think reflecting on his mission helps us to understand what America was meant to be “in the beginning” — and what America still could be in the future. And finally, I hope these reflections will lead those of us in the Church to a better appreciation of the Church’s mission in the years ahead.
The ‘Spiritual Project’ of America
I want to begin by placing Father Serra in his historical context.
In our secular, “post-Christian” age, it is perhaps an inconvenient truth to remember that — from the beginning, America was a spiritual project.
But we need to remember — in the beginning, the idea of America was rich with utopian expectation! Columbus said the Holy Spirit guided his voyages, making him a “messenger of the new heaven and the new earth.” Shakespeare called this “the brave new world.”
For the Church, these lands — from the top of what is now Canada to the tip of what is now Argentina — were the Mundus Novus. The “New World” that Jesus Christ had promised for the end of the age.
Father Serra was born into this era of missionary excitement and expectation in the early 1700s.
His birthplace of Mallorca was a leading Franciscan missionary center. Stories of the Franciscan missions and New World missionaries like St. Francis Solanus and Venerable Antonio Margil were the “stuff” of popular books and preaching.
Ramon Llull, a third order Franciscan, had started a missionary college that sent missionaries to the Holy Land, Africa, the Canary Islands and elsewhere.
Llull stressed respect for human dignity and freedom of conscience. He insisted that conversions must be based not on coercion, but on prayer and persuasion and the “inculturation” of the Gospel message in people’s language and customs.
All of these ideas would later come to define Father Serra’s own thinking and missionary practice.
And like many young priests of his generation, Father Serra’s mission was inspired and formed by the experience and writings of the Franciscan Sister María de Ágreda.
Though she had never left her little village in Spain, Sor María claimed that in the 1620s she was transported in the Spirit more than 500 times to evangelize the native peoples in New Mexico, Arizona and West Texas.
Her “bilocations” were widely reported. Testimony from indigenous peoples in the New World and investigations by Church authorities only added to the sense of mystery surrounding this mystic missionary whom the natives called the “lady in blue.”
Eventually, Church authorities asked Sor María to write an open letter to encourage missionaries and inspire more priests to enter the missions.
Her letter had such an influence on Father Serra, that his missionary companion, Father Palou, included it as an appendix to his biography of Serra.
Sor María held up the missionary as the highest form of discipleship. The missionary, she said, follows the “vocation of the Apostle” in “imitation of the Master.”
In Father Serra’s writings we find him returning again and again to this noble ideal of the missionary.
When he embarked on his missionary voyage to the New World in 1749, at the age of 35, he carried only two books with him — the Bible and Sor María’s “The Mystical City of God.”
Leaving behind his comfortable life as a theologian and preacher, he told his parents in his farewell letter: “The dignity of the Apostolic Preacher … is the highest vocation.”
My friends, this is the only way to truly understand Father Serra — and it’s the only way to truly understand the first missionaries to the Americas.
Father Serra believed — with all his heart — that the Gospel was true. And out of love, he was willing to give up everything — family and home, security and fortune, even his very life — to bring the truth of this salvation to people living on the other side of the world; people he did not know, people who did not share his language or customs.
Writing about his fellow missionaries, Father Serra said: “Our purpose was to attempt, each in his place, to win for his Most Holy Majesty, a multitude of souls.”
His own desire, he said, was “to stir up the world to undertake the spiritual conquest of this New World, and give to God, before very long, thousands of souls.”
A missionary with a father’s love
Father Serra came to this New World with a burning love for the land and its people.
He seemed to know that he was a pilgrim and a stranger in this land, a migrant missionary. In one early letter, he makes the point that he is not the first to walk these lands — only the first Christian to trod this soil.
Once, he came upon a native grave and found that the bones had been unearthed and scattered, probably by wild animals. Father Serra patiently gathered up the bones and gave them a solemn respectful burial. Concluding the simple account in his diary, he wrote: “May his soul rest in heaven!”
All of his writings reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways. It is sometimes said that Father Serra was “a man of his times.” But to tell the truth, he really wasn’t. He was far ahead of his times.
It’s amazing that in all the stories we have from his missionary journeys, all the tens of thousands of words he wrote in letters and diaries — we find hardly a hint of racist thinking or feelings of cultural superiority.
Father Serra rarely used the ordinary terms used by colonial authorities and the society of his time — words such as “barbarians” or “savages.” Instead, he referred to the native people as “gentiles” — using the biblical term for those who do not yet know the living God.
In his letters, he writes of their “gentleness and peaceful dispositions,” he records their acts of kindness and generosity toward him. He even observes the beauty of their singing voices.
He loved his people with a father’s love. Father Serra once wrote: “They are our children, for nobody except us has engendered them in Christ. And so we look upon him as a father looks upon his children.”
Protector and defender of the Indians
Father Serra was a realist. He did not idealize or romanticize the people he came to serve. For all his words about their gentleness and kindness, his writings also document many menacing encounters with the native peoples.
Of course, he survived one attack in which his assistant was shot through the head with an arrow and died in his arms as he gave him the last rites of the Church.
Writing about that later, Father Serra said:
“I was quite a while with him there dead, and my little apartment a pool of blood. Still the exchange of shots — bullets and arrows — went on. There were only four on our side against more than 20 on theirs. And there I was with the dead man, thinking most probably I would soon have to follow him, but at the same time praying to God that the victory would be for our Catholic faith without losing a single soul.”
My friends, this is classic Junípero Serra! This is the man he was! This is the Christian he was.
Surrounded by violence and bloodshed, staring his own death in the face — his only concern is for the souls of the people who are trying to kill him, the native people he came to the New World to evangelize.
We see the same love, the same tender mercy and zeal for souls, in the famous story of the burning of the San Diego Mission in 1775.
During the attack, warriors killed several people. They humiliated, tortured and executed Father Serra’s friend, a fellow missionary priest, Father Luís Jayme, making him California’s first martyr.
Nevertheless, Father Serra pleaded with colonial authorities to show mercy on the killers. Again, his motive was the salvation of souls. He said: “Let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here and the reason for forgiving him.”
Father Serra seemed to understand the rage that drove native violence and resistance to the missions.
He spoke out daily against the cruelties of soldiers and administrators. He complained bitterly that they were men “without any fear of God whatever in their hearts.” He decried the systematic rape of indigenous women and fought for the removal of military officers who did nothing to stop it.
A ‘working-class’ missionary
My friends, in my own study and reflection, I have come to the conclusion that Father Serra should be remembered as one of the great pioneers of human rights in the Americas. In my opinion, his writings and example should be studied right along with the great Dominican friars, Bartolomé de Las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos.
But Father Serra is not usually spoken of in this company. And I think I know why.
Father Serra never delivered fiery sermons like de Montesinos. He never engaged in theological and moral debates in the royal courts, as de las Casas did.
One way to think about him is that he was a kind of “working class” missionary — a guy who tried to get things done. His writing and thinking are practical, administrative. He was a problem-solver, not a prophet or philosopher of human rights.
But at the heart of everything Father Serra tried to accomplish every day was his conviction that the indigenous peoples of the New World were children of God, created in his image and endowed with God-given rights that must be promoted and defended.
In this, again, we see that Father Serra was far from a “man of his times.” For even though the popes had long before condemned slavery and the slave trade, the world of “his times” still considered the native peoples, along with African Americans, to be less than fully human.
One final point on this. In my opinion, Father’s Serra’s famous Representación of 1773 deserves to be studied as a landmark of Catholic social teaching and a primary document in the history of human rights.
Again, this document contains no beautiful poetry or rhetoric. It is a legislative memorandum. But in its 32 articles, Father Serra provides detailed practical proposals that cover virtually every aspect of government and community life — from education and communications to military defense and foreign relations; from agriculture and the economy to weights and measures, and trade.
And at the heart of the Representación is a radical call for justice for the indigenous peoples living in the missions. Father Serra demands that corrupt colonial commanders be deposed and soldiers be held to strict moral standards.
And most radical of all, he insists that “the law of nature” dictates that the Church — not the colonial powers — be entrusted exclusively with the care and governance of the natives to ensure their temporal and spiritual welfare.
A saint of Pope Francis
There is so much more to say! But let me try to suggest a few conclusions.
First, the Father Serra of history that we have been talking about is far different than the Father Serra we often read about in the newspapers and even in the pages of the historians. So as his canonization gets closer, we should try to learn more about him.
Second, in the witness and writings of Father Serra, we meet a man who was one of the true “founders” of America.
Father Serra helps us to appreciate in a new way that the missionaries were America’s true “founders.” In him we see that America’s origins were not about politics, conquest or plunder. The deepest motives of Father Serra and the missionaries who founded America were religious, spiritual and humanitarian.
In his witness and writings, we see the outlines for a new vision for America’ future — in a time of globalization and cultural encounter. We still have to work out that vision, but I believe Father Serra would have us working to build an America that promotes the encounter of cultures and seeks to protect the sanctity and dignity of the human person.
Third, I think Father Serra shows us “a way” for the Church — and especially for the Church in America.
Father Serra offers the Church an inspiring missionary spirituality, one that is rooted in the Church’s missionary identity and the missionary identity of every disciple.
Father Serra’s belief in the missionary’s noble vocation helps us to understand that every Christian is meant to be a missionary disciple — called to play a role in what Father Serra called “the spiritual conquest of this New World.”
Finally, Father Serra teaches us that the Church’s mission of evangelization is a mission of mercy. As we have seen, Father Serra had great compassion and love for the native peoples. He was a man of mercy — not only in his words but also in his actions.
And that is the Church’s mission in our day — to proclaim God’s love and mercy for every person and to protect the vulnerable and the weak.
As we can see, Father Serra’s witness is reflected in some of the key themes of Pope Francis’ pontificate — especially the themes of mercy and missionary discipleship.
So it is fitting that Junípero Serra will be remembered as a saint of Pope Francis.
Let me close with some final words from this new saint of Pope Francis. These words are both an inspiring summation of Father Serra’s sense of his missionary vocation and a call to the Church today to follow his example:
“Let us make good use of time. Our steps should be in conformity with the vocation to which God has called us; let us work out our spiritual salvation with fear and trembling, and with a burning love and zeal seek for the salvation of our brethren and neighbors. And may all the glory be to our Great God.”