Junipero Serra and His Witness for Today: Part I of II

St. Paul once wrote that If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, [then] we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19).

Junipero Serra, a spiritual son of Francis of Assisi, had a burning zeal in all things related to Jesus Christ. The key question facing every Christian in every age isn’t whether the Christian faith is socially useful, or consoles us when we’re sad, or makes us nicer people. The key question is whether our faith is true.

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead – and I don’t mean “metaphorically” rise, as a kind of shared emotional experience of the Apostles; but rise in his crucified body, glorified by his Father – then we’re misleading ourselves with a fairytale. But if he did rise, then the Gospel is true. And then all of creation, and the eternity of every living man and woman, depends on Christ’s Good News being preached.

So in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19-20), he’s not merely offering an invitation. He’s also bidding a commission, a mandate, to every one of his disciples.

Francis of Assisi heard the Gospel, and believed, and acted on it. Junipero Serra heard the Gospel, and believed, and acted on it.

And now for us, the whole point of the Year of Faith boils down to the same questions: Do we really believe; and if we do, then what are we going to do about it?

Serra’s life story is well known. But a few details are worth remembering here. He was born Miguel Joseph Serra in the Mallorcan town of Petra. He entered the Franciscans as a teenager and took the name “Junipero,” after the early friend and companion of St. Francis. Serra had a supple, inquisitive, brilliant mind combined with tremendous personal energy. He became an accomplished theologian and philosopher. He had a successful career as a university lecturer and scholar until the age of 36, when he felt a calling to the missions and left for Mexico.

Early in his Mexican service Serra suffered a leg wound, probably a snake or insect bite, that pained him for the rest of his life. But he still walked thousands of miles in his mission work with the native peoples of Baja and Alta California.

He founded Mission San Diego de Alcala – the first mission in the modern state of California – in 1769 at the ripe old age of 56. He went on to found eight more California missions personally. He also developed the system that would eventually include 21 California missions spanning hundreds of miles and many thousands of native converts to the Catholic faith.

In his years of mission leadership, he fought many times with military and political leaders inNew Spainwho sought to abuse or exploit the Indian population. He could be a demanding father to his native converts, but he was fierce in defending their dignity from the colonial authorities.

He also had remarkable organizational skills. He was a shrewd manager of the missions’ material resources. He identified and cultivated his own successor years in advance. And he introduced products like grapes, lemons, oranges, sheep, and cattle that later became key to the state’s agricultural economy.

He died in 1784, at the age of 70, at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. Today both state and federal authorities in the United States honor his memory for the impact he had on the development of modern California.

Serra’s life can be summed up in the qualities that set him apart. First, he had humility. As an adult, Serra was a respected man of learning; a revered and comfortable university professor. He put all that aside – in a century when 36 was middle aged – for a life of uncertainty and hardship on the other side of the world. That’s humility.

Second, he was a man of audacity. I almost said “courage,” and Serra certainly had courage.  But courage is too small a word. Serra had courage married to imagination, confidence and ambition; an ambition for God, not for personal glory. That’s audacity. That’s the kind of courage that transforms lives and history.

He also had foresight in his planning, endurance in making those plans happen, political skill in dealing with authority, and superior leadership ability with a very limited mix of people and resources under brutally difficult conditions. That’s a kind of genius.

He also had one other quality that animated all the others: a zealous Franciscan faith. But we’ll come back to that later. Meanwhile I want to turn to our task in measuring Serra the man. And that requires us to understand the pastoral terrain we face as Christians right now, today.

We should probably start by realizing that some of the same civil authorities that once happily honored Father Serra with statues in Golden Gate Park and the U.S. Capitol building now work even harder to restrict the freedom of American religious communities, force the Church out of public debate, and impose same-sex “marriage” as the law. Father Serra gave his life to the task of bringing the Gospel to the New World. But the “new world” we actually have in A.D. 2013 is alien to almost anything Serra could have imagined.

Read Part II here.

Editor’s Note: This is an abridged version of an address given by Archbishop Chaput at the Serra International Convention in Mallorca on 22 June 2013. Reprinted with permission.

Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., Cap., D.D. was installed as the 13th bishop and ninth archbishop of Philadelphia on September 8, 2011. Archbishop Chaput was ordained Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, on July 26, 1988. Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Denver on February 18, 1997, and he was installed on April 7 the same year. As a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, Archbishop Chaput was the second Native American to be ordained a bishop in the United States, and the first Native American archbishop. He chose as his episcopal motto: “As Christ Loved the Church” (Ephesians 5:25). He is author of two books: Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (Servant, 2001) and Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday, 2008); and numerous talks, articles and pastoral letters. His writings, discourses, and homilies are available here.
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