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Catholic Heroes… St. Junipero Serra

June 28, 2016 saints No Comments


With the supremacy of the Spanish navy, the discovery of the New World, and the founding of the Jesuit order, the distances that Catholic missionaries traveled increased dramatically. St. Francis Xavier, after arriving in India, spent many years sailing all over Southeast Asia.
However, either by land or by sea, few saints have traveled more than St. Junipero Serra.
There is a lovely island about 200 miles east of Spain called Majorca, where the small village of Petra is located. In this village lived Antonio Nadal Serra, and Margarita Rosa Ferra, two farmers. On the day of the future saint’s birth, November 24, 1713, they took him to the church for Baptism, giving him the name Miguel José.
As a child, Miguel attended the Franciscan primary school some years before his parents took him 42 miles to Palma, the main city on the west coast of the island. In Palma they entrusted their son to the care of the cathedral canon, where Miguel helped teach philosophy in the San Francisco Franciscan monastery. (This monastery, still maintained by the Franciscans, has a statue of Junipero Serra in front of its church.)
On September 14, 1730, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Miguel entered the novitiate at the Convento de Jesus on the outskirts of Palma. The following year on September 15, 1731, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Miguel made his first profession of vows, choosing the name Junipero in memory of the brother companion of St. Francis of Assisi.
Next, Junipero studied philosophy and theology in preparation for the priesthood. Although the exact date of his Ordination has not been recorded, it most likely occurred in December 1738.
Four years later he received his doctorate in theology from Lullian University in Palma, and he was soon nominated for the Scotus Chair in Philosophy. Serra then realized a call to go to Latin America as a missionary.
Fr. Junipero sailed for the Americas, on April 13, 1749. He and his companion, Fr. Francisco Palou, landed at Vera Cruz, Mexico, on December 7, 1749.
From Vera Cruz, located on the east coast of Mexico, Fr. Junipero walked 250 miles to Mexico City, even though horses were offered to him. His last stop on this journey was at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe — a small church on the hill built where our Lady had appeared more than 200 years previously. The next day, January 1, 1750, they finally arrived at San Fernando College in Mexico City.
Thus began a new year as well as a new era of mission development in Mexico. Six months after his arrival, the Franciscan community called for volunteers to begin missions in nearby Sierra Gorda, a lovely reserve with waterfalls, deep valleys, and plush vegetation 100 miles due north of Mexico City.
Fr. Junipero eagerly answered the call for missionaries, and served the Pame Indians there for eight years until 1758. He organized the construction of a church and also worked to improve the lives of the Indians with projects to develop their economy.
His dark complexion, dark skin, brown eyes, and dark hair drew the Indians. Furthermore, his strong constitution and golden voice served him well in his missionary efforts. These characteristics coupled with his zeal, dynamic personality, and optimism — by God’s grace — brought success to his efforts. Finally, his deep passionate love for the people and his firm discipline also brought good results.
From 1751 to 1754, as superior of the missionaries in Sierra Gordo, he led the construction of four other mission churches. These five missions have been named World Heritage Sites under the protection of UNESCO.
Fr. Junipero did not simply go to Sierra Gordo to preach and build churches. As a priest who loved others for the love of Christ, he determinedly set about learning who these people in this new land were. He not only learned their language and studied their customs, but he also created a pictographic method for communicating with the Otomi people. In this way he preached and taught the people both liturgical and popular devotions.
He brought domestic animals for the people to raise and taught them agriculture, so that they could develop a system of commerce enabling them to raise their standard of living. In many ways, he became one of them by working in the fields, tending the animals, and laboring on the construction of the mission churches.
Perhaps most important, he defended the rights of these Mexican people from the attempt of foreigners to come in and take over the Tancama Valley for their own farms.
After eight years of this intense labor for the Catholic Church, Fr. Junipero obediently returned to the College of San Fernando. From 1758 to 1761 he served as a confessor and college counselor, and from 1761 to 1764 he directed the choir and was master of novices. He also gave missions which required him to travel thousands of miles throughout the territory of Mexico: to Mexico City, Mezquital, Zimapan, Rio Vero, Puebla, and Oaxaca.
In 1767, Fr. Junipero received an appointment to take over the missions previously run by the Jesuits in Baja California. (The Jesuits did not abandon these missions, but were forced to leave because of the Jesuit Suppression from 1750 to 1773.)
So Fr. Junipero began the tedious and long journey to Loreto in Baja California, the Mexican peninsula on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. After nine months, he arrived at Loreto on April 1.
Residing in the former Jesuit residence, he served the missions as far south as San José del Cabo and as far north as Santa Maria. This exhausting work not only sustained these missions, but also fired his zeal to do even more.
In 1768 he volunteered to go to Upper California in order to evangelize more people. Thus he left Loreto on March 28, 1769 for California, where he built many more missions over the next 15 years including San Diego, San Carlos, Monterey-Carmel, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, and San Buenaventura.
Fr. Junipero stayed primarily at San Diego until April 14, 1774 when he left for Monterey where he spent the rest of his life. On August 28, 1784, at Mission San Carlos, Fr. Junipero died. He was 70 years old.
On September 25, 1988, Pope St. John Paul II beatified Fr. Junipero Serra at St. Peter’s in the Vatican. On September 23, 2015, Pope Francis canonized Fr. Serra at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. His feast is celebrated on July 1.
Dear Fr. Serra, you sacrificed everything to spread the Good News in the New World. Look on the spiritual state of the lands you once traversed and pray for us. Guide us and obtain for us the zeal of saving souls, especially those most in need of God’s mercy. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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