Pope Francis – who encourages today’s Catholics to be missionary disciples and share the Good News of Jesus with those they encounter in their everyday lives – will during his September visit to Washington canonize one of the greatest Catholic missionaries in our nation’s history, Junípero Serra, O.F.M.
The outdoor Papal Mass on September 23 on the east steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception overlooking the mall of The Catholic University of America will mark the first canonization in the United States. Father Serra, whose feast we celebrate today, established nine missions along the coast of California between 1769 and 1784 while evangelizing the region’s native peoples.
The National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol includes a statute of Junípero Serra, representing the state of California. It is hard to imagine another person who has left such an impact on any state in the Union as has this quiet, modest, faith-filled Franciscan.
A native of Spain, the Franciscan priest was a teacher who at the age of 36 left the classroom in his home country to become a missionary in the New World, answering Christ’s call to bring the Gospel to “the ends of the earth” (cf. Acts 1:8). After serving in Mexico for nearly 20 years, he began the chapter of his life for which he is most famous – the evangelization of California.
Junípero Serra is thereafter credited with making his way on foot up and down the coast of California founding and overseeing mission after mission, whose names continue to dot the landscape. Traveling along the coastal highway and reading the name signs for the towns and cities that grew out of those missions is like reciting a Litany of the Saints – San Diego, San Luis Obispo, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Santa Barbara, Ventura (shortened from San Buenaventura), and Carmel (shortened from San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo), where Junípero Serra is buried.
The first mission was established on July 16, 1769, in San Diego. The 900-mile journey there was hard and many in the expedition died along the way. As Saint John Paul II noted in the beatification of Junípero Serra, this was “a field of missionary work that required patience, perseverance and humility, as well as foresight and courage.”
It is estimated that during his ministry, Junípero Serra baptized approximately 6,000 of the native peoples and confirmed about 5,000. In addition to bringing them Christ and life in the Spirit, he introduced agriculture and irrigation systems for their benefit. Moreover, contrary to the false narrative that has arisen in some quarters, Junípero Serra was caring and protective of native people, working to keep them from being mistreated or morally tainted by the Spanish military and government officials.
Today, Father Serra’s legacy continues in a special way in the work of members of the Serra Club – men and women devoted to fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Pope Francis celebrated a May 2 Mass at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, at the end of a conference on the life and legacy of this amazing missionary. The pope called him “one of the founding fathers of the United States,” and he said the future saint should inspire Catholics in the Americas today to become missionaries, motivated by “the joy of the Gospel.” He said this holy man, who will become the nation’s first Hispanic saint, demonstrates the important role that group of Catholics and their descendants have had historically and continue to have in the United States.
The first pope from the Americas said the meeting and Mass honoring “Fra Junipero” offered a “meaningful introduction to my apostolic trip to the United States of America.” During the Mass, he prayed that “the life of our American continent may be rooted ever more deeply in the Gospel it has received; (and) that Christ may be ever more present in the lives of individuals, families, peoples and nations, for the greater glory of God.”
Like this soon-to-be canonized saint who walked along the coast of California sharing the Gospel, we too are called to holiness as we step forward in our daily lives and bring to others the love of Jesus Christ and his Gospel message and help make his kingdom come in our midst, here and now.