Saint Junípero Serra
One of the most powerful moments from Pope Francis’ visit to Washington this past fall came at the Canonization Mass of Junípero Serra. The Holy Father stood on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception looking out at a crowd of more than 25,000 people – the first pope from the New World, and this was the first canonization on U.S. soil.
This Mass will always be a historic moment for me – I will never forget standing in front of the Pope asking him, “Holy Father, will you canonize Junípero Serra?” But it was a historic time for the Church in America and what a great moment of pride for this local Church that we were the host for the whole event.
Today on July 1, we celebrate the first feast day of Saint Junípero Serra, the great 18th century Spanish Franciscan missionary of California. When we look at the life of this newly-declared saint, we see a self-giving person totally dedicated to the spread of the Gospel. After he left Spain when he was 36 to become a missionary in the New World, Saint Junípero is thereafter credited with making his way on foot up and down the coast of California founding and overseeing mission after mission.
Traveling along California’s coastal highway today and reading the name signs for the towns and places 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, Venture (shortened from San Buenaventura) and Carmel (shortened from San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo), where Saint Junípero is buried.
In his homily at the Canonization Mass, Pope Francis said that the new saint was a witness who testified by his life and his words to the joy of the Gospel and embodied “a Church that goes forth.” The Holy Father then concluded his homily with a stirring call for action. “Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward!”
Saint Junípero “kept moving forward because the Lord was waiting. He kept going because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life,” explained the Pope before imploring the rest of us, “Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”
The Holy Father has called on today’s Catholics to be “missionary disciples,” sharing the Good News of Jesus as Christ’s witnesses in our time. For us, this means following in the footsteps of the Apostles and disciples who walked with Jesus, for we too are called to walk with Christ in our everyday lives, and help those we meet encounter our Lord through us. That work of the New Evangelization means we must first renew and deepen our own faith, grow in our confidence of its truth, and then share it with others, perhaps some who have drifted away from the faith, grown lukewarm in their convictions, or never heard the Gospel.
For Saint Junípero, that missionary work meant him setting forth on foot along California’s coast. For us, heirs to his bold missionary spirit, this work might take place around the dinner table with our family, on the soccer sidelines or carpool lines with fellow parents, during an outing with friends, by the water cooler at work while chatting with coworkers, or while visiting with neighbors. The invitation might be as simple as inviting someone to come with us to Mass, or reaching out with love to someone who is experiencing sorrow or difficulty, and offering to pray for them and help them however we can.
The missions and cities lining California’s coasts today offer tangible evidence of Saint Junípero’s evangelizing zeal and love for Christ and for those he met along his travels. May that be true of us, too, as our enthusiasm and love for our Catholic faith might spread from our hearts to the hearts of our family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
Every moment is a new opportunity to connect another person with the abundant springtime that God promises. In this, we are protagonists of hope. In this way, like the great missionary saint of California, we can “keep moving forward,” because we know, as Pope Francis said, that our Lord is waiting, and our brothers and sisters are waiting for us, to make that journey of faith together.