1 JULY 2009. Today, in the United States, is the optional memorial of Blessed Junipero Serra, priest.
The American Revolution began in the east in 1776, but at the same time on the other side of the continent, the catholic missions were spreading into what would become the State of California. That same year, 1776, the Franciscans founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, which is famous now for its annually returning swallows. In fact, San Juan Capistrano was the seventh of nine missions established under Father Serra.
Father Junipero Serra was born in Spain on the island of Majorca on November 24, 1713. In 1730 Serra joined the Franciscan order and was soon noted for his academic abilities. Even before his ordination to the priesthood, he was appointed as lector of philosophy. Father Serra later received a Doctor of Theology and was a professor at the Lullian University at Palma and the missionary college of San Fernando, Mexico. But, Father Serra suddenly gave up his academics and, following his yearning, set out for the new world to convert the native peoples to Christianity.
After arriving in Vera Cruz, Mexico, Father Serra and a companion walked the 250 miles to Mexico City. Along the way Father Serra injured his leg (it is told his leg became infected from an insect bite) and the injury plagued him the rest of his life. For 18 years Father Serra worked to establish missions in Central Mexico and the Baja Peninsula.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
At his own request Father Serra was assigned to the Sierra Gorda Indian Missions. He served there for nine years, part of the time as superior. He learned the language of the Pame Indians and translated the catechism into their language. Recalled to Mexico, he became famous as a most fervent and effective preacher of missions. His zeal frequently led him to employ extraordinary means in order to move the people to penance. He would pound his breast with a stone while in the pulpit, scourge himself, or apply a lighted torch to his bare chest. In 1767 he was appointed superior of a band of fifteen Franciscans for the Indian Missions of Lower California.In 1769 Father Serra joined a land expedition going north into California. The first mission founded in California was at San Diego. In San Diego food ran short and the mission was in danger of being cancelled. Father Serra and another friar, vowing to stay with the native people began a novena in preparation for St. Joseph's Day, March 19, the scheduled day of departure. And, on that day the relief ship arrived at San Diego.
Other missions followed: Monterey/Carmel (1770); San Antonio and San Gabriel (1771); San Luís Obispo (1772); San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara (1777); San Buenaventura (1782). Twelve more were founded after Serra’s death.
In 1773, Father Serra made the long trip to Mexico City to settle differences that he had with the expedition's military commander. Of the 32 articles that Father Serra brought, all but two were decided in his favor. These included the famous "Regulation" which protected the native peoples and missions. In fact, this regulation is said to have been the basis for the first significant legislation in California, a "Bill of Rights" for Native Americans.
Because the Spanish considered the Native Americans to be living inhuman lives, Father Serra and the other friars were made their guardians. Father Serra kept the Native Americans at the missions, lest they be corrupted to return to their non-Christian manner of living. While Father Serra was criticized by some "moderns" for his paternal treatment of the native peoples, their grief at his death was a witness to their love for him. Father Serra died in Montery, California on August 28, 1784 and is buried at Mission San Carlo Borromeo, in Carmel.
All of Father Serra's missionary life was marked by struggle with physical ailments, cold and hunger, and unsympathetic military commanders. Through this, Father Serra managed to hold on to an unquenchable zeal, which he fed by nightly prayer, often from midnight to dawn. In his missionary work, Father Serra baptized more than 6,000 and confirmed more than 5,000.
Besides extraordinary fortitude, Father Serra was most known for his zeal, love of mortification, self-denial, and absolute confidence in God. His executive abilities has been especially noted by non-Catholic writers. There is a granite monument erected to him at Montery (the patron of which was a non-Catholic). A bronze statute of heroic size represents him as the apostolic preacher in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. And, in 1884 the California Legislature passed a concurrent resolution making 29 August of that year, the centennial of Father Serra's burial, a legal holiday.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Serra.