Today, July 1, is the commemoration of Blessed Junipero Serra, apostle and patron of the great land of California. Today we need his intercession more than ever.
In him the Catholic tradition was alive and incarnate. By “tradition” I mean not simply the doctrinal deposit of faith, but the living tradition of the Church—a spiritual reality that is enfleshed in the lives of saints and can be experienced as an intense communion not only with the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary, but with all the saints throughout the ages. Blessed Junípero experienced this depth of communion in the Church’s tradition. In him the Catholic tradition was alive and therefore “communicable.”
There are three ways in which Serra mediates the Church’s tradition to us. First, he mediates the tradition of Spanish Catholicism—a tradition of great devotion and heroism. When we think of Spanish Catholicism we think of the persistent struggle for the faith against domination by the Moors—a struggle that lasted over seven centuries. We think, too, of the Church’s great love for Mary and of the spiritual protection of the Spanish Church by the Apostle St. James. The shrine of St. James at Compestela was one of the three great centers of pilgrimage for the medieval Church. The Spanish Church was always ready to undertake the most heroic sacrifices for the defense and spread of the Catholic faith. This zeal was carried by Serra and other missionaries to Mexico and the American southwest. This tradition of zeal, of sacrifice, and of suffering is depicted in the vivid realism of Spanish portrayals of the Crucifix. The event in Serra’s life that most expresses this heroic quality of Spanish Catholicism is when he made the overland journey from Baja, California to establish the first mission at San Diego—he walked a couple hundred miles through desert terrain with an ulcerous wound on his leg. It was his own “Via Dolorosa,” and the direct fruit of this suffering was the very establishment of the missions in California.
The second way in which Blessed Junípero Serra mediates the Church’s tradition to us is as a spiritual son of St. Francis of Assisi. The Franciscan tradition is a rich expression of the evangelical life, an expression that particularly highlights the value of humility, simplicity and poverty. The simplicity of Serra can be seen by walking back into the mission museum of Carmel and looking at the cell where he spent the last days of his life. He was a deeply humble man. We think of him primarily as a missionary, but his first ministry as a priest was as a professor of theology in Mallorca. He was an intellectual and gave up the life of books and university orations in order to live in simplicity and poverty among native peoples. Palóu’s account of Serra’s journey from Vera Cruz to Mexico City just after his arrival in the New World is a wonderful revelation of the Franciscan charism that animated Serra. On that journey, Blessed Junípero chose to forgo the use of a horse and traveled with no provisions. These and other acts of self-denial were not primarily signs of heroic self-effort on the part of Serra, but rather the fruit of a very deep spiritual life based upon the evangelical vision that animated St. Francis. The original rule of the Franciscans consisted of three words from the gospels. “If you wish to be perfect sell what you have and give to the poor.” “Take nothing with you on your journey.” And, “whoever wishes to come after me must take up His cross and follow me.”
Finally, the third way in which Blessed Junípero mediates the Church’s tradition to us is especially important for us in the New World: Serra is a bearer of the grace of Guadalupe. There is actually an icon of Serra that shows him carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. When Serra arrived in Mexico City after the journey from Vera Cruz, the first thing he did—before even joining the Franciscan brethren at the College of San Fernando—was to stop at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and offer a Mass of thanksgiving.
It is no exaggeration to say that the intervention of Our Lady of Guadalupe is responsible for the conversion of the Mexican people to the Catholic faith. She literally ignited a fire of conversion, of faith and of devotion that to this day runs very deep in the Mexican soul. Before the appearance of Our Lady to Juan Diego in 1531, the Spanish missionaries had had only meager success in evangelizing the native peoples in Mexico after the conquest by Cortez. But in the seven years after the Virgin’s appearances to Juan Diego, there were around eight million conversions and baptisms among the natives. Someone has worked out the math of this astonishing spiritual transformation, comparing it to the conversion of 5,000 people on the day of Pentecost after the preaching by the Apostle St. Peter. The eight million conversions in seven years is equivalent to a Pentecost a day for seven years.
In the two thousand-year history of the Church, the grace of Guadalupe stands in a class by itself. Again, it is a grace that is not confined to the past, but one that endures to this day, bringing glory to God and bearing enormous fruit for the Church. For three hundred years after Our Lady’s intervention at Guadalupe, Mexico City was the hub for a far flung missionary enterprise that covered an enormous territory—Baja and Alta California, northern Mexico, southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Everywhere the missionaries went they carried the grace of Guadalupe, rooting all their missionary efforts in the fruitful womb of Mary. In the 1580s, there was even a Spanish mission in southern Georgia devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The first college established in California, in the 1830s at Santa Inez Mission, was named Our Lady of Guadalupe College. Without the grace of Guadalupe, it is hard for us to imagine the existence of much of North American Catholicism. Rightly, therefore, has Pope John Paul II called Our Lady of Guadalupe “the star of the first and the new evangelization” for the Catholics in this hemisphere. Junípero Serra was one of many missionaries who was a bearer of this grace of Guadalupe. He recognized and served the plan of God for this hemisphere that was unfolding within the maternal embrace of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Online books of Old California:
The fickle world ofttimes applauds the rise
Of men whose laurels are but vainly won,
Whose deeds their names could not immortalize
For their soul-toils were wrought for transient ends;
But heroes of the Cross, they truly great
Shall live, their halo shall no hand of fate
Have power to rob, albeit oblivious years
May veil the radiance of their glorious works,
Or slight their excellence, their light appears
But brighter, statelier in its splendor calm,
Or like the flowers that sleep through winter’s snow
To bloom more fair, their lives’ pure beams shall glow
With greater brilliance and sweetly gleam
As lodestars in the firmament of worth;
Such is the memory whose holy stream
Of noblest virtue, valor, truth and Faith,
Illumes our path and stirs our souls today,
Immortal Serra by whose tomb we pray!
What peerless aureole wreathes his saintly brow?
What stately monument doth bear his name?
Let this admiring thousands tell us now!
Let youthful lips pronounce his name with love!
Let California proudly sing his praise!
Let scions of fair Spain their voices raise,
And tell of him to whom so much we owe,
Tell of his interceding power with God,
His strong and lofty soul his children know,
His prayers where Carmel’s River flows so clear;
O this his aureole, this his monument,
The lasting kind which ne’er will know descent.
Serra Prayer for Canonization:
O Lord Jesus Christ, reward the apostolic zeal of your Seraphic son, Blessed Junipero Serra, who
leaving his home and fatherland, labored for the salvation of souls in Spain, Mexico, and California.
By Your Most Holy Name may he be raised to the full honors of the altar. Through the intercession
of Blessed Serra, look with favor on my special prayers which have no earthly answer.
This we pray through Christ our Lord. Amen.