America's New Saint, Junípero Serra
...[W]e declare and define Blessed Junípero Serra to be a Saint and we enroll him among the Saints, decreeing that he is to be venerated as such by the whole Church.
Yesterday Pope Francis, with these words, canonized Junípero Serra. This humble Spanish Franciscan friar is one of America's Founding Fathers, California's Founding Father, the first United States Latino Saint and the first saint canonized on American soil. From the homily at the canonization Mass, Pope Francis summarizes the work and life of Junípero Serra:
Today we remember one of those witnesses who testified to the joy of the Gospel in these lands, Father Junípero Serra. He was the embodiment of “a Church which goes forth”, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God. Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life. He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.
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! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He 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. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!
All of the news and social media are abuzz with the visit of Pope Francis to the United States and the canonization of this new Franciscan friar saint. It's not too late to join the excitement and celebrate this new saint.
I'm sharing 6 thoughts on St. Junípero Serra's life and example in no particular order:
- No Revisionist History -- Souls come First. American Catholics should really be embracing this new saint, especially because this canonization is a beacon of light and truth. The Church isn't swayed by the prevalent revisionist history of the modern era, nor is She accepting the popular idea that Indigenous people would have been better off if Catholics would have just left them alone.
This canonization of a Spanish Franciscan missionary who founded the first 9 of the 21 California missions, baptized over 6,000 Native Americans and dedicated his life in loving, caring, teaching and evangelizing them sends the message that the Church doesn't give into popular trends but follows the teachings of Jesus, Who said to go out to all the world and bring the joy of the Gospel to all. The Church recognizes Fray Junípero's love of Christ in his work of conversion of souls and caring of the human person, even to the humblest soul in the farthest corners of the earth.
- Our Petite Saint. Junípero Serra was only 5'2". His life is an illustration that there are no physical limitations with God. He doesn't judge our size or shape. Even people of small stature can do great things. Nothing is impossible for those that love, embrace and live His will daily. As I'm only 1/2" taller than Junípero, I'm happy to have a vertically-challenged saint to invoke.
- Daily Battle With Physical Handicaps. St. Junípero didn't begin his New World mission work until the age of 36. He was healthy and robust, but soon after he landed in Mexico, a reaction to an insect bite caused problems with his leg the rest of his life, manifesting into swelling, pain, itching and varicose ulcers, causing him to be crippled the rest of his life. This affliction stayed with him the entire time he worked as a missionary until his death at age 70. His example is a lesson for us that while our illness, fatigue, physical ailments can slow us down, but we should never allow them to stop our work in the Kingdom of God. Imitating Junípero's life and motto, we must keep moving forward!
- Slow and steady. St. Junípero's life wasn't about reaching a grand goal of achievement, but accomplishing God's will each day, embracing the slow and steady work every day. He experienced God's love and mercy through every moment. Pope Francis described this work perfectly:
Mission is born of a constant experience of God’s merciful anointing. Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual. Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed, encountered and forgiven. Mission is born of a constant experience of God’s merciful anointing.
St. Junípero's life is such a good reminder that our work as part of the Mystical Body might not make headlines. In worldly eyes, it may be of no consequence, but we must keep our eyes on God to accomplish His work in our lives. We shouldn't keep looking back at our results or get discouraged at the pace. We must recognize that God's work is always a slow work.
Examining Our Motives. When Junípero was making his way to the New World, particularly the wild and unsettled Upper California, he wasn't thinking about making discoveries, achieving grand goals to make him famous, or gaining riches. What kept him motivated was to bring Christ to souls who had never encountered Him; he was there to do God's work and share the Gospel. We are not all religious, but we are all called to do the work of Christ everyday. It is not about worldly recognition and acclamations. Junípero's example helps us to remember to balance our life's work and have the right motives.
God can call us at any age. He may still have big plans for us, even if we are no longer young. I think there is a prevalent idea that by our 40s there are no more chances for big roles in our life, that God only calls the young. But Serra had lived a little more than half his life before he started his work as a missionary at age 36. And even then, the missionary work of founding the California missions didn't begin until 19 years later, at the age of 55. His life is such a reminder that we can't become complacent, but must always be listening and ready to answer God's call for us.
St. Junípero Serra lived from 1713-1784, over 200 years ago, but his life and example are relevant to all of us who are striving to reach his same goals: loving Jesus, sharing the joy of the Gospel, and reaching heaven.