“Look, honey, there’s that guy again!” I overheard a woman say to her husband. “He’s all over the place!” She was pointing to the statue of Fr. Junípero Serra, which stands in front of Mission Santa Inés, where I was pastor.
I smiled as I realized what a fitting tribute her words were. From a small island off the coast of Spain, this friar crossed oceans, mountain ranges, swamps, and deserts in the service of Christ and his people. Junípero Serra was indeed a man whose faith and dedication to preaching the gospel led him “all over the place.”
Junípero was a late-blooming traveler for God, however. For the first half of his life, his whole world was the island of Mallorca, where he was born to Antonio and Margarita Serra in 1713 and baptized Miguel. Inspired by the example of St. Francis and the friars he knew personally, Serra entered the Franciscan order in 1730. He received the name Junípero, after Br. Juniper, one of St. Francis’ earliest followers, known for his prayer and simplicity.
The new Junípero was a man of prayer, but also of great learning and wisdom. He became a professor at the friars’ college on Mallorca and quickly gained respect and a satisfying ministry. But he longed for something more.
On the Road for Christ. When his order began seeking new missionaries for the Americas, Junípero volunteered. He set sail in 1749, when he was thirty-five (considered a fairly advanced age at the time), leaving behind parents, homeland, security, and all that was familiar. It was a difficult moment, but from then on, Serra followed what would become his famous motto: “Always go forward; never go back.”
When the ship landed in Veracruz, Mexico, the other friars in the party traveled on to the Franciscans’ headquarters in Mexico City by horseback. Serra decided to imitate the simplicity of St. Francis by making the 250-mile trip on foot. This began his long career of walking in service of Christ, as well as suffering for him: on that journey he got an infection in his leg that troubled him the rest of his life.
Junípero’s first assignment was to the remote and wild Sierra Gorda region of central Mexico, where Franciscan missionaries had baptized many of the Pame people. To help foster their faith and improve their material well-being, Serra rekindled efforts to establish missions—Christian communities where common prayer and work would become the foundation of a life of faith and mutual charity. He not only taught and preached but also helped design and build several mission churches. Working side by side with the indigenous people, Serra could often be found in a mud-stained habit, happily leading his fellow workers in song.
Preaching Mercy. Intelligent and talented as he was, Serra was also humble and teachable. After listening to more experienced missionaries, he dropped his academic style of preaching and learned to give passionate sermons that moved the heart. They were powerful and dramatic and could go on for hours. His message was simple: turn from sin, and seek the mercy of God. The Lord wants people “to see how it pleases him to forgive and how little is necessary to reach his divine mercy,” Serra once said. And he practiced what he preached, often going to Confession before the whole congregation to encourage them to receive the sacrament themselves.
In 1758 Serra was called back to Mexico City. He returned to teaching—at the Franciscans’ College of San Fernando—but also served as an itinerant preacher, crisscrossing Mexico to deliver sermons and parish missions in remote and dangerous regions. Despite his painful leg, it is estimated that he walked more than five thousand miles during those ten years.
It was good preparation for the next phase of his life journey, which began in 1768. For political reasons, the Jesuits had been expelled from their missions in Baja California; Franciscan friars, including Junípero, were sent to take over. To get there, he trekked through the rough desert of northern Mexico. Soon after his arrival, he was sent even farther to begin new missions in the area known as Upper, or Alta, California, today the US state.
Father of the California Missions. Alta California was at the farthest bounds of Spain’s empire in America, and the Spanish crown wanted the friars to help secure the area by converting the native peoples into loyal citizens. Whatever the government’s plans, Junípero knew why he and his fellow missionaries had journeyed to the ends of the world: “Every one of us came here for the single purpose of doing the people good and for their eternal salvation; and I feel sure that everyone knows that we love them.”
Establishing new missions and getting them on a firm foundation was not easy. “Those who come should be provided with a good stock of patience and charity,” he told his superiors. As presidente of the California missions, Serra had to deal with short supplies, an initially feeble and sometimes violent response from the native people, and the ruthlessness of military men who accompanied the missionaries. Once, when some natives ate horses that had strayed from the Spaniards’ corrals, the soldiers reacted with deadly force. Serra protested, insisting that they were supposed to be examples of Christian charity. In 1773 he journeyed all the way back to the viceroy’s office in Mexico City to advocate for better treatment of the natives by the military.
All this time, Serra continued to evangelize, and his efforts bore fruit. He baptized several hundred natives and, over fifteen years, founded nine missions. He supervised the whole system, ceaselessly making the rounds to encourage, troubleshoot, and administer the sacraments. Despite physical ailments and political struggles, he never lost his enthusiasm for preaching God’s word and being a good shepherd.
Love God! What enables a person to keep up so many travels and maintain zeal for Christ amid countless challenges? Junípero Serra found his strength and joy through a life of intense personal prayer. Even when he was ill, he found time and energy for the Lord! As one observer commented, “This saintly priest is always well when it comes to praying and singing.”
Junípero was also energized by his ongoing desire to imitate the simple, humble way of St. Francis. His favorite act of humility was to wash the feet of other people, whether friars or the elders of the native peoples. Serra’s poverty and simplicity are evident in the room at Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel), where he died in 1784. Its contents are few: a simple bed and desk; his habit, with crucifix, cord, and rosary; and the staff with which he walked the length of California many times.
Junípero died after receiving the Eucharist on his knees in the mission church. Professing publicly his love for God and for the people of his beloved California, he spoke one last evangelistic reminder: “Amar a Dios! (Love God!)”
The legacy of the California mission system, which collapsed about fifty years after Junípero Serra’s death, is not unambiguous. Both disease and political changes led to the decline of the native population of California and the near destruction of their culture. Serra, who loved the people and worked so hard to do them good, would have been appalled.
This humble friar was a human being, with all the limitations that come from living in a particular time and culture. But he was always ready to admit his mistakes and always serious about following the example of Christ, even when that meant opposing the system. When some of the Indians at Mission San Diego killed a friar, for example, Junípero successfully pleaded for their lives.
Always Forward. Junípero Serra was a man who knew the difficulties and dangers of being on the road. Following Christ’s call led him among mosquitoes and crocodiles, scorpions and spiders. It led him into political battles, when he would have preferred the quiet of a classroom. It led him to lonely days and nights, and moments when he questioned the worth of all his efforts. But through it all, he stayed faithful to his calling. He is an example to all of us who try to live the gospel in the real world, conscious of our own limitations, as well as those of others. He encourages us to put discouragement aside and, with the help of God’s grace, to move siempre adelante—(always forward).
Out of love for Christ and his people, Junípero Serra walked to the ends of the earth to proclaim the good news. When Pope Francis canonizes the Mallorcan friar in September, it is this zeal and love that he wants to encourage in all of us. May we, too, be ready and willing to travel “all over the place” in God’s service.
Fr. Robert Barbato serves on the leadership council of the Western American province of the Capuchin Franciscans and on the formation team at San Lorenzo Seminary, Santa Ynez, California.