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Saint Junipero Serra, from philosophy to practice

Only four of Father Junipero's sermons survived to be read by modern eyes. I'm sure we can thank either the university he worked for or the beautiful souls at the convent where he preached these Lenten homilies, or maybe both, for preserving his words.

I encourage everyone to pray with Father Junipero's words. You will find them in the appendix of Beebe & Senkawicz's 2015 publication of Before Gold: California under Spain and Mexico, Volume 3. Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the transformation of a missionary from the University of Oklahoma Press. 

Should you take the time, you will find Father enthusiastic and foreshadowing his approach to his missionary assignment in New Spain and Alta California. The sermons are titled:

  • First sermon: Of the sweetness of God in His divine calls: “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” Psalm 33

  • Second sermon: Of the sweetness of God in His Divine Law

  • Third sermon: Of the gentleness of the Lord even in the sufferings He sends us: Taste and see, Psalm 33

  • Fourth sermon: Of the sweetness of the Lord in His mercy

Simply the titles of each sermon indicate his evangelical style. In the first sermon, he summarizes a 13th-century friar, Don Ricardo de San Lorenzo, "Taste and see. Sweet in His word; sweet in His yoke; sweet in His scourging; sweet in the forgiveness of sins; and, in the end, sweetest of all in the bestowal of His rewards." He believes with his whole being that an encounter with God will awaken the indigenous peoples and they will be won over to the Kingdom of Heaven. They will taste and see just how good the Lord God is.

In his second sermon, Father refers to the Divine Law as sweet and gentle, the easy yoke and light burden from Matthew 11:30. The essence of God's law is the foundation on which he builds his missionary zeal.

His third sermon in the series takes up the topic of suffering and trials in this life. Pain and labor can be gifts from God. Please, remember to see Father through 18th-century lenses rather than our own as we explore this sermon. There was a worldview of spare the rod and spoil the child. He quotes Psalm 22, "Your rod and your staff comfort me", implying a belief that suffering and trials in this life were providential discipline, a way to prepare oneself for the heavenly kingdom. "The punishments of a father...are punishments of pure love." Then, he also quotes Saint Aloysius as a salve for the wounds, “Tribulations in this life are a preeminent gift of God." "Do not consider the trials and tribulations which you experience and you see others undergoing as punishment from God. Think of them instead as manifestations of the great compassion and gentle goodwill of the Lord....How could it not be a consolation to see ourselves with difficulties and travails!"

In the notes and reports from the Alta California padres, we see this approach to conversion, this relative anthropology, played out in Father's statement, "But you will say, how can the tender love of a father for his child be reconciled with punishing and afflicting him? Actually, a harmony between love and strictness is what characterizes a true father. It is precisely because the father loves him that he teaches him to obey. When he misbehaves, the father scolds and punishes him so that the son can correct his mistakes. Because he does not want his son to turn out wrong, he takes him out to the field to teach him to work." He wraps up the sermon with a quote from Louis de Blois, a 16th-century Flemish monk, "The slightest annoyance, tolerated for the love of God, is not only of tremendous value, but exceeds many other great instances of good works. God knows the value of the trials and tribulations suffered in this life. If only we knew how to calculate their worth, how soft and wonderful we would find them to be!"

(I'd also point out that many friars practiced some degree of self-flagellation. While seen as barbaric by today's standards, they were committed to suffering in this life to build up reward in heaven.)

Father rounds out the homily series by circling back to God's mercy in the fourth. "Just as a tender father is moved to pity because of the misfortunes of his children, so our God and Lord, in His infinite mercy, sympathizes with us because He realizes how fragile the clay is from which we have been formed....The Lord’s mercy is like light. As extensive as the darkness of sin might be in someone, as soon as a remorseful sinner approaches God, that light scatters the darkness “instantly,” as the father Saint Bernard says."

Father Junipero believed his approach to faith conversion of the indigenous peoples actually provided for their prosperity. He was affirmed when the Spanish military approach to colonization, severe punishment, and forced labor was applied in Colorado. The military was more than willing to use abuse and coercion to accomplish their purposes. This secular approach resulted in multiple uprisings among the native peoples.

It's also critical to note that Father knew the ultimate goal of secular colonization was to bring Spanish settlers to Alta California. He knew the influx of settlers would eventually destroy the native cultures and lifestyles. He'd seen the results in New Spain (Mexico). He knew the military goal was to train them to serve and work for the settlers, not to live harmoniously but rather as inferior subordinates to the Spaniards. Father believed the Padres and conversion to the Catholic faith was the safest and surest route to save the people. While historians will debate his approach and its success, we can still find the descendants of his pastoral children throughout California. They were present throughout the Father's canonization process and can be found in and around the 21 Mission communities to this day.

Father Junipero Serra, pray for us.

I was honored to witness a baptism while visiting Father Junipero's grave at Mission San Carlos. I believe he smiles in heaven to know a new lives are born into Christ in the same space he worked so hard to build.

Beebe, R. M. & Senkawicz, R. (2015). Before Gold: California under Spain and Mexico,

Volume 3. Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the transformation of a

missionary. University of Oklahoma Press. 

Geiger, M. J. (1959). The Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra, O. F M.: The man who never turned back. Academy Of American Franciscan History.

 Palou, F. & Watson, D. S. (1934). The expedition into California of the Venerable Padre Fray Junipero Serra and his companions in the year 1769. Nueva California Press.

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