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Saint Junipero Serra, priest and missionary

It's important to note at the beginning that not all Franciscan Friars are ordained priests.


Identifying Father Junipero as a saint does not imply perfection. After reading Father Francisco Palou's accounts of his best friend, I was almost relieved to read other biographer's accounts of his imperfections. It really does give me hope for my chances of making it into heaven when I know that individuals who achieve such high levels of sanctifying grace also have flaws and defects.


By all accounts, Father was a robust preacher, speaking with religious fervor, and with a flair for the dramatic in his homilies. I suspect we'd say he was a bit long-winded by today's standards. There is one account of him getting so consumed with his preaching on penance that he seized a whip and began self-flagellation in the middle of speaking to make his point to the congregation. I can't imagine why there would be a whip so readily available...unless he staged it there for the occasion. Of course, this is just speculation on my part.


He was an extremely well-read individual. In his letters and sermons, he referenced current events, the political ebbs and flows, and even Homer's Odyssey.


He seems to have been a very pragmatic administrator while he served as the President of the Alta California missions. Although he abhorred paperwork, he was meticulous in his accounting and directed work toward making the Missions self-sufficient for feeding, clothing, and housing the Church's newest members.


However, it seems he suffered from a bit of a stubborn streak, impatience, and even anger for most of his life. He recognized the impatience and waged an internal war against it almost daily.


Father Junipero left his comfortable teaching position and status on Majorca to become a missionary because he felt he was too comfortable and had lost his religious zeal. While most people would have requested to be transferred to another university/friary, a new teaching assignment, or just a new assignment within the Order, not Father. He wants to experience the excitement and passion for bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles he felt in his youth. Rather than making a simple change, he leaves everything and everyone behind for an unknown world and the chance to bring people to God who have never heard of Him before.


Thanks to his abundant letter writing, we know his first attempt at being a missionary was a total bust. On the voyage to New Spain (Mexico), the vessel made a stop at Puerto Rico. Despite his best preaching and efforts to convert the indigenous and locals, he failed to convince a single person to be baptized. This began to cast a dark veil over his demeanor. So much so, upon arrival in Veracruz, he refused transport and stubbornly walked all the way to Mexico City and the Order's headquarters. I suspect as he walked he waged battle with his impatience, his anger, and his internal desolation. Now, I question my choices on a 16-mile walk! I can only imagine the talking-to he gave himself as he walked the 250 miles. His stubbornness and anger earned him a leg injury that would plague him for the rest of his life. Some speculate it was a scorpion sting, others say it was an infection that never healed from an encounter with a spiny plant. Either way, it was definitely his version of Paul's thorn in his flesh that never went away.


As an educator, I can recognize God's pedagogy in the process of turning Father Junipero into a missionary. First, we teach students about the philosophy and theory behind our teaching practices. This is followed by showing them examples of the philosophy/theory at work. Then, we give students some guided practice where we are there to help them when they get things wrong or it doesn't work like they thought it would. Once we feel they have a good grasp on the skill, we give them more opportunities for guided practice until, finally, they are practicing independently of the teacher's help or influence.


This is exactly the pattern God followed with Father Junipero. He became a great and revered philosopher and theologian. But, this only goes so far in the real world. So, God put in his heart the desire to be a missionary, putting into practice all the theories. Father was so open to God's call that he left it all behind. The guided practice was his experience in Puerto Rico. As students are learning, it's okay to fail as long as the failure serves to make us better rather than leading to despair. Father didn't despair, he walked 400 miles, working on the problem for 400 miles. When he arrived in Mexico City mentally refreshed and single-minded in his desire to become a true missionary for God. He humbly accepted more guided practice as he spent 8 years as an administrator at the missionary headquarters. He was finally assigned to minister to the baptized Pame Indians. He did so for another 8 years. All of these experiences and guided practice were to prepare him for the monumental task God had planned for him in Alta California.


We'll continue with our look at Father's missionary efforts next week.


I took this picture in the side garden at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. This mission served as Father Junipero Serra's Mission Headquarters and is where he is buried.


My resources for these posts are:


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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