Junipero Serra is celebrated as one of the fathers of California. Born in Majorca, Serra entered the Franciscan order at sixteen. After earning a doctorate in theology, he taught as a professor for many years before volunteering for the missions in New Spain.
He spent twenty years in Mexico, then traveled by foot to California, where he spent the rest of his life. From his arrival in 1769, when he founded the mission of San Diego, until his death fifteen years later, he tirelessly traveled the length of California, established nine missions, and baptized many.
Serra espoused an austere, ascetic brand of Catholicism. In preaching, he was capable of demonstrating his zeal by striking his breast with a stone or holding a lighted torch against his chest to demonstrate the fires of hell. His canonization in 2015—the first to take place on North American soil—was not without controversy. Critics, including many Native Americans, raised questions about the mission settlements in which Native American converts were incorporated, becoming virtual prisoners or indentured servants. Others defended Serra and the Franciscan missionaries for protecting the Native Americans from harsher abuse by the secular authorities.
Serra died on August 28, 1784. He is buried in the sanctuary floor of the Mission de San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel.
Pope Francis on Junipero Serra
During his time in California, Junipero Serra baptized, confirmed, married, and buried thousands of Native Americans. He was on the forefront of all mission activities, which often resulted in tensions between him and others—including his own Franciscan superiors.
Pope Francis took notice of his accomplishments. In May 2015, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles sponsored a conference on Junipero Serra at the North American College in Rome. Pope Francis came to celebrate Mass, and, in his homily, suggested some key points about Serra. “First,” said the pontiff, “he was a tireless missionary. What made Friar Junipero . . . go to the end of the earth? Certainly it was the desire to proclaim the Gospel ad gentes [to the nations], that heartfelt impulse that seeks to share with those the farthest away the gift of encountering Christ.”
Second, noted the pope, Serra “entrusted his missionary activity to the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The pope mentioned the significance of Serra’s devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who now “represents the shared roots in this land, the shared roots of this continent.”
Third is Serra’s great personal holiness, “a saintly example of the Church’s universality and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country.”
The pope anticipated his own September visit to the United States later that year, asking Our Lady of Guadalupe, Friar Junipero, and all the American saints to “lead me and guide me” during the journey.
What I should like to be able to do is to affix to their
hearts the words, “Put you on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
May the most provident Lord and heavenly Father
grant that my wish be accomplished in their regard.
St. Junipero Serra