St. Junipero Serra

Priest (entered heaven 28 August, 1784)

Dear June,

Happy birthday!  It’s proof of your parents’ sense of humor that when you were born on July 1st they named you “June”.  All I can say, though, is that you are lucky you weren’t a boy, because they probably would have named you “Junipero”, after today’s saint.  I happen to know that you, as their first child after many years when it seemed that they wouldn’t be blessed with children at all, are a source of more than usual hope and joy for them.  Their one goal in your regard was always to give you the kind of love and formation that would enable you to passionately dedicate yourself to whatever tasks our Lord might assign you in life.  Passionate dedication is one of the hallmarks of today’s saint.

Until middle age, Junipero worked as a professor in Spain.  He was small of stature and delicate of constitution, so most of his comrades thought the professorate was just the right apostolate for him, but he didn’t.  He asked his Franciscan superiors if he could be relocated to the missions in Mexico.  Permission was granted, and he set out for the new world.  His thirst for adventure, however, was hardly satisfied: his first assignment was as administrator of the existing missions – it was all about organization and institutionalization, which he executed well and with gusto, all the while longing for more opportunities to bring Christ to the Native Americans.  (It was during his trip from the east to the west coast of Mexico, which he did on foot, that an insect bite caused a painful swelling in his leg, a swelling that continued causing him pain for the rest of his life.)

But God was preparing him for bigger things.  His administrative skills would come in handy when he received a new assignment in 1769, when he was 56 years old.  At that time, the government expropriated all the missions that were being run by the Jesuits in Baja California (northwestern Mexico) and kicked the Jesuits out of the country.   The Franciscans were asked to take over the important work.  Soon thereafter, the Spanish government, fearful lest the Russians move south from Alaska and encroach upon their conquests, organized colonizing and exploratory excursions into Alta California – today’s west coast of the USA.  Fr Serra was brought along as the resident missionary.  Thus began one of the most remarkable chapters in American History.

Fr Serra began planting missions all along El Camino Real (the Royal Road or the King’s Highway) that eventually stretched for 700 miles between San Diego and Sonoma.  The missions were actually small cities around which he built self-sufficient agricultural communities of Native Americans.  He not only taught them the faith, but he also taught them farming, medicine, art and architecture, and the other practical arts that enabled these communities to solidify their native culture and protect themselves against government abuses.  His efforts led him into frequent conflict with the governors, who wanted to exploit the rich resources and the native peoples.

Fr Serra himself founded nine missions before he died at the age of 71, and 21 were eventually built up on the Royal Road (this is where California’s cities get their Catholic names: San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Diego, Santa Cruz…).  Today, 60% of California’s population lives in areas surrounding the original missions.  Fr Serra baptized more than 6000 Native Americans and laid the groundwork for the impressive California economy.  And even though the territory was annexed by the United States in the 19th century, and the missions were expropriated, St. Junipero Serra’s remarkable contribution is still recognized by his life-sized bronze statue representing the State of California in the sculpture gallery of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

I keep thinking that you might benefit from taking some time to consider what it meant for that 56 year old man, slight of build and already suffering from asthma and a chronic leg ailment, to spend the last 15 years of his life traipsing through the wilderness (he traveled 5,400 miles by sea and 5,500 by land) and harassed by worldly soldiers-of-fortune.  There really is only one explanation: he loved Christ and he loved those whom Christ loved – passionately.  My prayer for you on your birthday is that God grants you the same grace.

Your loving uncle,


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