Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Father Junipero Serra

Blessed Junipero Serra was in the words of Pope John Paul II "an exemplary model of the selfless evangelizer". In 1750 this Franciscan missionary arrived in Mexico City whereupon he baptized over 6000 natives to enter the Catholic faith. He founded 9 of the 21 missions and was instrumental in the foundation of the state of California. From his biography we read:

Junípero Serra decided to become a missionary in 1749. This was a dramatic change of path considering his many accomplishments, which included a doctorate in Sacred Theology conferred by Llullian University in Majorca in 1742, and his career as professor of philosophy at Convento de San Francisco.

Father Sera sailed from Palma to Málaga and Cadiz, the first leg of his 5,000 mile sea journey to Mexico. During the voyage, the ship is blown off course by a violent storm that threatened shipwreck. His traveling companions (twenty Franciscan and seven Dominican priests) decided that they should make some promise to call down on them the Lord’s mercy. They decided that each should write on a piece of paper the name of his favorite saint. The names were put in a bowl and invoking the Holy Spirit, they recited the prayer of All Saints so as to know who would be their special patron and protector. Serra wrote down Saint Francis Solano, and Father Francisco Palóu (Serra's former student and biographer) wrote down Saint Michael. But they did not win. Saint Barbara did, and it turned out that on her feast day, December 4, at night, the ship sailed back toward port, and all felt happy and confident.

In Mexico during 1751 and 1755 he supervised the construction of five mission churches, which are still in use today. He learned the Pame Indian language, composed a native catechism, and used visual methods of teaching religion to attract and Christianize the Indians. He improved farming and agricultural methods by introducing new tools, communal planting and harvesting, and oxen, cows, mules, sheep, goats, and pigs.

Father Serra was fond of music, using songs and hymns to inspire the Indians. He reenacted the events of religious holidays and choreographed a Pastoral Nativity play at Christmas, performed by Indian children.

During Lent he carried a cross on his shoulder at outdoor Station of the Cross processions which, Father Palóu wrote “was so heavy that I, stronger and younger though I was, could not lift it”.

His sermons were dramatic. Some of his methods were to hold lighted candles to his chest to illustrate Hell, and to encourage confessions, he silently confessed to Palóu from the sanctuary of the church, in full view of the congregation.

Junípero Serra died in the Mission of San Carlos on August 28, 1784 at the age of 70. He was buried exactly 35 years from the day he sailed for the New World. (Courtesy of Bay Are serra club)

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