St. Junípero Serra is the newest American saint on our calendar, just canonized by Pope Francis on his recent trip to the United States. Serra came to the Americas after his ordination to the priesthood with the Spanish Franciscans. After working many years in Mexico, he eventually traveled up the coast to present-day California, where he founded the first nine of the 21 California missions.
He worked tirelessly in California, teaching the natives not only the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also agriculture and economics. Most importantly, he defended the rights of the native people against the Spanish settlers. He poured his life out in ministry. He suffered greatly from physical ailments in his legs and feet, even to the point of not being able to walk or stand. But he was indefatigable in his work to spread the Gospel.
There was controversy around his canonization, since his legacy is mixed with the history of the injustice suffered by Native Americans in this country. Those who protested his canonization cited the decimation of the people from disease brought by the Europeans and the mistreatment of the native people by the settlers. Yet if one was to look at Serra’s life and writings, we find that many of the accusations laid at his feet are either flat-out fabricated or actually belong at the feet of the Spanish and Mexican governments, and even more so, later, the United States government.
Gregory Orfalea, a biographer of Serra, admits, “I spent 12 years researching Serra’s complex story. When I started, I assumed I would find an Indian tragedy that belonged on his doorstep. But I came to the conclusion that the missions were not places of unrelieved misery, and that in most things, Serra was exemplary. In letters, mission and other archival documents, memoirs and the record the Roman Catholic Church amassed in investigating Serra for sainthood, I discovered Serra defending the Indians against Spanish comandantes and governors, both in Mexico and in California.
“In Mexico, where he served 18 years before he came to California, someone poisoned his altar wine. The evidence indicates it wasn’t Indians who wanted him dead, but settler soldiers whom Serra had just rebuked for trying to wrest land from the natives, who were, in Serra’s phrase (he often used it, and it is telling) ’in their own country.’”
It is apparent from his writings and the way he cared for the native people that he was not in the New World to conquer and subjugate, nor did he disrespect the freedoms of the people he served. Archbishop José Gomez points out, “All his writings reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways. It is sometimes said that Father Serra was ‘a man of his times.’ But to tell you the truth, he really wasn’t. He was far ahead of his times. It’s amazing that in all the stories we have from his missionary journeys, all the tens of thousands of words he wrote in letters and diaries – we find hardly a hint of racist thinking of feelings of cultural superiority.”
When Kumeyaay warriors burned the San Diego mission to the ground, killing inhabitants and martyring Father Jayme, a friend of Serra’s, he argued the that people responsible not be executed but released, so that their souls could be saved: “As to the killer,” Serra wrote, “let him live so that he can be saved, for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification.”
No one claims that Serra is without sins or mistakes. To believe that’s what the Church said on September 23, 2015 is to fail to understand what canonization means. But despite what moral relativism may dictate, evangelizing the natives is not one of those sins. Father Serra believed that Jesus Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he wanted the indigenous people to share that truth.
Shortly before Serra’s canonization, Archbishop José Gomez gave an address about the soon-to-be saint and spoke about the priest in relation to our modern world. “In our secular, ‘post-Christian’ age, it is perhaps an inconvenient truth to remember that from the beginning America was a spiritual project.” Gomez reminds us, “Father Serra helps us to appreciate in a new way that the missionaries were America’s true ‘founders.’ In him we see that America’s origins were not about politics, conquest, or plunder. The deepest motives of Father Serra and the missionaries who founded America were religious, spiritual, and humanitarian.”
Even the men we call our founding fathers had an understanding that this new country would be religious. The United States of America was not founded as a Christian nation per se, but it was founded by Christians who believed God had to remain at the center of the endeavor. It is not enough to have a Constitution that unites us; the unity comes from something much deeper. John Adams argued, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
In a time when our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are all under attack, we should remember the words of Thomas Jefferson. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are … the gift of God?” Jefferson was no devout Christian. But he recognized that this American experiment was only going to succeed in a nation who recognized a power higher than themselves.
In his homily at the canonization Mass of Junípero Serra, Pope Francis gave us a commission. “Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”
Today is the 240th anniversary of the day the Second Continental Congress met in a hot room in Philadelphia. The next day, 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor of independence. The American experiment had begun. There are days when it seems the experiment has failed. But we continue to move forward. We continue to pray for our country. And we continue to hold on to the spiritual foundation of this one nation, under God.