“Always forward, never back” – the inspiring story of Blessed Junipero Serra

20141224_101020 (1)Today as we start another month (and another half of the calendar), the Church honors Blessed Junipero Serra.  I had heard that Pope Francis plans to canonize him during his visit to America this fall and that this will be the first canonization on American soil.  Besides his tie with our country’s history, I am interested in this exemplary missionary for a couple other reasons.  First of all, he is a Franciscan, as am I (obviously we are from different branches, but the same ‘family’).  Also, he was a Spaniard.  I studied Spanish for several years in school and Serra’s heritage, language, and cultural background increase my interest in him.  His feastday is a good excuse for me to learn a little more about him.  I will draw my information for this article from americancatholic.org and catholic.org.

Although this ‘Blessed’ was born ‘Miguel Jose’ on the island of Majorca, Spain (1713), he acquired the name Junipero when entering the Franciscan order.  I would venture to guess this name was given in honor of the early Franciscan Brother Juniper.  Serra was ordained a priest and taught at the University of Padua up to 1749.  He was famous for his preaching.

Leaving his home continent at 37 years of age, Serra spent the remainder of his life serving on the North American Continent.  In coming here, he was driven by a desire to convert the native peoples and inspired by the example of St. Francis Solanus in South America.  After arriving in the New World and before arriving at Mexico City, he suffered an insect bite on his 250-mile journey, which became infected.  Repercussions of this would bother him for the rest of his life.  Some years later, he took over missions in California (both lower and upper) since the Jesuits were no longer able to serve there.

He was a very hard worker and is credited largely “for the foundation and spread of the Church on the West Coast of the United States when it was still mission territory,” according to catholic.org.  This included the founding of 21 mission and converting of thousands of natives (baptizing over 6,000 and confirming 5,000).  In addition to receiving the gospel from Serra, these people were also instructed in agricultural and artistic matters; He helped them have a decent standard of living.

Serra was not afraid to deny himself and practiced penance in his life’s activities.  Serra also faced cold, hunger, and struggles with military commanders as well as risks to his life from some of the natives.  He devoted long hours to prayer as well, often spending most of the night drawing strength from prayer.  He was just over 70 when he died.  He was beatified within my lifetime, in 1988, by John Paul II.

His motto was: “Always forward, never back”

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