Today is the Feast of Blessed Junipero Serra. Appropriately, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted today proposes Serra as a model for the priesthood in his Catholic Sun column, excerpt:
So much of what he did each day did not seem “priestly.” At the age of 22, already ordained a Franciscan priest, he was awarded the Duns Scotus chair in philosophy at the Lullian University in Palma, Mallorca, and he taught with great distinction there for the following 15 years.
Much later in life, at the age of 55, on another continent and in a totally diverse setting, he was appointed the president of the Spanish mission to Alta California. The title that he most cherished, however, was not “professor” or “president” but “Padre.” While thrilled with the opportunity to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Native peoples of what is today the west coast of our country, being “president” required him to perform many administrative tasks that appeared to have little to do with the life and ministry of a priest.
But Fr. Junipero Serra did not derive his sense of self from the duties and functions that made up the larger part of his busy days; he never faced a crisis of identity. He knew that, by God’s grace, he was a son of St. Francis of Assisi and a Catholic priest. He would have agreed with what Archbishop Timothy Dolan says about the priesthood: “The priesthood is a call, not a career; a redefinition of self, not just a new ministry; a way of life, not a job; a state of being, not just a function; a permanent, lifelong commitment, not a temporary style of service, an identity, not just a role. We are priests; yes, the doing of the ministry… is important, but it flows from the being; we can act as priests, minister as priests, function as priests, serve as priests, preach as priests, because first and foremost, we are priests!”
‘A Stolen Heart’
Junipero Serra was a flashpoint of controversy during his life and long thereafter. In fact, he remains a controversial figure even today. During this lifetime, he was a thorn in the side of the Spanish military because of his intrepid defense of the California Indians against abuse and mistreatment by the soldiers and also some of the officers. In more recent times, he has been accused of conspiring to enslave the native peoples, and even of plotting the genocide of thousands. Such controversy says more about the complexity of the times and the many obstacles to the Gospel that he faced on a daily basis in California than about Padre Serra. Moreover, the accusations against his conduct have never been proven. Rather, they stand in stark contrast to what we know for certain about Fr. Serra and his priestly ministry.
He saw the Indians not as “pagans” but as “gentiles,” by which he meant persons who have not yet had the privilege of hearing the Gospel of Christ. In one letter, he describes them in this way, “They came — men, women and children of all ages — with such a display of cleverness in everything they did… a people clever, sociable, and friendly.” To the viceroy of Mexico, he wrote with all sincerity of the Native people, “They have stolen my heart away.”
With a keen awareness of the possible mistreatment of the Indians by the Spanish military and by others migrating among them, this Franciscan missionary studied the writings of Bishop Bartolome De Las Casas, OP, who earned the title “Protector of the Indians.” He also acquainted himself with the Laws of the Indies of the Spanish Crown so that he would be ready to take legal action in defense of the Native people, should it ever be needed. Sad to say, it was! When abuse did occur, without hesitation, in 1773, Fr. Serra made a dramatic appeal to the viceroy, traveling at great personal cost to his health all the way to Mexico City to present his carefully documented “representación.” So effectively did he present his case that it resulted in a kind of “bill of rights” for California Indians, the first significant legislation ever to address the question of human rights in California.
From the time he left Spain until his death at the Carmel mission near Monterey, Calif., Fr. Serra knew without a doubt that God had called him to serve as a priest in America. He was inspired, without a doubt, by the heroic examples of St. Francis Xavier and St. Francis Solano; but he was answering, above all, the summons of Jesus, his beloved Master and Savior.
John Paul II reminded us that enthusiasm for evangelization is not meant for only a few of our priests. In 1990, he wrote (Redemptoris missio, #67), “all priests must have the mind and heart of missionaries open to the needs of the Church and the world, with concern for those farthest away, and especially for the non-Christian groups.” Fr. Serra would have resonated with those words. Like all missionaries who leave behind the familiar and known in order to witness to Christ among people of different cultures and diverse mindsets, he inevitably made some mistakes, but whatever he undertook was done, not for selfish purposes but out of love for Christ and for the people “who had stolen his heart.”
Bishop Olmsted will be proposing other models of priesthood in his column throughout this Year for Priests.
Pics - The top picture is a statue of Junipero Serra in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The bottom pic is Mission Basilica of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo where Serra is buried.