By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — It did not happen without controversy, because it cannot be denied that the Spanish colonization of California also brought with it a near-genocide of the native people.
But two small groups gathered anyway to celebrate the Sept. 23 canonization of St. Junipero Serra — the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist, who shared the Franciscan prayer, charism and mission with the newest saint, and members of Kansas City area Serra International chapters who adopted his motto, “Ever Forward,” in their service to increase vocations to religious life.
“We always celebrate,” said Sister Connie Boulch. “This is one more reason.”
“We are celebrating one more saint who lived the ideals of Francis,” said Sister Andrea Kantner. “We have one more saint pulling us up to heaven.”
Katie Radford, who has served as chapter president, regional governor and on the national board of Serra International, said the missionary zeal of St. Junipero made him the instant patron when a group of men in Seattle formed the first Serra Club in 1935, some 53 years before St. John Paul II would beatify St. Junipero in 1988.
“He’s been our patron for 80 years,” Radford said. “He was an evangelizer and the founder of cities.”
St. Junipero established the first nine Spanish missions in California, three of which would grow into the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In California, he is a state hero. Grade school children, in public and private schools, study St. Junipero Serra. In the U.S. Capitol where statues of famous Americans are displayed from every state, California’s statue is of St. Junipero Serra.
It is a time to rejoice, Pope Francis said in his homily.
“We don’t want apathy to guide our lives, or do we? We don’t want the force of habit to rule our life, or do we? What can we do to keep our heart from growing numb, becoming anesthetized?” he asked.
“Jesus gives the answer. Go forth. Proclaim. The joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away,” Pope Francis said.
There can be no question that St. Junipero Serra did exactly that.
A highly accomplished intellectual, the Franciscan monk could have spent a far more comfortable life in Spain as a university professor and leader. Instead, he heard a different calling and insisted on being sent to the New World of the 18th Century. And everywhere his long, hard travels took him into new territories, and when one mission was established, he would set off on the arduous task of establishing another.
With him came the Spanish army. And with the Spanish army came death to the native peoples, from both massacre and disease for which the natives had no resistance. Within a few generations, half of the populations of many of these natives would be wiped out.
But history is also clear that St. Junipero Serra also worked hard to defend the native peoples whose souls he felt personally called to save.
In a speech to the National Pro-Life Directors Conference in Kansas City last July, Archbishop Jose Gomez told of just one such story, as he told of how much it meant to Hispanic Catholics that St. Junipero Serra — a Spanish speaker who came to California through Mexico — would be the first American saint canonized on American soil by the first pope from the New World.
“In his writings, we find deep love for the native peoples he had come to evangelize,” Archbishop Gomez said.
“At a time when many still denied the humanity of the native peoples, Father Junipero Serra drew up a Bill of Rights that was a radical call for justice and the promotion of integral human development,” the archbishop said.
“I believe he was the first person in the Americas, and maybe in all the universal church, to make a theological and moral argument against the death penalty,” he said.
That was in 1775, at the very time another group on the other side of the continent were planning their independence from Great Britain.
“The natives attacked the San Diego Mission. They burned the whole place down and they tortured and killed one of the Franciscans there, a good friend of Fray Junipero,” Archbishop Gomez said.
“Of course, the military wanted to arrest the natives and execute them,” he said.
“But Father Junipero wrote repeated letters urging the authorities to spare the killers, even though they were guilty of the crime,” Archbishop Gomez said.
“In his appeals he said some truly remarkable things about human dignity, human rights and the mercy of God. Let me leave you with one quote: ‘Let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here, and the reason for forgiving him,’” the archbishop said.
“This is our purpose too in the new evangelization,” Archbishop Gomez said.
“We are called to follow in the path of the missionaries and saints of the Americas and to proclaim the Gospel of life, which is the heart of the message of Jesus,” he said.
“This is the beautiful challenge, the beautiful duty we all have. We are called to save lives and to spread God’s mercy and forgiveness, his healing and peace,” Archbishop Gomez said.
To which, two months later, Pope Francis would add: “The church, the holy people of God, treads the dust-laden paths of history, so often traversed by conflict, injustice and violence, in order to encounter her children, our brothers and sisters.
“So let us go out, let us go forth and offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ,” Pope Francis said in his homily at the canonization to a global audience.
“We are heirs to the bold missionary spirit of so many men and women. We are indebted to a tradition, a chain of witnesses who have made it possible for the good news of the Gospel to be, in every generation, both ‘good’ and ‘news,’” the pope said.
“Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work: Siempre Adelante. Keep moving forward,” Pope Francis said.
“He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward until the end of his life,” the pope said. “For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb and anesthetized.”