In a few short days we will be celebrating one of my favorite saints! The feast day of Saint Junipero Serra is on July 1st! The great saint was recently canonized by Pope Francis and I believe he is an important man for our times!
There is so much to be said about this wonderful saint and Apostle of California. He was a true adventurer, with a passion and self sacrificing spirit for Christ that has few rivals. No wonder this man is so vilified, slandered and treated with such disdain today. He exemplifies everything contrary to our modern culture, and his example is truly revolting to those who stand against Christ and His Church. Saint Serra is surely standing defiantly against these attacks on his holiness and sanctity. It is exactly what motivated and drove him to come to this great country and bring the Gospel to the native people. St. Serra truly loved the native people of California and desired with everything he was to save their souls and bring them into relationship with Christ. He certainly succeeded at this, but a great cost, and amidst great suffering.
For this particular article I would like to focus on the thorn in our great saints flesh. Just as Saint Paul suffering from this type of ailment, although theologians and scholars are unaware of the details of his infliction, so do did St. Serra. Saint Serra came to Mexico and then to California from Spain, where he was born and had become a great theologian, scholar and seminary professor. He could have stayed and lived a pretty cushy and comfortable life. A life of honor and prestige. He longed though, with a passion to bring souls to Christ and he had a dream to bring the Gospel to those who had never had the opportunity to hear it. When Spain began the colonization of the new world on the west coast of North America he jumped at the chance to serve in this capacity, as a missionary. So he left everything he knew, and set sail. He would never return home to his family, friends and colleagues, and he knew that, and did it anyway.
What awaited him was rugged wild territories to navigate and develop along with wild animals and wild people, but he was determined and steadfast!
Early on in his mission he was bitten on the leg by a bug or animal and the wound become greatly infected. He never fully recovered from this ailment which caused him great pain and difficulty with walking at times. He was almost forbidden to make the journey to the new lands of California because of this ailment, but was cured miraculously with hot tar and pitch of all things, by a animal caretaker, and was able to make the voyage.
It was a rugged voyage, and this ailment persisted and remained with him for his entire life. Nevertheless, Saint Junipero Serra founded 9 missions in California, and many of those missions whom he named after saints, are now the names of the biggest and most well known cities in the state - San Diego was his first mission and San Francisco another later mission of his - named respectfully after Saint John and St. Francis. St. Junipero was a Franciscan Friar after all. Saint Serra would walk between these missions from San Diego to San Francisco many times checking in on his missions and their residents, despite this thorn in his flesh. These walks were in addition to the walks from California to Mexico where his mission worked originated. Some estimate he walked over 5,500 miles during this time frame. All with a bum leg!
Saint Serra was a great man, a holy man, a true soldier for Christ and advocate for the native peoples he served so well. His tactics were the tactics of the times, and it is unfair to judge him by today's standards - he lived after all, over 200 years ago. While his contemporaries were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and those settling the East Coast, he settled the West Coast founding and establishing Catholic missions that would serve the native inhabitants. We certainly do not see these types of mission being established for the native peoples of the East, by Protestant settlers. What the Spanish Government came in and did after that to the detriment of these peoples is not the fault of Saint Serra. He gave his life for the natives of California and they loved him for it, coming to pay their respects when he passed away at the age of 70. Saint Serra baptized over 6000 people during his life!
Saint Serra still carries that thorn in his flesh, only now it is a spiritual one suffered for those of us, the people of our time who mock and insult his efforts and principles. It is truly tragic. He indeed stood and labored for someone and something way bigger than himself. In an age of individualism, celebrated self -indulgence and sin, it's is not surprising that such a man would have his statues desecrated and torn down. Evil hates goodness, and cloaks itself in false and wicked self-righteousness. Saint Serra would certainly not be weeping for himself as these horrific events unfold but the loss of souls who perpetuate them. That after all was what he lived, and died for. It is what we should all live and die for as well, even while enduring our own thorns in the flesh.