Padre Serra, his love for and commitment to the native Americans

Padre Junipero Serra

Here is my servant in whom I am well pleased.”Isaiah: 42:1-4 

Serra was 34 years old when he left a sought after professorship at the Llullian University in Palma, the capitol of Spanish Mallorca. He was a brilliant and extremely well read Franciscan friar. Junipero studied Aristotelian philosophy and held the chair of Scotistic Theology at the University named for Ramon Llull, the great theologian, missionary and friend among the Muslims in the late 13th century. In other words Junipero was on the progressive side of theological studies with a blossoming career before him. At that moment Serra headed out from Mallorca to the Missions of New Spain. Martyrdom was not uppermost in his mind. According to his student, life-long friend in the Missions, and Serra’s first biographer, Padre Francisco Palou, Serra felt the call to the missions as a path to spiritual renewal. He had a burning passion to baptize gentiles, children and their parents, bringing them through water and the Spirit into Christian life. As Jesus said to the Apostles: “Go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Matt. 28:19

Miguel Josep, his baptismal name, was born into a poor family in the village of Petra on the Spanish island of Mallorca, a small island with great vistas, as a center for cartography and trade with the Muslims of Southern Spain and North Africa. He learned farming and animal husbandry from his father which would stand him well in his later years as president of the missions of Alta California. His early schooling was with the Franciscans and later at the Franciscan novitiate in Palma. At profession he chose the name Junipero, after the beloved companion of St. Francis of Assisi. We have four of his sermons to the Clares of Palma, recently translated from Catalan into English. His words are tender and loving as he speaks of a merciful God to tlhe Clares and others who came to hear him. Junipero was small of stature and in his preaching he was dynamic, articulate and sweet.

Junipero earned a doctorate in theology and held the chair of Scotistic theology at the Llullian University. On one occasion Junipero preached the sermon for the feast of Ramon Llull. One of the retired professors at the University was heard to say that “Serra’s presentation on Llull should be printed in gold.” Junipero had spent almost 20 years in studies, teaching and preaching in and around Palma. He was fully engaged in ministerial work when he and Padre Francisco Palou, decided to offer themselves to Mission work in New Spain. It was three months after Serra’s sermon on Llull.

New Spain 1750-1784“O Sing to our God a New Song.” Psalm 98:1-3 Junipero was assigned to ministry in Ciudad de Mexico and later in the Sierra Gorda area of Mexico. These were areas that had been Christianized long before Serra’s arrival. Serra waited 15 years before he got the assignment of his heart’s desire. He was missioned through Baja California to Alta California, a new area of missionary work for the Franciscan friars, and the beginning of a clash of cultures and religious practices between the local peoples and the friars. And this class wasn’t just between the Franciscans and the native Americans but also between the Spanish military and Padre Serra.

As Serra crossed into Alta California, his first meeting with the Kumeyaay or Diegueno people of California might be surprising to us. The men of the San Diego area whom Junipero encountered wore no clothing. (Remember, this is California not Minnesota. For Serra it was as if these people were from the Garden of Eden before there was any encounter with sin or the need for clothing.

     “He went among the villagers teaching…Mark: 6

On the third occasion of traveling north from San Diego, Serra and his small group were passing through Chumash territory. They were bogged down in the muddy hills above Santa Barbara. Chumash warriors came to their aid and carried Serra through and out of the mud and set the party on their way. Padre Serra could never forget that experience. He referred to it many times.

Later it was Diegueno men who burned Mission San Diego and tortured and killed young Friar Jayme who was in charge of the mission. When the men who perpetrated this gruesome horror were captured Serra refused to have the men killed but insisted they live on to repent of what they had done. One of the leaders of the massacre became a close collaborator of Serra.

The Franciscan missionaries traveled with the Spanish and Mexican soldiers. Their objectives in Alta California were different. The soldiers were commissioned to acquire land for the Spanish crown and stop the Russian incursion from the north. Serra and the friars were concerned for the welfare and protection of the indigenous peoplesand therefore their assimilation for survival as Catholic Christians with skills of farming, ranching, wood working,tanning hides, etc, depending on the location of the Mission, as well as encouraging music, dance and the arts. The assimilated local peoples were called “ladinos.”

As long as Serra was alive the indigenous people had a fierce advocate for the people with the “commandants” and the soldiers. We see the greatness of the work of Serra and the Franciscans in contrast with what happened to the native peoples, as well as to the Mexicans, when California acquired Statehood in 1849.: the Mexicans lost their rancheros and the natives lost their lives. Long live the memory of Padre Junipero Serra.

Mexico seceded from Spain and claimed Alta California as well as New Mexico and Texas. In 1832 the anticlerical Mexican government began the secularization of the Missions and the friars were sent away. The plan was to hand the mission properties to the Native Americans but instead the new governing body sold off the Mission lands or gave them to friends. When California acquired Statehood in 1849 the Mexicans lost their rancheros and the natives lost their lives. Long live the memory of Padre Junipero Serra. May he intercede for us.




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