St. Paul once wrote that “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, [then] we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19).
Those are strong words for a happy gathering like this one, on a beautiful day, on a vacation island like Mallorca, in a year dedicated to the virtue of faith. But they’re exactly the right words to begin our discussion today. Francis of Assisi was not a man known for his dissembling about the Gospel. And Junipero Serra, his spiritual son, had the same burning zeal in all things related to Jesus Christ. The key question facing every Christian in every age isn’t whether the Christian faith is socially useful, or consoles us when we’re sad, or makes us nicer people. The key question is whether our faith is true.
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead – and I don’t mean “metaphorically” rise, as a kind of shared emotional experience of the Apostles; but rise in his crucified body, glorified by his Father – then we’re misleading ourselves with a fairytale. But if he did rise, then the Gospel is true. And then all of creation, and the eternity of every living man and woman, depends on Christ’s Good News being preached. So in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19-20), he’s not merely offering an invitation. He’s also binding a commission, a mandate, to every one of his disciples.
Francis of Assisi heard the Gospel, and believed, and acted on it. Junipero Serra heard the Gospel, and believed, and acted on it. And now for us, the whole point of the Year of Faith boils down to the same questions: Do we really believe; and if we do, then what are we going to do about it?
This year marks the third centenary of the birth of Father Serra. He was an extraordinary man. I don’t think we can properly measure him unless we divide his story into three parts. So first, I’ll talk about the world he was born into, and what he achieved in it. Second, I’ll talk about the kind of world we face today. And finally, I’ll talk about whether and how Serra has any continuing importance for the Church in a very different age.
The context of a person’s life helps to shape its course. And so it was with Serra. We know Mallorca today as a very pleasant tourist destination. Hannibal knew it as a source of warriors; slingers who could kill a man with a stone or a dart at more than 300 yards.
Mallorca was fought over by Carthage, Rome, the Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and finally Christian Spain. Serra was born in 1713 into a world without electricity or modern medicine, primitive communications and transportation, and a maximum average lifespan of about 50. For most people, life was brief and hard. Death couldn’t be ignored; it was an everyday reality. The high water mark of Muslim invasion in Europe had been reached and turned back just 30 years before at the Battle of Vienna. The Great Powers, both Catholic and Protestant, were now locked in a struggle for colonies and souls in Asia and the New World.
At the same time, Europe was experiencing an explosion of wealth, discovery and human knowledge without precedent in history. The backdrop of Serra’s life thus had the texture of intense religious and political competition, and huge economic expansion. So he really did live at a pivotal moment in the history of our Church and culture.
Serra’s life story is well known. But a few details are worth remembering here. He was born Miguel Joseph Serra in the Mallorcan town of Petra. He entered the Franciscans as a teenager and took the name “Junipero,” after the early friend and companion of St. Francis. Serra had a supple, inquisitive, brilliant mind combined with tremendous personal energy. He became an accomplished theologian and philosopher. He had a successful career as a university lecturer and scholar until the age of 36, when he felt a calling to the missions and left for Mexico.
Early in his Mexican service Serra suffered a leg wound, probably a snake or insect bite, that pained him for the rest of his life. But he still walked thousands of miles in his mission work with the native peoples of Baja and Alta California. He founded Mission San Diego de Alcala – the first mission in the modern state of California – in 1769 at the ripe old age of 56. He went on to found eight more California missions personally. He also developed the system that would eventually include 21 California missions spanning hundreds of miles and many thousands of native converts to the Catholic faith.
In his years of mission leadership, he fought many times with military and political leaders in New Spain who sought to abuse or exploit the Indian population. He could be a demanding father to his native converts, but he was fierce in defending their dignity from the colonial authorities. He also had remarkable organizational skills. He was a shrewd manager of the missions’ material resources. He identified and cultivated his own successor years in advance. And he introduced products like grapes, lemons, oranges, sheep and cattle that later became key to the state’s agricultural economy. He died in 1784, at the age of 70, at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. Today both state and federal authorities in the United States honor his memory for the impact he had on the development of modern California.
Serra’s life can be summed up in the qualities that set him apart. First, he had humility. As an adult, Serra was a respected man of learning; a revered and comfortable university professor. He put all that aside — in a century when 36 was middle aged — for a life of uncertainty and hardship on the other side of the world. That’s humility. Second, he was a man of audacity. I almost said “courage,” and Serra certainly had courage. But courage is too small a word. Serra had courage married to imagination, confidence and ambition; an ambition for God, not for personal glory. That’s audacity. That’s the kind of courage that transforms lives and history. He also had foresight in his planning,endurance in making those plans happen, political skill in dealing with authority, and superior leadership ability with a very limited mix of people and resources under brutally difficult conditions. That’s a kind of genius.
He also had one other quality that animated all the others: a zealous Franciscan faith. But we’ll come back to that later. Meanwhile I want to turn to the second part of our task in measuring Serra the man. And that requires us to understand the pastoral terrain we face as Christians right now, today. We should probably start by realizing that some of the same civil authorities that once happily honored Father Serra with statues in Golden Gate Park and the U.S. Capitol building now work even harder to restrict the freedom of American religious communities, force the Church out of public debate, and impose same-sex “marriage” as the law. Father Serra gave his life to the task of bringing the Gospel to the New World. But the “new world” we actually have in A.D. 2013 is alien to almost anything Serra could have imagined.
Blessed Pope John Paul II saw the outline of our new “new world” more than 30 years ago. And following his lead, the Church has been calling Catholics to the work of a “new evangelization” ever since. But there’s a natural human tendency to attach magic powers to slogans, which then replace serious thought and effort — as if saying the slogan, or talking about it, actually makes mission work happen. In practice, the words “new evangelization” are overused and underthought. Unless we reconfigure our lives to understanding and acting on it, the “new evangelization” is just another pious intention – well meaning, but ultimately infertile.
Welcome to the Blog! I am a Salesian of Don Bosco and was ordained to the priesthood on August 26, 2000. I hope this site is a place of interest for you where you will find ideas and information on the Catholic faith and on Salesianity.