Skip to comments.Bl. Junípero Serra and the Holy Family
Posted on 07/01/2014 9:49:17 PM PDT by Salvation
On September 25th, 1988, Pope St. John Paul II beatified a swarthy, Spanish, asthmatic priest of small stature who was a dazzling scholar, a tireless apostle, and the founder of many missionaries from San Diego to San Francisco—Junípero Serra, who walked the western desert to irrigate souls with the water that becomes a spring welling up to eternal life.
Born Miguel Jose Serra Ferrer on November 14, 1730, in Petra, Majorca, Spain, this servant of God and God’s people became a Franciscan after a brilliant career as a scholar of philosophy, taking a name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s companion, St. Juníper. After his ordination, Fray Junípero earned his doctorate in theology and thereafter joined the missionary college of San Fernando de Mexico in 1749. That same year, he taught the Faith to the natives, converted many souls, helped integrate Spanish culture to the land, developed agriculture, founded trade schools, and introduced new domestic animals to the people.
It was during this early period in his vocation that, according to some accounts, traveling on foot from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, Fray Junípero was bitten by a serpent, suffering a wound that would plague him all his life—especially since it was his way to walk wherever he went, from mission to mission, town to town, carrying the Word and work of God with him to those who yet thirsted for the Truth.
The event stands as a symbol of the devil’s devices against those who would march fearlessly to shake the earth with the joy of heaven. As is often the case, those whom the fiend strikes in hatred are the ones that frustrate his attempts to arrest them through their acceptance of suffering. Blessed Junípero Serra was preeminently one of those heroes, who walked on his snake-bitten leg mile after mile, finding and bringing Christ as he served the Indian missions of Pacific America.
There is a wonderful story about Blessed Serra the Walker that Willa Cather recounted in her book Death Comes for the Archbishop that illustrates the miraculous force that walked with this missionary across the desert plains.
Fray Junípero traveling on foot with Fray Andrea, a member of his order, arrived late one night at a remote monastery. They arrived without cloak or fare, prompting the astonishment of their brethren who believed it impossible that they could have thus crossed the wide desert stretch without provision of any kind. When asked by the Superior of the monastery to explain this marvel, adding some admonishment towards the mission from whence they came for allowing them to proceed on so a dangerous journey so unprepared, the holy man grew even more surprised to hear what the good Blessed Serra had to report as to how they had survived.
Fray Junípero told the Superior that they had met a Mexican family living in happy poverty along their way and that they had provided for their every comfort. At this, a passing muleteer bearing wood for the priests’ fire laughed—there was no house for twelve leagues in any direction, he said, and not a soul who lived in the wasteland that Fray Serra had mysteriously traversed. His words were corroborated by several of the brotherhood; but nevertheless, Fray Serra continued his strange story with a stranger conviction.
Though they had begun their journey with a day’s supply of bread and water, they found that they had underestimated the time it would take them to cross the desert. At the close of the second day, their bodies and hearts weak with fear and exhaustion, they rejoiced to discover a small house sitting in the shade of three great cottonwood trees among the cacti. The trees were green and lush and, beneath them, a donkey was tied to a stump by a wall of the house where peppers hung, and a small Mexican stove stood by the door. The travelers called out and a Mexican peasant clad in sheepskin clothing appeared and welcomed them with a mighty kindness. He brought them within his home, asking them to stay the night as his beautiful wife stirred a pot by the fire. Their child, wrapped in a simple garment, sat on the floor by his mother playing with a lamb.
Fray Junípero and Fray Andrea found this family hospitable, happy, and holy. They told them that they were shepherds as they shared their supper and followed their guests in the evening prayer of the Church. Afterwards, though they would have liked to continue speaking with their hosts, the priests were suddenly overcome by weariness and fell into a deep sleep in the places provided for them. When they awoke with the dawn, there was no one to be seen. Supposing that the good people were off tending their flocks, the two wayfarers took up their road again and arrived in health and safety at their destination.
As before, the brothers of the monastery were astounded by this account, declaring that there were three great cottonwood trees in that part of the desert: indeed, they were a well-known landmark, but there was no house by them. So great was their wonder that some of the brothers took Fray Junípero and Fray Andrea to the very spot, and though they found the same cottonwoods, there was no house, no donkey, no oven, and certainly no inhabitants. It was then that the priests, following Fray Junípero Serra and Fray Andrea, sank to their knees and kissed the blessed ground, “for they perceived what Family it was that had entertained them there.”
From Death Comes for the Archbishop:
Fray Junípero confessed to the Brothers how from the moment he entered the house he had been strangely drawn to the child, and desired to take him in his arms, but that he kept near his mother. When the priest was reading the evening prayers the child sat upon the floor against his mother’s knee, with the lamb in his lap, and the Fray found it hard to keep his eyes upon his breviary. After prayers, when he bade his hosts good-night, he did indeed stoop over the little boy in blessing; and the child had lifted his hand, and with his tiny finger made the cross upon Fray Junípero’s forehead.
This beautiful tale serves as an icon of the man who, like the Holy family, brought greatness with him through simplicity and love. Thus the Holy Family welcomed Fray Junípero Serra as their own honored houseguest, appearing to him as those very people whom he had given his life to serve: the poorest of the poor of Mexico’s children, “in a wilderness at the end of the world, where the angels could scarcely find them!” And thus was the mission of this holy priest: to find and further the Holy Family of the Universal Church.
By the time Blessed Junípero Serra passed to his eternal reward in Monterey in 1784, his establishments were regarded as the best in the Provincias Internas, and the strength of the Californian missions were attributed almost wholly to his zeal and industry, and his eager, optimistic, and persevering character that sought with a lion’s heart to extend the membership of the Holy Family as far as his legs would carry him, rendering the life and labors of the missionary Junípero Serra exemplary of the mission of the Catholic Church.
Reminiscing on his experience of Blessed Junípero Serra, a certain Fray Pablo Font wrote:
In very truth, on account of these things, and because of the austerity of this life, his humanity, charity, and other virtues, he is worthy to be counted among the imitators of the apostles. His memory shall not fail, because of the works he performed when alive shall be impressed in the minds of the dwellers of this New California; despite the ravages of time, they shall not be forgotten.
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Saint of the Day Ping!
There are also subsequent diaries of the exploration of California I can recommend: Fages 1770, Fages/Crespi 1772, and Pedro Font's account of the Anza expedition of 1775-6. These were men of great faith and integrity. Yet one incident made them all possible that should be mentioned here.
The expedition was preceded by the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, which landed along the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara. There, Cabrillo encountered the Chumash tribe, one of the wealthiest and most powerful Indian tribes on the California coast. After he landed, the Indians acted out a bizarre pantomime theatre that Cabrillo interpreted correctly was an account of a battle between Coronado and the Yuma tribe hundreds of miles away, in which all the Indians had died. Effectively, the Chumash were telling Cabrillo to keep his distance from the mainland, because they had reason to mistrust white men with beards.
The captain decided to send a boat ashore to reconnoiter for fresh water, whereupon the Indians attacked, wounding two of his sailors. Cabrillo, to his credit, decided not to retaliate.
This Christian act of forgiveness was the reason why the Chumash accepted the Portola expedition with open arms almost 130 years later, a reception without which the expedition that established California as a Spanish colony would have surely failed. The Chumash supplied the expedition with enough fish that they were still eating it on the return from San Francisco, fish without which the journey would otherwise have failed. When the Spanish took over and established their missions, they banned Indian burning. This single order allowed sufficient redwood to grow to build San Francisco. In fact, the lack of Spanish settlement might have sufficiently delayed American dominance that we might not nearly have so easily won the Pacific War.
The entire history of the West Coast would have been otherwise VERY different. All because of a Captain's forgiveness over two wounded men.
You must be a history teacher. Fascinating.
I teach history as relates to my research into native plant habitat restoration and the pastoral theme of Biblical teachings, but I am not a "history teacher." It's hard not to see the hand of the Lord in such stories.
Now go get the book about all the atrocities those Fathers laid upon their slave laborers. One big California shame. No heroes here. Kill the Indian and save his soul.
The Indians were not “slave laborers.” From the very start, the Spanish had been forbidden (by the Pope) to enslave the newly discovered Indian peoples, and they actually abided by this order.
The missions were established because of the Spanish theory that urbanization brought more prosperity and settlement brought civilization. Most of the Indian groups had been migratory before that time. However, it was not required that the Indians live in the missions. It was convenient for the civil authorities to have them living there, but in some cases, the Franciscans and the Jesuits alike opposed having them relocate into a mission, because it conflicted with their traditional agricultural or residential practices.
The 18th century California missions seem to have been the most organized, but earlier missions were basically just Indian villages built around a mission church, educational and workshop complex.
Some tribes never moved into the missions per se and some tribes, such as the Hopi, in fact never converted. They were not forced to convert, although they were all asked to hear the gospel (that is, accept missionaries among them to preach for awhile). If they did not convert, the Spanish civil authorities would attempt to enter into a treaty with them and as long as they honored it, things were peaceful.
One of the major concerns of the missionaries was protecting the Indians from the civil authorities. The latter were often unjust, demanding high taxes from the Indians in goods or produce, not paying them fairly for their labor, and interfering with their traditional way of life. The taxes paid for the protection of the Spanish military against raids by hostile tribes, since inter-tribal fighting had been the biggest problem of the Indians since long before the Spanish had arrived. The military gave the Christian Indians some protection, although since the British and Americans, in between killing huge numbers of Indians, armed certain groups and used them to attack the Spanish, this protection ended up not being enough.
The mission chain that had spread out through Florida and along the Georgia coast from the 16th to the 18th centuries was in fact destroyed by British colonists from Georgia in the early 18th century. They destroyed the many missions, killing thousands of Indians and numerous Franciscan friars (in some cases, crucifying or burning them on the large Stations of the Cross that surrounded the missions), and sent something like 11,000 Indians into slavery on the British sugar plantations in the West Indies.
The 18th and early 19th century California missions were, in fact, one last try at protecting the Indians from the conflicts of European-American civil society. The missions eventually collapsed because, when Mexico became independent of Spain, the missions’ economic connection with Spain collapsed, and the Mexican ranchers who controlled California (part of Mexico at the time) wanted the mission lands and their cattle. Soon, however, Americans began pushing into the area, and they had even less desire to protect the missions and were more aggressive about obtaining the land and properties of the missions.
Interestingly enough, the mission buildings which still remained standing in the mid 19th century were restored to the ownership of the Franciscans or the Church by Abraham Lincoln.
Thanks for the history. Very interesting, and something for Catholics to take pride in.
During the American Revolution, Father Serra collected money for George Washington and sent it to him for the war effort. This was when the Continental Congress tended to neglect care of the troops. Needless to say George was touched by the good father's effort.
On one of his last trips to where he would personally visit each of the missions on the back of a donkey. He began his trip by stretching his back, rubbing his head and saying, "I wish I could fly." He was later honored with an airmail stamp.
"Migratory" is a poor choice of word. Although California Indians burned their dwellings and villages (sometimes annually) when they moved in seasonal pursuit of the acorn crop versus fishing (for example),they returned to those spots as well. They remained within tightly confined areas in numerous and very distinct language groups. "Semi-settled" is the more commonly applied descriptive term, largely driven by the fact that they had long extirpated all the species on the continent that once had any domestic potential.
At least some of the Franciscan missionaries did punish Indian coverts who attempted to flee.
One of the problems for the Indians is that once they became Christians and Spanish citizens, they were then subject to Spanish law. In many cases, they didn’t understand it very well, which led to problems.
As for the missionaries, there were a few very harsh ones. But generally, once complaints started arriving in Mexico City (the headquarters of the missionary college and missionary activities), the superiors would either bring the friar back to Mexico or move him off to a less demanding post.
The exception was those against whom there were moral charges, a very small group, fortunately, who were punished very severely and were usually turned over to the Inquisition for trial. Most of the people actually receiving death sentences from the Inquisition in the New World were clergy, sometimes for heresy or syncretism, but often for moral charges such as sexual immorality or even enslaving the Indians. Death sentences were carried out by the State, but other sentences, including imprisonment, were carried out by Church authorities.
The Indians, with a few rare exceptions, were not subject to the Inquisition because it was thought that they did not know enough to intentionally sin. The exceptions were people who had been educated in Mexico City or even sent to Spain for education but then went “off the rails” as adults.
Often this involved syncretism, that is, what we would call the forerunner of Santeria. Pity the Church didn’t keep on doing this: Santeria and voodoo have been no help to either the Church or the populations that practice these cults.
Another history thank you.
Wow! Even more history. Thanks.
The Franciscans were so busy trying to keep the missions staffed that such finer points went unaddressed.
The exception was those against whom there were moral charges, a very small group, fortunately, who were punished very severely and were usually turned over to the Inquisition for trial.
There were apparently so many "moral charges" as to make the rest immaterial insofar as life in the mission was concerned. The tribes in and around the Mission Santa Cruz held unmarried women in common for any man to take as he pleased. Once the Spanish soldiers passed syphilis to them, it was a death knell for the tribe as a whole. On the flip side, there is substantial anecdotal evidence of substantial fractions of some tribes surviving, particularly in Carmel Valley, official reports to the contrary. I was discussing this with a docent at a local museum in Monterey only last Sunday.
The exceptions were people who had been educated in Mexico City or even sent to Spain for education but then went off the rails as adults.
There were so few of those in and around Santa Cruz so as to make any difference.
Don’t forget that the Franciscans actually moved the Monterrey mission so that the Indians wouldn’t be victimized by or get bad habits from the Spanish soldiers!
The California Missions were late 18th and early 19th century missions (quite a bit later than the Florida and Southwest missions) and I think by then it was clear that the Indians were not going to survive their encounter with the outside world intact.
One of the reasons that the California missions were more enclosed and “collectivized” than the other missions was that the friars thought they were building a little utopian society for the Indians. That is, it was a sort of protected, ideal world, where the day began with prayer, the Indians worked at their crafts or trades a few hours a day and then farmed, the unmarried women lived modestly and safely in sort of “barracks,” etc. The missions were guarded by Spanish soldiers, but only married men who were known to be of good moral character were permitted.
Like most Utopian schemes, the missions failed, although that was in part because of the pressure of first the Mexican ranchers and then the Americans, who wanted the land and the profitable cattle operations of the missions.
They had similar problems with the Presidio at Branciforte. Those soldiers were the bottom of the barrel.
I think by then it was clear that the Indians were not going to survive their encounter with the outside world intact.
Clear to us, but I don't share the conclusion that the Franciscans had made that observation without a quote.
That is, it was a sort of protected, ideal world, where the day began with prayer, the Indians worked at their crafts or trades a few hours a day and then farmed, the unmarried women lived modestly and safely in sort of barracks, etc.
Knew that too. Why do you feel the necessity to "instruct" me? Really, it's insulting.
The missions were guarded by Spanish soldiers, but only married men who were known to be of good moral character were permitted.
Such as there weren't. Syphilis was the end of the California Indian. Tuberculosis paled by comparison.