The Impact of Junípero Serra
Who Is Junípero Serra?
Junípero Serra was a Spanish Franciscan priest and colonist of the New World recognized for converting modern-day California to Catholicism. Over his years of travel by sea and by foot, he pushed back against obstacles to evangelize through his big heart and trust in God. He grew up on a farm, the son of a peasant, and entered the Order of Friars in 1730. He pursued academics, ultimately earning a doctorate in theology, and became a professor and writer soon after. It was clear from his education and teaching that he was always meant to preach, and he felt God called him to do so in the New World.
He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988 and canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. Francis described him as “the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ … He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters.”
His Mexico Expedition
Born on a Spanish island called Majorca, Junípero Serra immigrated to Mexico in 1749. He took on the ultimate challenge by walking the whole way to Mexico City from Vera Cruz, which amounted to 250 miles over twenty-four days. Over the next seventeen years, he would preach to the natives, translate a catechism, and effectively seek ways to improve the local economy.
The California Missions System
Serra moved farther north and completed nine missions in present-day California, traveling over six thousand miles before his death, all while enduring a leg injury he sustained in Mexico. Along the way, he spoke out against the mistreatment of Native Americans by the Spanish authorities. Because his California missions helped the economy, he could often influence politics, which meant he could successfully fight for the human rights of the natives. His works eventually led to surplus and created a strong trade economy.
He also clashed with the same authority when he tried to evangelize his Catholic faith. After being allowed to administer the sacrament of Confirmation for a year, Governor Felipe de Neve revoked his rights, and Serra had to spend almost two years getting approval from Rome.
Junípero Serra monitored the staffing, planning, and construction of each of his nine California missions. Then, during its execution, he would travel to each site by foot and administer the sacraments. He served in the New World until he died at seventy at Mission San Carlos Borromeo.
His canonization sparked some controversy, as members of the Native American community have claimed that Serra used forceful methods to convert them to Christianity during his California missions. While many were angry with the pope for his decision, Francis asked concerned citizens to look past his faults, although this did not pacify protesters.
Ultimately, Junípero Serra converted over four thousand Native Americans and baptized almost seven thousand. There is no doubt he impacted what California would become today.