Two hundred forty-six years ago tomorrow, Junipero Serra, aged 55, landed in San Diego bay. The building of the California Missions began. Fr. Serra presided over the construction of beautiful open monasteries all along the coast. The places we know as San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Jose, Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo, and, of course, San Diego, all got their names from the patron saints of these missions.
In California some enemies of the Church refuse to celebrate Father Serra as a Founding Father or even to remember him as a great and generous man. To the contrary, they accuse him of colonialism and genocide.
Last year I had the opportunity to visit the mission chain with a couple brother priests. The surviving missions offer the pilgrim a great deal of prayerful peace. Not that that proves anything in a historical argument, in and of itself. But it does make you wonder if the criticisms really make sense.
One important fact to keep in mind: the native tribes of California survived through the Spanish-mission period. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in the 1820’s, the government proceeded to confiscate the missions. Then, of course, Mexico lost her war with the United States. It was the Gold Rush of 1849 that doomed the indigenous natives of California. Genuine cruelty arrived in California not in 1769, but in 1849.
I think we should take special pride and rejoice on July 1 for these reasons…
1) Fr. Serra did everything as a son of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron of the northern parish of our beloved cluster.
2) This Franciscan qualifies as a genuine Founding Father of the USA.
No, he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. At that time, praying, baptizing, confirming, and teaching people the Gospel occupied all of his attention. In fact, in 1776, he had just buried the first martyr of California, one of his brother Franciscans, and he had to re-build the San Diego mission that a hostile Indian tribe had destroyed.
While Thomas Jefferson and Co. were declaring independence from England, Fr. Junipero was pleading with the Spanish authorities not to punish the Indians who had done the burning and martyring. He wrote, “”If I should die a martyr’s death at the hands of the Native peoples, I ask that no revenge or retaliation for my death be taken. What would be gained for our cause by such an action? Instead, show them and teach them the love and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
3) When Pope Francis comes to the US in September, he will canonize Fr. Junipero, and our land will have another saint. Last year I prayed at the tomb of this saint for you!
What Father Serra’s critics lack is sympathy with his fundamental motivation. He and his brother Franciscans believed that one thing gives life its true meaning: union with God in Christ. The Franciscan missionaries lived their monkish lives and made their monasteries places where the native peoples could learn and pray. The Franciscans owned nothing and insisted that the land belonged to the natives. Of the converts to Christianity, the friars demanded discipline. But it was no more than the discipline they demanded of themselves. The Franciscans were morally strict, never racist. Over and over again, they took up the causes of Indians who had been wronged by Spaniards.
Doesn’t mean the missionaries didn’t make mistakes. But the vision that Fr. Serra had of what America could be—that vision could really help us at this point in history, I think.
Not to beat around the bush: Fr. Serra had no conception of technological and material “progress.” He was actually an enormously successful entrepreneur, after his fashion, building up a huge, amazing ‘business,’ so to speak. But the idea of ‘capitalism’ meant nothing to him. He had no thought of anything other than a tranquil, simple lifestyle.
Nor did he have any idea of absolute individual freedom. He courageously stood up for the native peoples, but neither he nor they would have understood the idea of religion as a personal, individual choice. Rather, he believed that God had given the land as a common inheritance, so that people could live together in prayerful peace, practicing the religion of Jesus, making their way to heaven.
Not a bad founding vision for this beautiful land. And it’s not too late for us to try to follow it.