Politics & Policy

Junipero Serra and God’s Tender Mercy

(Georg Henrik Lehnerer/Dreamstime)
Encountering the founding father of the California missions.

Vatican City — Junipero Serra, founding father of the California missions, preferred the “taste and see approach” to sharing the good news of the Gospel, in which he found his hope and his identity.

Robert M. Senkewicz, professor of history at Santa Clara University, is filling in the background at a press conference here in Rome sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in advance of a visit by Pope Francis to the North American Pontifical College to celebrate Serra. It will be Francis’s first visit to the seminary since he became pope.

When Pope Francis comes to the United States in September, he is expected to talk about the coming canonization of Junipero Serra — who was beatified by Pope John Paul II — at a Mass on the campus of the Catholic University of America (my alma mater). Serra will be the first Hispanic saint (born in Spain) from the United States of America, celebrated by the first pope from the Americas.

“What a difference there is between a temperament that is harsh, stern, and severe and a disposition that is mild, loving, sweet, and gentle. The harsh temperament rides roughshod over everything, causes trouble everywhere, and usually ruins everything. The mild disposition, on the other hand, arranges everything peacefully, softens everything, and attracts everyone with its tenderness.”

That could be lesson from or a description of Pope Francis and his invitational approach. What it is is a sermon by Serra, translated for the first time into English by Rose Marie Beebe, Senkewicz’s wife and a professor of Spanish literature at Santa Clara, in their book Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. The sermon, based on the Psalms and the life of Christ, gets into the offer of a first encounter that leaves one wanting more.

“The magnanimity of our Lord and God consists in the boundless extent of this benevolent condition,” Serra explains. “He is complete mercy, complete love, and complete tenderness toward men, even toward the most ungrateful sinners.”

Serra, despite his radical commitment to Christ as a Franciscan missionary priest, would consider himself among the unworthy sinners — much as Pope Francis frequently says of himself.

“The Lord wishes all people to attain to the ends for which He compassionately created us,” Serra continues. “He yearns that we might believe that He is the way, the truth, and the life and that we might advance toward the salvation He wills for us.” What is that will? Serra cites Timothy 2:4: He wills everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. “For that reason,” Serra continues, “He extends the golden bonds of His goodwill and love to entice us and unite us to himself.”

What a contrast this message is to some of the ways religion appears in the news these days! Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Melkite archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, was in New York this past week pleading for the West to end its relative ignorance and inaction concerning the persecution of Christians in his home. The “taste and see” approach of Christianity is quite the contrast to radical Islamic extremism, seen most dramatically, albeit not exclusively, under the demonic banner of the Islamic State. In a speech at New York University, Archbishop Jeanbart said, “As Christian leaders in Syria are appealing for reconciliation and peace and openness, radical Muslim factions are calling for jihad and exclusion, a kind of apartheid for all non-Muslims.”

Rather than apartheid or coercion, Serra’s missionary message was one of welcome. Still, his canonization — to which Pope Francis himself gave high priority — has proven controversial. A Los Angeles Times editorial recently advocated the removal of Serra’s statue from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building — the very hall Pope Francis may well walk through on his way to speak to Congress. What an insulting welcome that would be for such a refreshing moral leader, denying what should be a healing and uniting apostolic visit for Americans to celebrate together.

Only about a third of California’s native population lived at the missions, Monsignor Francis J. Weber, the archivist emeritus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, explains, and most of the hostility to Serra comes from “descendants of the non-Christianized natives.” Serra has been accused of forcing conversions. But Weber — along with the congregation in Rome that investigates cases for sainthood — says that there is no record of such a thing, and “to have done so would have violated the whole notion of free will” that lies at the heart of Christianity.

The Spaniards who came in the mid 18th century to what would later become the United States were attempting to be a leaven rather than another authoritarian hand, even in the midst of violence around them. The evidence suggests some success, in no small part because of Serra.

Rubén G. Mendoza, a founding professor at California State University at Monterey Bay, says that for a long time he believed the “myths” about Serra, but decades of work in the archives and archeology of early California and Mexico have led him, he tells me, to “contend that the California Indian fared far better under the mentoring and tutelage of the friars and the mission system than they did under any other system of governance in vogue in the late 18th through the 20th century.”

The pope’s visit to the United States in September will be an opportunity to celebrate a hero at a time when we are so in need of heroes.

The pope’s visit to the United States in September will be an opportunity to celebrate a hero at a time when we are so in need of heroes, Monsignor Weber emphasizes. And Serra is indeed an immigrant missionary American hero. “Do not think, Christian, that the statement about the Lord being sweet and gentle is true of Him only in His glory with the blessed ones,” Serra preached. “It refers to the Lord in everything, with everyone, and at all times.” What a contrast to the beheadings and the dangerous propaganda — some of it quite effective — from ISIS. What a model of fatherhood, of true tolerance, treating all with respect. Serra, like Saint Peter and so many other Christian heroes, was not perfect, but men rarely are.

Contemporaries affirmed that Serra was a saintly man, an apostle of Jesus Christ who lived his life in radical commitment to the Gospel, a commitment that brought him to leave his family and his home in Spain and give his life to God in service to those whose lives might be better with his help. We need such people in our midst today. We need Serra’s example in contrast to the violence we see today. Don’t let ideology cloud the celebration of this gift, the life of Junipero Serra.

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