Five Facts about California's Prospective Saint, Junípero Serra [Revised]

As reported yesterday in these pages, Pope Francis yesterday announced that he plans to beatify California missionary Blessed Junípero Serra when he comes to visit the United States in September. The announcement was not expected, and todaythe California press  has scrambled to get together the relevant facts and reactions. 

Looking for your own guide? Here are Five Fun Facts about our soon-to-be Saint. 

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1. Serra Has Better Titles than You

Serra is known today as the “Apostle of California,” having built in the late 18th century a network of 21 missions that stretched the entire southern half of the state from San Diego to San Francisco. Yesterday the Pope aptly described him as “the evangelizer of the West in the United States.”

Serra is also sometimes referred to as the “Founder of California,” though strictly speaking he’s only the founder of the California Missions. (And even that gets a wibbledy wobbledy when you factor in Baja. See below.)

His official title was “Padre Presidente” of the California Missions. Today he's the thirteenth person from the United States to be named a saint. 

2. He was Committed to the Mission, but Maybe Not So Much Fun

Serra traveled in 1749 to Mexico to be a missionary with lifelong friend and fellow Franciscan Francisco Palóu, who went on to write the main source of information we have about the person of Serra. 

Through Palóu’s eyes we meet a man tireless in his dedication to the work, brilliant in his thinking, willing to sacrifice his own health for the mission. Yet at times he's also clearly quite severe. Palóu tells a story of Serra, during a homily, pulling out a chain and beating himself bloody as an example of the penance that he was preaching. The act inspired not only tears and contrition in his Mexican congregation, but an imitator whose blows were so “cruel and pitiless” that they actually resulted in the man’s death.

According to Palóu Serra had a habit of this kind of self-abuse during sermons, “not only to punish himself but also to move his auditory to penitence for their own sins.”

3. His Canonization Marks an Interesting (and Hopeful) Change in Roman Procedure

Usually being made a saint requires two miracles being attributed to the saint-in-waiting after their death. Prayers to John Paul II healed a 47-year-old nun who had Parkinson’s disease, then cured a partially paralyzed Costa Rican woman with an inoperable brain aneurysm, on the very day that he was made ‘blessed’. (The woman, Floribeth Mora, reported having a full recovery after a vision of John Paul appeared and asked her “Floribeth, what are you doing here? Why don’t you get up and see your husband? He’s probably hungry. Make him a sandwich.”*).

*Part of the above story may be slightly hyperbolic.

Recently canonized John XXIII likewise answered the prayers of a 23-year-old nun near death after a gastric hemorrhage in 1966, and also saved the entire Church, what more do you want, for God’s sake.**

**Actually, in 2013 Pope Francis made pretty much that claim. There has been no second post-death miracle attributed to Pope John XXIII.

The two miracles rule isn’t hard and fast, insofar as the Pope can always step in and call a Papal audible. But it does seem to remain a pretty strong force in the decision making process. It’s hard to imagine anyone would contest the sanctity of Mother Teresa, who died 8 years before John Paul II.  But she still hasn’t had a second miracle attributed to her – Get to work, Terry! – and she’s not yet a saint. 

Serra, too, has only one miracle attributed to him, the healing of a woman with lupus. But in regards to Serra – and also a number of others whose canonization he announced yesterday – Pope Francis called upon another standard from canon law, “equipollence:” “Equipollent canonization is used when after a long time a man or woman is blessed and has had the veneration of the People of God, and de facto s/he is venerated as a saint, and the process of a miracle is not made.”

In other words, the long-term high regard of the People of God can be enough to make a person a saint. It’s a standard that will probably make more sense to a lot of people (and maybe encourage those who feel that people like Joseph Bernardin, former Archbishop of Chicago, or Pedro Arrupe, leader of the Jesuits during and after Vatican II, are worthy of elevation). Watch this space...

4. Jesuits to Serra: You’re Welcome.

Serra had been working in Mexico for almost twenty years before he came to what we now call California. And in a roundabout way what brought him to California was none other than the Jesuits.

Starting with the Portuguese Empire in 1759 and moving on throughout the world, the Jesuits found their star fading fast, until finally the order was kicked out of pretty much everywhere except Russia and suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. 

The Spanish Empire was the last of the major powers to move on the Jesuits, and did so dramatically. Magistrates were sent to every town where Jesuits resided on the night of April 1st, 1767, and all of them expelled without warning the next day.

At the time the Jesuits ran 13 missions in Baja California. Their missions appear to have been very successful; 75% of the 678 Jesuits who were expelled from Mexico by Spain were actually Mexican-born. And Mexicans reacted strongly enough against the expulsion that they had to be put down by force.  

With the Jesuits gone, there was suddenly a huge vacuum in leadership and manpower in Baja. Junipero Serra was sent to fill it.

5. Many Native Americans are Not Happy About This

As in many other parts of the Americas and the world, the entrance of Europeans into California was terrible for Native peoples. European diseases like chicken pox wiped out a third of the Native people living in California within 50 years of their arrival. And by many accounts, Native people were forced to work for the missions, and on occasion beaten. In 1780 Serra himself wrote “That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of the Americas; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.”

Translation: If saints are okay with hitting their missionary subjects, we’re not going to question it.

Others have argued that within the context of the times Serra was actually gentler than others (such as the Spanish governors), and that he even protected the Natives from the military. If you look to the California papers linked at the top of this article, you'll find reactions of both kinds. 

Either way, Native groups have been protesting Serra’s march towards sainthood for over 50 years. Speaking yesterday to the San Jose Mercury, Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band of Coastanoan/Ohlone Indians, said “Pope Francis is from Argentina and knows the history of the New World. But maybe he thinks it’s more important that he brought Christianity to the New World than what happened to the native population. Maybe the end justifies the means.”

Bonus Fact: U.S. Capitol Trivia

Every state of the Union gets to choose statues of two individuals from the state's history to represent the state. 

Father Serra is one of two Californians who have a statue in the U.S. Capitol.  (The other is former president, governor and movie star Ronald Reagan.)

Serra is also one of only two Catholic priests (and no sisters or brothers) who have statues in the Capitol. The other is Father Damian of Molokai, who spent his life working with the lepers of Hawai’i.

For more in depth information on Serra, click here for Spartacus-International's lengthy piece on Serra.  And in the meantime, congratulations to the Franciscans and all for whom Junípero Serra is an inspiration!

[REVISION, JANUARY 21: I stand corrected! There is in fact a nun included amongst the statues of the U.S. Capitol. Mother Joseph Pariseau of the Sacred Heart, a Sister of Providence, is one of Washington state's two representatives. Over the course of nearly 50 years of work throughout the Northwest, Mother Joseph founded 11 hospitals, 7 academies, 5 schools for Native American children, and 2 orphanages. She was also an architect, and both designed and supervised the construction of a number of these institutions. 

Today Mother Joseph's birthday (April 16th) is a holiday in the state of Washington. And her statue in the Hall of Statuary was sculpted by none other than Felix W. deWeldon, who also sculptued the famous US Marine Corps War Memorial commemorating the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima.

Thanks to Sr. Pat Talone, RSM, PhD for informing me about this extraordinary woman.]

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 6 months ago
This doesn't sound too inspiring (or "fun") to me.
Chris NUNEZ
3 years 6 months ago
Thank you Beth, nobody else seems to have blinked at this, and it's barely been weeks since the revelations of the participation of professional psychologists in devising ways to torture our enemies as part of modern 'warfare'; across the nation people were appalled, yet the treatment of human beings at the hands of 'our missionaries' is glossed! Thank you for noticing.
Alexandra Strong
3 years 6 months ago
The first paragraph says Fr. Junipero will be "beatified"... Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit, has a statue in the Capitol, for Arizona... so that's three catholic priests.
Frederick Pratt
3 years 6 months ago
Eight years before John Paul XXII?
Chris NUNEZ
3 years 6 months ago
# 5 - "As in many other parts of the Americas and the world, the entrance of Europeans into California was terrible for Native peoples." And it isn't just the brothers and sisters of the tribes, those of us who are Mestizo (mixed race) and natives of California growing up with the history of California and the Catholic Church in the Americas are equally distraught. What were people at the Vatican thinking? There's nothing 'fun' about this encounter. At best, there are missionaries who are actually worthy of sainthood for their spreading of the gospel, rather than the 'mission system' that was barbaric. Missionaries who stood up to establish the humanity of the indigenous population, and attendant rights that go with that should have been made saints. Fray Bartolome de las Casas, and Fr. Kino come to mind. I must wonder who was consulted about this shameful act... Shame, Shame, Shame!
Anne Chapman
3 years 6 months ago
Padre las Casas was a hero to the native population of the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations, since he opposed the atrocities, including slavery, committed by the Spanish against the Arawaks. But he is not without flaw either. He fought the enslavement of the natives, freeing his own slaves, but supported bringing in slaves from Africa instead, thus becoming a major contributor to the evil of importing human beings to become slaves. However, eventually he realized that all slavery was evil. This realization came too late for the African slaves. Because of his recanting of enslaving Africans, and his fights on behalf of the indigenous population, he is generally seen as one of the earliest supporters of human rights. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Fr. Serra.
Peter Schineller
3 years 6 months ago
And let us not forget - in the Capitol Statuary - Pere Marquette, S.J. of the great state of Wisconsin, a state familiar to the writer.
Jm McDermott
3 years 6 months ago

Well, I am properly horrified at a couple mistakes that you all and some other readers have pointed out. 

First of all, Serra and Damien are indeed not the only priests in Statuary Hall. Father Eusebio Kino does indeed represent the state of Arizona, and Pere Jacques Marquette, S.J. the great state of Wisconsin. 

Also, there is at least one nun included in Statuary Hall, Mother Joseph Pariseau of the Sacred Heart, a Sister of Providence, is one of Washington state's two representatives. Over the course of nearly 50 years of work throughout the Northwest, Mother Joseph founded 11 hospitals, 7 academies, 5 schools for Native American children, and 2 orphanages. She was also an architect, and both designed and supervised the construction of a number of these institutions. 

Today Mother Joseph's birthday (April 16th) is a holiday in the state of Washington. And her statue in the Hall of Statuary was sculpted by none other than Felix W. deWeldon, who also sculptued the famous US Marine Corps War Memorial commemorating the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima.

(Thanks to Sr. Pat Talone, RSM, PhD for informing me about this extraordinary woman.)

I say "at least one nun" because at this point I am now fully aware of my search engine incompetence in these matters!

The other error that I take very deeply to heart is the critique made by a number of you that a list of facts about Junípero Serra that includes the harm that came to Native Americans in California should not be described as "fun". I've edited the title to remove that word; there can sometimes be delays in seeing the results on the posted material. Hopefully it will soon be corrected. Thank you for calling me to task on that.

Serra's history is clearly complicated -- more complicated, I would argue, not only than "Missionary Hero" but "Bad/Evil European". Hopefully the coming months will provide opportunities, in these pages and elsewhere, for a thoughtful conversation about California's missionary history and Serra's place in it. 

Thanks again for the feedback!

Bill Mazzella
3 years 5 months ago
There is, as many of us know, the story about the native Indian who was condemned to death by the colonizers. He was asked if he would like to be baptized before he was executed. He answered that he did not want a God who had such followers.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
I am still looking for the real story about Fr. Junipero. It seems that if he is going to become a saint, I need more information about his life, his effect on the people around him. I'm not coming up with much. Article in the NYTimes a couple of days ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/22/us/to-some-indians-in-california-father-serra-is-far-from-a-saint.html?_r=0 Article in today's LATimes: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-platt-serra-sainthood-pope-francis-20150125-story.html I wonder what Francis is reading (or being told) about Fr. Junipero.

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