Junipero Serra: Behind the Statue

“Always Forward, Never Back”

Thomas Griffin (7/1/20)


“Always forward, never back” was the life motto of St. Junipero Serra (1713-1784). This widely unknown saint became infamous in the past week when rioters decided that he personified racism, colonialism and oppression. So, they tore down statues of the Franciscan missionary in Los Angeles and San Francisco. No discussion, no dialogue, simply destruction. Before we condemn a man, and a saint, we should at least answer the question: who is the man behind the statue?

Serra was born as Miguel Jose in Spain, but took the name Junipero (the namesake of a close companion and friend of St. Francis) when he entered the Franciscan Order at the age of twenty-seven. A bright student he excelled in the classroom, went for further studies and after he was ordained a priest he was asked to be a professor at the University of Padua. 

In 1750 Junipero left what would’ve been an illustrious career in academics to preach the gospel and live a life of simplicity. He traveled to Mexico, the New World. After close to twenty years of serving at their missions he accepted the call to travel to California and be among the first to evangelize on the golden coast. 

In the midst of the American Revolution Serra built over twenty-one missions devoted to proclaiming the message of Christ to all surrounding peoples. Once baptized, Native Americans would live on the property of the missions and be given the opportunity to learn more about the faith and live in community. Here, we have the main point of contention for members of the culture opposing Junipero. There are claims that he and his missions violently imposed Christian values and ways of life on the natives in the area, even employing them on their fields in forms of slave labor. 

This could not be further from the truth. In Mexico, Serra fought for the rights of the Native Americans so intensely that he met with the military commander to settle a law that became known as the Regulation which protected the rights of the Native Americans and the missions. 

Serra was never responsible for the enslavement of natives or the execution of anyone. The confusion comes with the fact that the goal of these communities, according to expert on California history Robert Senkewicz, was two fold. The Church sent them to further the mission of Christ and the state employed them to help assimilate Native Americans under Spanish rule by learning agriculture and living in communities like citizens in Spain. 

However, furthering the Christian message does not equate to enslavement, oppression or injustice. The very fabric of Christianity is founded on the love of God and neighbor that pushes one to bring others into communion with Jesus Christ. He accomplished this through a slow movement and introduction to the Christian way of life and the person of Christ. Before he ascends into heaven, Jesus tells the disciples, ““Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

Junipero set out on this endeavor with an attitude of joy that can only come from the deep rooted knowledge of God’s proximity. He was known for his joyful demeanor and often stated that “a healthy attitude is contagious but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier.” 

St. Serra was, first and foremost, a disciple and priest of Christ who spent hours in prayer each day, devoted himself to the poor and stranger as a Franciscan, and desired others to meet Jesus face-to-face, in a dynamic manner. 

His motto of “always forward, never back” is needed now, more than ever. Several statues of this saint are destroyed, but his mission still remains for current disciples to take up. Let us move forward as Junipero would, with a focus on intense prayer and an attentiveness to the presence of Christ as the key ingredient to a life devoted to love of God and neighbor; despite the verdict of society.

Thomas Griffin teaches Apologetics in the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife. He received a master’s degree in theology from St. Joseph’s Seminary & College and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy at Holy Apostles Seminary & College. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.

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