The first journey of Padre Junípero Serra when he arrived in the New World was to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe near Mexico City. There he offered the success of his missionary efforts to her intercession, for Mary, as Serra knew, is the Church’s inspiring model for the work of missionary discipleship. When she appeared to the indigenous Juan Diego as Our Lady of Guadalupe, she was dressed like his people, spoke his language, and had the face of a mestiza, a woman of mixed race. The very purpose of Mary’s apparitions to Mexico’s Juan Diego was to draw the people of the New World to her Son. Both Saint Juan Diego, Mexico’s first indigenous saint, and Saint Junípero Serra, North America’s first Hispanic saint, are models for evangelization, dedicated to bringing about the reconciliation of cultures while leading all to Jesus Christ.
Following the Camino of Saint Junípero Serra goes well beyond traveling his historical path through the missions of California. It also involves imitating his missionary fervor, demonstrating always a loving understanding and respect for others and their cultures. Like our new saint who walked along the coast of California sharing the Gospel, we too are called to step forward in our daily lives and bring to others the Gospel of God’s love. We are called not just to proclaim the Good News, but to be that good news; not only to invite others into the Church, but to be the Church in the world.
The Missionary Example of Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis, the thirteenth-century spiritual father of Junípero Serra, was filled with a deep desire to proclaim the Gospel to others. God gave Saint Francis extraordinary grace to preach with confidence, compassion, and clarity, motivated by a love for Jesus and zeal for the salvation of souls. Following the footsteps of Jesus, he demonstrated an unrelenting commitment to seek and save the lost.
Showing his own followers how to rebuild the Church, Francis of Assisi desired to be a living Gospel for all to see and hear, and, with single-minded devotion, even while burdened by frequent illness and bodily pain, he abandoned himself completely to the call Jesus had given him. These were dynamic traits that Junípero Serra shared.
While this following description of Saint Francis comes from the first biographer of Francis of Assisi, the words echo into the life of Junípero, the eighteenth-century son of Francis:
For during the space of eighteen years, which was now completed, his body had little or no rest while he traveled through various very large regions so that that willing spirit, that devoted spirit, that fervent spirit that dwelt within him might scatter everywhere the seeds of the word of God…. He filled all the earth with Christ’s Gospel, so that often in one day he would make the circuit of four or five villages or even towns preaching to everyone the Gospel of the Kingdom of God: and, edifying his hearers not less by his example than by his words, he had made a tongue of his whole body.
By embracing evangelical poverty, Saint Francis gave himself up for the salvation of others. His love for the lost inspired him to kiss the leper, to embrace the marginalized, to give all of his riches to the poor, unbinding himself from the shackles of wealth. This radical freedom enabled him to live in constant prayer, submitting his body entirely to Christ and allowing God to fill his heart with humility, compassion, and mercy.
Followers of Francis in later centuries took up his missionary impulse and traveled continually further afield. One of the greatest influences on this missionary movement was Ramon Llull, a medieval Mallorcan who became a secular Franciscan. Llull urged the study of Arabic and other languages for the purpose of missionary work and traveled through Europe establishing colleges to prepare future missionaries. He traveled to North Africa several times, and some traditions claim that he was martyred there at the age of eighty-two. The young Junípero Serra read the works of this medieval missionary, which helped him to internalize Christ’s call to go forth and proclaim the Gospel to all nations. In fact, Serra was a professor at the Llullian University in Mallorca, named in honor of this esteemed Mallorcan. So great was Llull’s influence on Serra that he carried a small cross containing a relic of Llull, which was buried with him at his death.
Another Franciscan missionary influence on Serra was Saint Francis Solano, the Apostle of South America, who was canonized when Serra was in his teens. A Spanish Franciscan of the sixteenth century, Solano traveled to the missions of Paraguay, Argentina, and Peru, where he labored tirelessly for Indians and Africans and against slave traders.
Following in the Franciscan tradition of these men and others, Serra would answer the call of Jesus Christ to bring the Gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As Saint Francis knew well, God reveals himself and the plan of salvation through the missionary proclamation of the Gospel. And as his followers have understood, this salvation is implanted in those who call on the name of the Lord:
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14–15)
The beautiful feet of missionary disciples bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world so that others can hear, believe, call on his name, and experience his salvation.
Living Missionary Discipleship Today
The Church today teaches us that all of the baptized have two fundamental calls: the universal call to holiness and the universal call to mission. In the extraordinary lives of Saint Francis and Saint Junípero Serra, holiness and mission were one, unified in the joy of the Gospel. When we follow in their way, they show us the way forward as witnesses of Jesus in the world.
As disciples of Jesus, we experience the joy of faith, the joy of prayer, the joy of life’s pilgrimage, the joy of detachment, the joy of relationship, the joy of service, and indeed the joy of salvation. Like Francis and Junípero, we find deep joy in following the command: Go forth and proclaim the Good News! Because of our call to holiness, we proclaim the Good News not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by Jesus Christ.
When Pope Francis canonized Saint Junípero Serra during his 2015 visit to the United States, the pope called us all to take on the joyful courage of our new saint, to leave behind our islands of comfort, and to proclaim Christ to the modern world.
The joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away. Jesus sends his disciples out to all nations. To every people. We too were part of all those people of two thousand years ago. Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving his message and his presence. Instead, he always embraced life as he saw it. In faces of pain, hunger, sickness and sin. In faces of wounds, of thirst, of weariness, doubt and pity. Far from expecting a pretty life, smartly-dressed and neatly groomed, he embraced life as he found it. It made no difference whether it was dirty, unkempt, broken. Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone.
Serra was part of a missionary team who went out to the peripheries—beyond the geographical, social, and racial boundaries of their time—to proclaim the Gospel. Pope Francis says that this call to evangelize must be a normal part of a mature, authentic, and integrated Christian life. The peripheries don’t have to be far away. Evangelization is the urgent call of our Church: to renew, expand, and cultivate disciples.
Young people who are dissatisfied with the consumer-driven and self-centered culture of our time ought to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit calling them to give over their lives for a noble cause, coming to know the great joy to be found in serving and in announcing the Gospel.
Pope Francis said that Saint Junipero Serra embodies 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.”
Serra’s canonization and following his Camino in California should prompt us to awaken our own missionary spirit. Taking with him only the certainty that God was calling him to missionary discipleship, he came to the New World to be a witness to God’s love. As we follow in his way, let us keep his spirit before us, a vision of life encompassed in his motto recalled by Pope Francis:
Fr. Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!
Prayer for Missionary Discipleship
Mighty and Merciful God, who has called your people to proclaim and teach the Gospel to all the nations so that your word may reach the ends of the earth, we give you praise for your missionary Saint Junípero Serra, the apostle of California. As he served your Church and loved the native peoples of this land to the end of his life, may we follow his example, always going forward and never turning back. With all your missionary saints, may we walk the way of holiness and embrace the call to discipleship. We ask this through Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life forever. Amen.
Excerpted from Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to the California Missions, by Stephen J. Binz.
Stephen J. Binz is an award-winning author and Catholic biblical scholar, holding graduate degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, with additional studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written over forty books in biblical theology, commentary, and spirituality. He lives with his wife Pamela in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. You may see his speaking topics and publications at Bridge-B.com.