As part of his visit to the United States, Pope Francis has canonized the missionary of California, St. Junipero Serra. The canonization marks a new springtime for the new evangelization and an increased effort to proclaim the Gospel to the peripheries.
St. Junipero Serra was born in 1713 on the island of Mallorca off the coast of Spain and joined a Franciscan community at a young age. He quickly garnered notoriety for his intelligence and rich spiritual life. He received the Duns Scotus Chair of philosophy at the prestigious Lullian University, however, he felt called to leave the comfort of his country and desired to go to the New World in order to spread the Gospel there. St. Junipero first worked in Mexico until he was fifty when he accepted an invitation to evangelize what is present-day California. He worked tirelessly to spread the Good News and established missions along the coast from San Diego to San Francisco.
The missions themselves have caused St. Junipero Serra to be a controversial figure with some critics saying that he was an advocate to the oppression of thousands of Native Americans by colonials. Bishop Robert Barron, himself a great evangelist and current auxiliary bishop in California, addressed the controversy in a recent video saying, “What fired his (St. Junipero’s) heart above all was the prospect of announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who had never before heard it, and there is no question that his missions provided the institutional framework for that proclamation.” Bishop Barron emphasized that while St. Junipero was not blameless throughout his life, he was nevertheless a saint who desired to spread the Gospel to people living on the periphery.
During his homily at the Pontifical North American College in May, Pope Francis laid out three key aspects to the life of St. Junipero Serra: his missionary zeal, his Marian devotion and his witness to holiness. The Holy Father said that what motivated St. Junipero Serra to leave everything and journey to the New World was, “his desire to proclaim the gospel ad gentes, that heartfelt impulse which seeks to share with those farthest away the gift of encountering Christ.”
By canonizing St. Junipero Serra during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis is challenging all Catholics to get out of their comfort zone and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to all, even and especially to those on the peripheries. The Holy Father is also highlighting the vital role which religious men and women played and continue to play in proclaiming the Gospel in the Americas.