Soon-to-be-saint, founder of missions, a model for evangelization

| Susan Klemond | September 9, 2015 | 1 Comment
Blessed Junipero Serra is written in this icon by local iconographer Kati Ritchie of St. Bonaventure in Bloomington in celebration of the 18th-century Spanish priest’s Sept. 23 canonization. See related story at right. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Blessed Junipero Serra is written in this icon by local iconographer Kati Ritchie of St. Bonaventure in Bloomington in celebration of the 18th-century Spanish priest’s Sept. 23 canonization. See related story at right. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

When Blessed Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish priest known for founding a string of iconic California missions and ministry to native population, is canonized later this month, Catholics in Minnesota and across the country hopefully will be inspired by his evangelistic “witness  of fortitude” and will look for ways to share their faith, said Bishop Andrew Cozzens, auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

On Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis will preside at the Mass of canonization for Father Serra, who is patron of the vocations apostolate Serra International. Several local Serrans and other leaders talked with The Catholic Spirit about their personal connection with the future saint, why he should be canonized, and what we can learn from his example, while addressing controversy over his treatment of California Indians.

Inspiration to local faithful

Serra International is a lay Catholic apostolate based in Chicago with 19,000 members in 36 countries who seek to grow in personal holiness while fostering vocations to the priesthood and vowed religious life through prayer and programs. The USA Council of Serra  International, one of 10 national and regional councils worldwide, represents the 235 U.S. Serra clubs, including seven clubs in the archdiocese with about 325 members.

The Holy Father might hope to spur on new evangelization in the United States through the example of Father Serra, who experienced great hardships sharing the Gospel, said Bishop Cozzens, 47, who became familiar with Father Serra from involvement with Serra clubs. Now the episcopal moderator of the USA Council of Serra International, Bishop Cozzens sees the future saint as a model for making sacrifices to live and share faith.

“I think he was a man who had a fire for evangelization, and I think every Catholic, especially today, has to have that same fire,” Bishop Cozzens said.

This summer, Jerry and Mary Beth Biese, members of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Minnetonka, became more familiar with Father Serra by visiting nine California missions. George Washington, based on the East Coast, is known as the nation’s founder, while Father Serra on the West Coast is considered founder of the U.S. Catholic Church, said Jerry, 73, treasurer of Airport Serra Club, which meets in Bloomington.

Mary Beth, 72, Airport Serra Club president, said a highlight was celebrating Father Serra’s July 1 feast day at his gravesite at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, California.

Considering the estimated 24,000 miles the priest traveled on foot through mountainous terrain with an injured leg, she said: “He is a great model of holiness and education and stick-to-itiveness, with a very positive outlook.”

Father Michael Van Sloun, pastor of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata, also visited California missions this summer, and on the trip got better acquainted with the future saint, whom he first learned about at a Serra vocation event when he 12.

Father Van Sloun noted that both he and Father Serra experienced mid-career changes: Father Serra left academic work to become a missionary, and Father Van Sloun ended a teaching and coaching career as a Crosier brother to become a diocesan priest.

“God works through restlessness,” he said. “If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to, God keeps shaking.”

Father Serra’s canonization is a gift to Serra International, which will have a stronger patron supporting its important work, Bishop Cozzens said. The canonization will bring awareness of vocations and hopefully encourage Catholics to promote them, Jerry Biese said.

The apostolate was launched after four Seattle businessmen who were meeting to discuss faith and their professional lives, decided in 1935 also to focus on promoting vocations. They founded the first Serra club, choosing Father Serra as patron because of his life of priestly zeal and heroic virtue in founding missions.

To celebrate Father Serra’s canonization and the fall kickoff of Holy Name of Jesus’ faith formation program, the Northwest Hennepin Serra Club will show Father Serra’s canonization Mass at 3 p.m. Sept. 23 via live feed at the Medina parish. After the viewing, the Serra Club will host refreshments, and Mass and faith formation open houses will follow.

‘Always forward, never back’

While some Native Americans believe Father Serra mistreated the native populations at his missions, Father Van Sloun cited the future saint’s 1773 trip to Mexico to report the soldiers’ mistreatment of Indians and seek the Mexican government’s help.

Father Serra might have been affected by the culture of his time, but he also defended native people’s rights and shared the Gospel, Bishop Cozzens said.

Father Van Sloun said that with Minnesota’s strong Native American presence, people can learn from Father Serra’s love and respect for indigenous people.

Father Serra offers inspiration for the local Church, Bishop Cozzens said. “In our archdiocese, it’s not easy to be a Catholic,” he said. “It takes fortitude to stand up for faith when the Church is in the [news]papers. He’s a great example for us there.”

Catholics should take seriously Father Serra’s motto, said Mary Beth Biese: “Always forward, never back.”

Who was Blessed Junipero Serra?

Blessed Junipero Serra was born in 1713 in Petra, Majorca, Spain. He was accepted into a Franciscan order in 1730 after first being denied. A gifted scholar and orator, he taught for some years in Spain until hearing a call to become a missionary.

In 1749 while walking to the Mexico City college where he was to teach, Father Serra received an insect bite that caused him pain the rest of his life. In Mexico, he ministered to Indians and founded a mission before traveling to San Diego, California, in 1769.

Though sometimes at odds with soldiers and government leaders, during the 1770s Father Serra led the Franciscans in founding nine California missions where they taught Native Americans. He died of tuberculosis in 1784 at Monterey, California, having traveled thousands of miles on foot to minister to California Indians.

Pope John Paul II beatified Junipero Serra in 1988. Pope Francis will canonize him Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., during his first papal visit to the United States. The Mass of canonization will begin at 3 p.m. local time and will be broadcast on EWTN.

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Category: Faith and Culture