‘Bringing Christ to the People’
On Sept. 25, 1988, St. John Paul II beatified Junípero Serra (1713-1784), the Spanish Franciscan friar who founded the first nine of 21 missions in California, from San Diego to San Francisco. This past January, Pope Francis announced that he will canonize Blessed Junípero during his apostolic visit to the United States in September.
Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles recently spoke with Columbia editor Alton J. Pelowski about Blessed Junípero Serra and the upcoming canonization. The author of Men of Brave Heart: The Virtue of Courage in the Priestly Life (2009) and Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation (2013), Archbishop Gomez was installed as archbishop of Los Angeles Feb. 27, 2011. He is a member of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral Council 2540 in Los Angeles.
Columbia: When Pope Francis canonizes Blessed Junípero Serra in September, he will raise to the altars a man whom he called “the evangelizer of the West in the United States.” What is the significance of Serra’s canonization for Catholics in America?
Archbishop Gomez: I think Blessed Junípero Serra is a great example for Catholics. He dedicated his life to the mission of evangelization, to bringing the good news of the Gospel to America, especially to the people in California. He understood that the purpose of the Church is to help us grow as human persons and to respond to God’s call: to love God and love others.
His canonization also reflects the influence of Latino culture in the United States, especially in the Southwest. In the United States, we traditionally reflect more on what happened in the Northeast, with the English settlers to New England the pilgrims and everything related to their arrival. We may also think of the French influence in America, with settlers coming to New Orleans and then going all the way to Chicago.
As I discussed in my book on immigration, evangelization in the Southwest United States by way of Mexico was an important part of the origins of our country. The names of the cities reflect this rich history. Think of Los Angeles, Sacramento, and so many other cities in California, and places like Corpus Christi and San Antonio in Texas. This history is part of who we are as a nation.
Columbia: In 1987, when St. John Paul II visited Mission San Carlos, he recalled the “heroic spirit and heroic deeds of Fray Junípero Serra … the apostle of California.” What were some of Serra’s most defining characteristics, actions and spiritual gifts that defined his life as a missionary?
Archbishop Gomez: What stands out is his personal spirituality and the fact that he did everything for the glory of God and for the service of others. He was a very smart person and very well educated. Still, he decided to come to America to bring the truth of the Gospel to the people. This decision to leave everything was just an incredible leap of faith. And if you read his biography, you know that he suffered a lot physically.
I think Junípero Serra provides a beautiful example. He loved God and he loved people so much. He didn’t think about himself, but rather came here to be with people and to help them and give meaning to their lives. He gave himself totally to others. That’s something we should imitate.
Just as Pope now Saint John Paul II said in 1988, Junípero Serra was totally committed to respecting the human dignity of the Native Americans he was meeting. In particular, it is clear in his biography that he defended the Native Americans before the local authorities and those who represented the King of Spain. I think that together with Bartolomé de las Casas, he was one of the great heroes of defending Native Americans and protecting their dignity.
Columbia: Echoing arguments aired at the time of Father Serra’s beatification, some stridently oppose the upcoming canonization, claiming that Father Serra imposed Christianity on the native populations, brutalized the Native American people and suppressed their culture. How should Catholics understand and respond to such claims?
Archbishop Gomez: Most of all, we need to understand that Blessed Junípero Serra’s only desire was to bring Christ to the people. Obviously, there are negative consequences of colonization, with the encounter of different cultures, including results that no one expects. But these effects were not Blessed Junípero’s intention. I think he respected the traditions and the customs of the Native Americans. He was just bringing Christ to the people.
During the time of Junípero Serra’s beatification, and also during the Jubilee Year 2000, St. John Paul II acknowledged and apologized for the occasions when the Church was responsible for violating the rights of Native Americans.
Still, the fact remains that people were coming to America no matter what. It was impossible to stop this. If they didn’t come from Spain, they would have come from some other place. It was inevitable.
When we really try to understand the work of the missionaries, we see that they tried to incorporate the customs and traditions of the Native Americans into the Catholic faith. The missions were places to gather together, because we as humans need each other to form a community. In a similar way, much of our society unites in big cities today.
It is also important to keep in mind that we cannot judge every action during that time with the way we think today. It’s difficult to judge people and events in the past by today’s standards and cultural norms. It was a different reality.
Columbia: Since the 1930s, a movement named after Father Serra has promoted vocations. Why do you think the founders adopted Blessed Junípero as their patron?
Archbishop Gomez: That’s a good question. Historically, I’m not sure of the reason, but it makes sense to me because Blessed Junípero came to evangelize. He knew that priests are wonderful instruments to bring the teachings of Christ to the people, and his biography makes clear that he was always asking for more missionaries to come to California.
Columbia: When Father Serra arrived in Mexico, the first thing he did was walk 250 miles to Mexico City, where he offered a Mass of thanksgiving at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. How was Serra’s ministry inspired by and related to Our Lady of Guadalupe and her message?
Archbishop Gomez: He also went to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe to ask her intercession when he was leaving for California. For Blessed Junípero, it was very important to have the protection of Our Lady.
When we reflect on the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we understand that her desire was to protect and intercede for all the people of the American continent. So, I think our Blessed Mother wanted to be especially close to the evangelization of California and the whole continent.