Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Father Serra - Who was this man?

(Way back when I started this blog, I did a series of five posts about Blessed Father Serra. As Pope Francis will be canonizing him in September, I feel it is time for me to repost those five here and now. I hope they inform you and lead you to get a better knowledge of who he was and why he did what he did.)

A theologian? He held the John Scotus chair of philosophy at Lullian University, The Pontifical, Imperial, Royal and Literary University of Mallorca. He also held the chair of the Subtle Master at the same institution.

A disciplinarian? He was briefly assigned as a commissioner of the Holy Office, known as The Inquisition. He was also assigned to the directorship of the Office of Novice Master at the Apostolic College of San Fernando in Mexico City.

A linguist? He learned native languages so he could preach to them in a tongue they understood and tell them of Biblical dramas. He compiled several dictionaries of those tongues.

Administrator? He was given oversight of missions in the Sierra Gorda of Mexico and all missions in the Californias.

A simple parish priest? That was all Miguel Joseph Serra ever wished to be. He gloried in preaching to congregations and serving those newly brought to The Word of God. He grew up in Petra, a small inland village of the island of Mallorca, a Spanish possession in the western Mediterranean. Born of humble and devout farmers, he slept in a cubbyhole and tended to the animals very much a part of his family. His days started at dawn and ended at dusk, the principal light coming from an open fireplace in which the families meals were prepared in pots hung from hooks.

Miguel José, at his parents urging, visited the Franciscan church and the Friary of San Bernadine. He studied Latin in the boy's school and began to respect and admire the friars. At sixteen, his parents took him to Palma to study for entrance into the priesthood. He was turned down at first because he was so small and appeared too young. However, when his real age was learned, he was admitted as a novice.

He later wrote that "in the novitiate, I was almost always ill and so small of stature I was unable to reach the lectern, nor could I help my fellow novices in the necessary chores of the novitiate." But he was undaunted.
He took the name Junipero, one of the lay bothers of Saint Francis who was sometimes known as The Jester of The Lord. One has to see some irony in this as, throughout his life, Serra was known to be a most serious individual, rarely if ever showing more than a faint smile.

Fray Junipero was a diligent student, unassuming and simple. He was ordained a priest of Lullian University at Palma in 1739 and then received a doctorate in theology in 1742. Father Juniper's intellectual acumen and enormous willpower secured him a professorship of theology at the age of twenty-four in 1744 where he served until 1749.

Father Palóu, one of his early friends in the Order of Friars Minor, wrote of Father Serra's preaching a sermon at the most solemn of the university's feasts, the Feast of Blessed Raymond Lull, a great lay Franciscan. Fray Lay had been stoned to death trying to convert Moslems in North Africa. Of that sermon, one of the professors said it was worthy of being printed in gold.

But, this was not enough for Miguel José. An honored and respected teacher, student, and monastery librarian, as so many had before him, Fray Junipero desired to recapture the fervor felt during his novitiate by going to the New World to teach the “heathen” - as they were then known. It was about this time that Father Serra became close with former students, Fathers Crespí, Palóu, Verger and Vicens. In fact, it was Palóu who went to Father Serra to broach the subject of going to the new world.

Father Serra was overjoyed. But then, The Lord tried his patience. When he applied for permission to go to America, the request was refused as the quotas from their jurisdiction had been filled. It was suggested they join one of the colleges in Spain and, as members of that college go to the Indies. But, of the 33 Franciscan selected to go, five backed out due to their fear of the sea. That allowed Father Serra and his four friends to go.

After preaching his last sermon at the parish church in Petra, where he had been baptized, he said his farewells, not telling his aged parents where he was going. He begged forgiveness of the friars, received their blessing and was so touched his voice failed him. He then went around kissing the feet of all the friars. He and Father Palóu went to the wharf and embarked on an English packet boat for Malaga.

Our fervent friar immediately encountered difficulties as the captain of the boat was an Anglican and engaged Father Serra in theological arguments. At one point the captain became so enraged that he threatened to throw he and Father Palóu overboard. It got so heated that the captain drew his dirk and held the razor sharp blade to Father Serra's throat.

Was Father Serra frightened? According to his friend, he was willing to face death at the hands of the far-away barbarians. So, what fear would he have of the English captain for defending his faith?

They walked from Malaga to the major seaport of Cadiz where Fathers Crespí, Verger, and Vicens joined them. They sailed in August with 16 other Franciscans and seven Dominicans. It was a hard voyage in horrible conditions crossing the Atlantic, taking 99 days with a brief stop in Cuba, before they reached the port of Veracruz.

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