Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Some Personal Thoughts About Father Serra

I am going to reshare Part III of my blog post about the reverend father. But first, I thought I'd say some things about him that seem appropriate here.

A young farm boy who has never been healthy listens to the Franciscan friars at the church near his home. How and why he came upon the idea of leaving the farm to study scriptures and become a priest is probably somewhere in the archives of the prodigious letters he wrote – and certainly told to us by his boyhood friends, Juan Crespí, Francisco Palóu, Rafael Verger, and Guillermo Vicens.

If there is any one thing I've learned about Serra, it was his unshaken determination to carry out anything he made up his mind to do. He was too small to see over the podium to lead prayers or give the homily, so he piled up large tomes so he could do so. He got the idea that his mission in life would be to minister to the Gentiles – as the Indians were known – in the New World. There were no immediate openings, but fate came to his aid, and five slots opened up for he and his friends.

18th Century sea voyages were certainly not pleasure cruises. Ships of the day had little in the way of conveniences as we know them, relieving oneself was done by crawling through a hole in the bow and hanging over the passing ocean. Cleansing was done with cold sea water. The food was dull, often little more than heavily salted dried beef or sheep followed by stone-hard biscuits. As there was no way of keeping things from spoiling, what fresh water that didn't spoil in the casks was added to rum for the standard grog. They went through a period where water was doled out only once in every 24 hours. Serra never complained and when asked why, is reported to have said, "I have found a remedy for this thirst, it is to eat very little and to talk less—it does not waste the saliva."

None of this deterred Serra. In fact, he almost got thrown overboard with the constant arguments he had with the Protestant captain of the ship.

He arrived at Vera Cruz and was told he would have to wait to continue on to the college of San Fernando in Mexico City, Waiting was not in his manner and he, along with one other friar, set out on foot for the 100 league journey. The country was sparsely settled, the pueblos were long distances apart and chance travelers few. But these difficulties were as nothing to Fray Junipero's vehement will and courage. He went on his way joyfully. The roads were rough, the weather at times bitterly cold or intensely hot. Without proper preparations to meet these climatic variations, without sufficient food, and quite as often without water to quench their thirst, the friars plodded doggedly on. 

If one reads his biography, it is told that he met someone along the way who gave the two friars food and water. Later travelers said there was nobody on the road or any place to stop for food and water. Perhaps a miracle? 

We know how Serra's leg swelled up, great ulcers forming. It would've stopped any other man, but not him. He was going to Mexico City and that was it. He almost met The Lord three times along the way, but his faith and stubbornness carried him through. It was New Year's morning, 1750, when he limped wearily into the City of Mexico, just eight months and a half from the day he left Majorca.

What is it that drives anybody to such extremes? Some who scoff will call it fanaticism, superstitious beliefs, and general mania. Those are the ones who go through life not believing in anyone or anything. In Serra's case, it was his unshaken belief in the teachings of the Catholic church and that it was his mission to bring the story of everlasting life to all who would listen.

Many say his near-fanatical obsession with his mission made him a cruel taskmaster, From what I've read, he learned from his parents and followed their example throughout his life. He looked upon the natives, in the Sierra Gorda mountains of Mexico and throughout California, as his children. He loved them as a parent and, as such, felt it his duty to set them on the right path in life. Also, as a parent of his time, he firmly believed that he should set an example for them and, as he would punish himself for his failings, so did he with those who came to the missions and accepted The Word of God. He never expected them to reach his level of commitment, only to do their best with his care and guidance.

We are talking about the age of Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child.

If he was hard on himself, he was just as hard with the other friars and the military assigned to protect them and expand Spain's control in the New World. He never hesitated to chide any of them from private soldiers to governors for what he saw as cruel or inappropriate treatment of “his children.” He actually fought to have one governor removed and excommunicated another.

I often wonder how Serra felt upon his deathbed. He had been stopped from Founding Misión Santa Barbara by lack of funds and a governor's determination that a military installation was more important. He had not been able to establish even one-half of the missions planned and given sites. He knew many Indians waited eagerly for a mission near where they lived and, during his extensive trips up and down the lengths of California, would stop to minister to them.

And, as I've indicated elsewhere, I wonder what he would think of being considered for sainthood as well as the so-called controversies surrounding it.

Saint or Sinner?

I'm certain Reverend Father Serra thought of himself as a weak man who committed many sins. I also believe he would be horrified at the thought of being made a saint.

With that, Part III of Father Serra will come next.

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