Society today tends to dismiss those who are physically frail or infirm as somehow being inferior to those blessed with good health. How fortunate that the Church does not do the same: A sickly young man named Miguel Jose Serra might never have been admitted to the Alcantarine Franciscans, and the history of the Faith in California would be very different.
Serra was born to illiterate farmers from Majorca, Spain, and suffered from poor health and physical weakness as a child. He was permitted to enter the Alcantarine Franciscans as a young man, despite his struggles to perform many of his duties as a novice. God blessed Serra's persistence: When he made his solemn profession at the age of 17, his health improved dramatically, and he rapidly became known as a brilliant orator. He took the name Junipero in honor of St. Juniper, one of St. Francis' companions.
Something was still missing for Fr. Serra, despite his rise to prominence. He felt a strong call to the mission field, and in 1749, Fr. Serra left Spain for Mexico. A mule was waiting for him when he disembarked at Vera Cruz, but Fr. Serra chose to make the 275-mile trip to Mexico City on foot with the other men. He was bitten by a snake along the route, leaving a wound which would continue to pain him for the rest of his life; nevertheless, Fr. Serra went on to make many of his missionary journeys on foot.
Fr. Serra spent eight years among the Pame Indians, translating the catechism into their language and making many converts. He returned to Mexico City to preach before being appointed superior of 15 Franciscans to take over administration of the missions already in existence throughout Baja California. He also volunteered to oversee the spiritual settlement of Upper California, and at the age of 53, departed for the remote missions. Over the next 17 years until his death, Fr. Serra established nine missions throughout Upper (present-day) California, as well as one (Mision San Fernando Rey de Espana de Valecata) in Baja California. He baptized 6,000 native people, and confirmed 5,000.
Many instances are recorded of Fr. Serra receiving divine assistance in his missionary work. One day he and a fellow missionary were traveling through a remote region of Mexico, and were welcomed into the home of a man, woman and child to spend the night. When they reached their destination, Fr. Serra was informed that no one lived in the area where they had been. Reflecting, Fr. Serra realized that the Holy Family had shown them hospitality for the night.
On August 28, 1784, with his health rapidly failing, Fr. Serra promised: "If the Lord in His infinite mercy grants me that eternal happiness which I do not deserve because of my faults, I shall pray for all dwellers in these missions and for the conversion of so many people whom I leave unconverted." He passed away later that afternoon.
During the 1988 beatification ceremony, Bl. Pope John Paul II declared Bl. Junipero Serra to have been a "shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit." The Serra Cause, charged with advancing Junipero Serra's cause for canonization, invites all Catholics to join in asking the intercession of the Apostle of California:
Oh Lord Jesus Christ,
reward the apostolic zeal
of Your Seraphic son, Blessed Junipero Serra,
who leaving home and fatherland,
labored for the salvation of souls in Spain, Mexico and California.
By Your Most Holy name
may he be raised to the full honors of the altar.
Through the intercession of Blessed Serra,
look with favor on my special prayers
which have no earthly answer.
This we pray through Christ our Lord.
In honor of Bl. Junipero Serra, who would almost certainly have encountered sourdough starter as he journeyed through California and may have carried it with him during his travels, we are having sourjacks this morning.