The Influence of St. Francis on the Lives of Blessed Junípero Serra and Pope Francis

In declaring the canonization of this Franciscan missionary, Pope Francis has affirmed Blessed Junípero Serra’s significant role in the life of the Catholic Church and his example of steadfast apostleship. The Pope has called Fr. Serra a “tireless missionary” who left his homeland because of “the desire to proclaim the Gospel ad gentes, that heartfelt impulse which seeks to share with those farthest away the gift of encountering Christ: a gift that he had first received and experienced in all its truth and beauty.”  

Fr. Serra’s impending canonization by Pope Francis gives rise to recognizing a notable connection between these two remarkable men – the tremendous influence of St. Francis of Assisi in their lives.

Born in 1713 on the island of Majorca, located off the coast of Spain, Miguel Jose Serra knew at a young age that he wanted to become a priest.  In further discerning his vocation, he decided to join the Franciscan Order.  This order was founded by St. Francis, one of the Catholic Church’s most venerable saints known and admired for choosing a life of poverty and simplicity in service to God and others.  On September 15, 1731, Miguel Serra professed his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  He also chose a new name to signify his new life as a professed Franciscan – Junípero.  Juniper was the name of one of St. Francis’ earliest companions, a man of great humility, simplicity, and patience - traits to which Junípero Serra aspired.

Though Fr. Serra spent the first 14 years of his vocation studying and teaching, it is his subsequent 35 years as a missionary for which he is known and on which his sainthood is based.  Called the “apostle of California,” Junípero Serra heeded God’s call to evangelize and preach the Gospel to those who had not yet learned of the Christian faith.  Moreover, he is largely responsible for establishing the mission system in California that grew to include 21 missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco. For this reason, Fr. Serra is also known as “the founding father of California.”  

Understandably, then, the announcement by Pope Francis on January 15, 2015, that Blessed Junípero Serra would be canonized during his September visit to the United States was happily received by some and others, including descendants of Mission Indians, are questioning the wisdom of it. The decision to canonize Fr. Serra is not so surprising considering the mutual admiration and respect of both men toward St. Francis. 

The Pope’s high regard for the saint is plainly evidenced by his taking St. Francis’ name upon his election to the papacy.  Pope Francis has explained that, during the conclave, when he had received the requisite number of votes to become pope, Cardinal Claudio Hummes reminded him to not forget the poor.  Moved by these words, Pope Francis took on the name of St. Francis of Assisi, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.”  In keeping with the spirit of St. Francis, the Pope has not only repeatedly challenged Christians to help the poor, but he has also chosen to live more simply than previous pope.

Following in the missionary footsteps of both St. Francis and Blessed Junípero Serra, Pope Francis has also emphasized the need for a new evangelization – a need to spread Christ’s message to everyone.  In his very first homily as pope, he stated that all Catholics during the Year of Faith “will make an effort to respond faithfully to the eternal mission: to bring Jesus Christ to humanity, and to lead humanity to an encounter with Jesus Christ: the Way, the Truth, and the Life, truly present in the Church and, at the same time, in every person.”  In addition, the theme of his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was the joyful proclamation of the Gospel to the world. 

Recently, the Pope again honored St. Francis by writing from a Franciscan perspective in his encyclical Laudato Si – “Praise be to you.”  These words are taken from a canticle written by St. Francis praising God for all creation, and they reflect the encyclical’s focus on the environment and on caring for our common home.  More specifically, Pope Francis underscores the interdependent relationship between the natural world and how we treat one another, especially the poor and vulnerable.  In his encyclical, the Pope points to St. Francis as the “example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.”

The life and teachings of St. Francis clearly had an incredible impact on Blessed Junípero Serra, and they continue to have such an impact on the papacy of Pope Francis.  His humility, simplicity, and care for others attracted these two holy men and inspired them to serve God in a profound way.  Indeed, the Franciscan connection between Fr. Serra and the Pope is a Christian reminder that the Church truly is one body in Christ, a communion of saints.    


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