Monday, May 11, 2015

Fra Junipero Serra and his Religion

I have been thinking about Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father by Steven M. Hackel. More specifically, I feel my previous review missed an important point. Padre Junipero Serra was a profoundly religious Catholic priest of the 18th century, and his religious life probably should be front and center in any biography. I can barely imagine the religious views that must have been held by a Spanish Franciscan Friar priest in that time, but they must have been powerful and (in our terms) extreme.

He was a Franciscan Friar, who had taken a vow of poverty and lived according to that vow. When he died he had a single robe that he wore every day, and a second used robe that had become too threadbare to wear; that was kept to be cut up to patch his "good" robe. He owned a single pair of sandals when he died, and had one book, a prayer book. He walked, even for long journeys, except when his physical condition did not permit; in that case he rode a mule. He slept on a bed of boards. (I have done so, and it reminds one on a regular basis that the bed is not comfortable.) He had a single blanket, and nights in California or the highlands of Mexico can be chilly. His diet was simple to the extreme. He had made vows of obedience, and clearly accepted the responsibility that they imposed when he must have disagreed strongly with his superiors in the order.

As a member of a Franciscan community nearly all of his life, he would have attended mass almost every day for decades. As a priest, he would have performed the sacraments of communion thousands of times. He taught young men who were studying for the priesthood, conducted meetings for the Catholic public to increase their devotion to the faith, and became a powerful inspirational speaker on matters of faith. He prepared thousands of people for the sacrament of confirmation, instructing them in matters of faith, and actually performed that sacramental act thousands of times in California. He performed the sacraments of baptism and marriage thousands of times. He must have confessed his (few) sins and heard the confessions of others tens of thousands of times, and spend a great deal of time in penitence.

It took time and effort for him to become a missionary Franciscan priest, and he gave up a great deal to do so. Many will not understand the background of that sacrifice on his part. As I understand it, Serra would have believed that an Indian who had not been converted to Catholicism would suffer for all eternity. An Indian child who died after being baptized or an Indian adult, confirmed Catholic, who died in a state of grace would enjoy bliss for all eternity. Thus Serra would have believed that his direct efforts as a missionary in Sierra Gorda and California would have provided tens of thousands of Indians the possibility of a heavenly eternity. His efforts in founding nine missions, developing the system that led to many more missions being founded, and his work inspiring other missionaries would have had leveraged a much greater impact. I suggest he was willing to undergo a huge amount of deprivation and suffering to offer this benefit of religion to others.

We can look at Father Serra through the eyes of others. Serra was seen as a leader among those of his Franciscan order all of his life; some followed him into the missions. He was chosen to instruct others, and to lead the introduction of missions into Alta California. When he died, people divided his few belongings to have things he touched in his life. People prayed to him, and he is now to be canonized as a saint. He seems to have been widely regarded as saintly.

We can guess how Father Serra thought. As a priest, I suspect that each mass he said or attended mass, each time he subjected himself to the sacrament of reconciliation, each confession he heard, each baptism he performed, each marriage he performed, each confirmation he performed, and each time he anointed the sick he dedicated the act to his God. I suspect that each time he felt discomfort as a result of his vow of poverty or some affliction resulting from his duties he tried to consider it an offering to his God in fulfillment of his vow. So too, each time he accepted an order from a superior, he tried to consider his compliance as an offering to his God in fulfillment of his vow of obedience. Each time he considered alternatives for the future, whether it be for the day, the month or the more distant future, he probably thought "which alternative would be the most pleasing to God" and selected that alternative. Serving as a missionary to Indians in the Spanish New World would have been a very hard life, but Serra could well have concluded that it was the alternative most pleasing to his God. From what we can read about the choices he made and the way others describe him, he seems like that kind of a man.

We read biography in part to discover what is was like to be that other person. I don't think we can understand Serra without considering how he as a saintly Spaniard was likely to think in the 18th century. Indeed, I think we lose something in the study of history if we focus only on recorded events, and fail to consider why people did what they did/

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