Reasons that I’m a big fan of Saint Junipero Serra

September 18, 2015

The Pastor's Page

Blessed Junipero Serra is written in this icon by local iconographer Kati Ritchie of St. Bonaventure in Bloomington in celebration of the 18th-century Spanish priest’s Sept. 23 canonization. See related story at right. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Blessed Junipero Serra is written in this icon by local iconographer Kati Ritchie of St. Bonaventure in Bloomington in celebration of the 18th-century Spanish priest’s Sept. 23 canonization. See related story at right. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Initial Acquaintance.  My first encounter with then-Blessed Junipero Serra was when I was a Crosier religious brother on a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, in the 1980’s.  I have a special devotion to the Cross, and I had an aunt, now deceased, Sister Mary Eve Goering, O.S.F., who was a Franciscan Sister of Little Falls, so the Franciscans have a dear place in my heart.  There, above the entrance to the La Casa Retreat House in Mesa was a statue of Father Serra holding a Latin Cross and dressed in a Franciscan habit.  I liked him right away!

Similar Journeys.  As I learned more about St. Junipero Serra’s life story, I discovered that we have some things in common.  Father Serra had strong Catholic parents; so do I.  He often attended daily Mass, was an altar server, and attended a Catholic school; and so did I.  I started discerning a vocation to religious life at twelve or thirteen; he started at fifteen.  Father Serra entered the Franciscans at seventeen; I entered the Crosiers at twenty.  He was a college professor for eight years; I was a high school teacher for sixteen years.

The Major Similarity.  Father Serra was restless, and so was I.  He was a brilliant college philosophy and theology professor; I was a successful high school science teacher and athletic coach.  Yet, we were both agitated, unsettled.  God was shaking us.  God was pleased with what we were doing, but God wanted us to shift to a different ministry.  When Father Serra was thirty-six, he asked his Franciscan superiors if he could become a missionary to Mexico, and when I was thirty-seven, I asked my Crosier superiors if I could shift from brotherhood to priesthood.

Missionary Par Excellence.  This past July, 2015, I was blessed with an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to southern California to visit the Franciscan missions, nine which were founded by Father Serra.  Over the course of four days, we went from San Diego to San Francisco visiting several missions each day.  We drove along the rocky coast, over rugged mountains, across deep ravines, through forests, and across several desert regions.  I was delighted to be riding in a van.  The engine strained.  Heat fluctuations were extreme, AC in the desert, heat at elevation.  Father Serra walked it all, and he covered thousands of miles by foot.   The difficulty of the route reminded me of my two pilgrimages to Greece.  St. Paul set the standard for walking miles and miles to proclaim the gospel.  St. Paul preached with courage and conviction to those who held other beliefs, and his message was so compelling that he made many converts and founded one Christian community after another.  Father Serra is an eighteenth-century version of St. Paul.  He was on fire for Christ, and nothing, not his short stature, injured leg, bouts with illness, the taxing journeys, or the sometimes disappointing results, could hold him down.  Father Serra was driven, a man on a mission to bring Jesus to as many people and places as possible.  Like St. Paul, Father Serra made many converts and founded one Christian community after another.

The Saints.  The artwork in the mission churches reveals that Father Serra had a great devotion to the saints, and so do I.  Father Serra held the Blessed Virgin Mary in high esteem, and she is often depicted as the Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and our Lady of Sorrows.  St. Joseph is often shown holding the child Jesus in his arms.  In addition, St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of Father Serra’s religious order, is on display in almost every mission church, oftentimes holding a crucifix or with the stigmata in his hands.  Two other Franciscan saints also receive major attention, St. Anthony of Padua, my middle name and second patron saint, and St. Bonaventure.

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

View all posts by Father Michael Van Sloun