Visiting California’s missions is a beautiful experience. The unique characteristics of each mission are striking, from the swallows of San Juan Capistrano to the lonely ruins of Nuestra Senora de la Soledad. The fragments of paint, adobe, or plants that exist from the time the first missionaries sweated on the land almost feel like relics. A man that played a vital role in the shaping of these California missions and bringing the sacraments to the Native Americans was St. Junipero Serra. His work is inspiring, and his life features lessons well-worth examining in the light of missionary entrepreneurship.
St. Junipero Serra the Missionary
St. Junipero Serra joined the Franciscans at the young age of 16, apparently choosing his name after Brother Junipero, an early disciple of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Junipero Serra’s early life as a Franciscan was characterized by a course of rigorous academic study, then teaching and preaching. St. Junipero Serra’s zeal for souls overflowed in his preaching, gradually orienting him to the frontier of California, where so many souls were waiting to hear the good news of the Gospel. St. Junipero Serra worked in Mexico for several years, but, after the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spanish territories, was chosen as President of the lower California mission territory. St. Junipero Serra embraced this call whole-heartedly, and helped found nine missions to spread the word of God. Joseph Wagner describes:
He brought with him the same spirit of wonder over new sights, the fearlessness in the face of unknown lands, the firm purpose of spreading the Kingdom of Christ, and the unshakeable conviction that God had given to Spain the vocation to civilize and rule these new-found territories.
The first lesson that St. Junipero Serra and the other missionaries used in teaching the Indians Spanish was “Amor a Dios” or “Love God.” This was the basis of St. Junipero Serra’s apostolic ministry: love lived out in serving others. To the very end of his life, St. Junipero Serra worked actively as a missionary evangelizer, finding strength in the Church’s liturgy to continue his apostolic endeavors. His very last days on earth were spent making clothes for the Indians, giving away part of his blanket to an Indian woman in need, and receiving the Sacraments.
St. Junipero Serra the Entrepreneur
St. Junipero Serra was not just a missionary, he was also an entrepreneur. Every day he was faced with the new, and he responded to the new joys and challenges with an entrepreneurial spirit. California was new territory and St. Junipero Serra’s work often entailed devising innovative ways of effective communication between disparate parties: Church and state, Native Americans and Spaniards, indigenous people and newcomers. This required that he become an innovator, cultivating new language tools and methods to present Christ effectively in all these communications.
St. Junipero Serra and his followers also modeled entrepreneurship in their response to strife. Sickness and disagreement, even brutal violence, broke out at times between the Spaniards and Native Americans. St. Junipero Serra was criticized by some who thought he was expanding the missions too rapidly. St. Junipero Serra did not let the criticism and challenge crush him, but worked ceaselessly to improve the tense relationships and mend peace.
When he began his entry to new mission territory in 1769, he had written, “Even though I should die on the way, I shall not turn back. They can bury me wherever they wish and I shall gladly be left among the pagans, if it be the will of God.” That unflagging pursuit of God’s will allowed him to keep working despite criticism and challenge.
Besides the spiritual nature of his mission, St. Junipero Serra had to facilitate a multitude of practical issues, such as getting necessary supplies to support the missions and working toward making the missions self-sustaining. This involved paying close attention to the plants and natural resources at their disposal, and facilitating the growth of the seeds that might supplement and grow well in the new territory. With St. Junipero Serra came new agricultural methods to enhance the Native Americans’ quality of life, as well as the introduction of new varieties of fruits and vegetables, and dairy cows. St. Junipero Serra’s introduction of new plants and seeds to California had a lasting impact, making the territory an important producer of food.
St. Junipero Serra’s choice to live wholly for the spread of the Gospel reveals a trait shared by highly effective business leaders. In a 2017 shareholder letter, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said:
“What does Day 2 look like?” That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.
Bezos’ urgency to live the now as fully as possible has something that resembles St. Junipero Serra’s passion for making the most of each of his days. In his writings on servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf makes a similar point about how good leaders live intensely in the present moment, saying, “Even if the present center of this span of time carries for you illness, suffering, and loss, this is the day. It is what you have now!” The now was what St. Junipero Serra lived.
For Us: Don’t Stay Home
What does St. Junipero Serra’s example teach us as we strive to be missionary evangelizers? In his homily after the canonization of St. Junipero Serra, Pope Francis emphasized the apostolic nature of the Church, the integral role that mission plays as a fruit of knowing God’s mercy. St. Junipero Serra, Pope Francis said, “was the embodiment of a ‘Church which goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.”
As modern missionary entrepreneurs, we too need to go forth, to excite in blazing trails, learning new knowledge, meeting new people. Let’s not be hesitating and afraid of the new encounters God is calling us to, but act with a confidence derived from faithfulness to His will. Are there “new” mission territories in your life, areas where souls are waiting to learn (or be reminded) of the love of God?
For Us: Further Forward
Pope Francis points to a second major lesson from St. Junipero Serra’s life that bears repeating: Always keep your arms outstretched toward God. Pope Francis says:
Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! …He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life.
Also attesting to St. Junipero Serra’s forward focus, Fr. Maynard Geiger, who wrote a biography of St. Junipero Serra, added this sub-title to the book: “The man who never turned back.” Of course, moving forward recklessly to a blind notion of progress isn’t anything to celebrate, but moving forward on the path of love, in pursuit of sharing the Gospel, certainly is! This is the sort of forwardness St. Junipero Serra followed. The temptation to look back toward mistakes, struggles, or obstacles did not obstruct him from keeping on in his task to spread God’s love over California.
In our faith life and in our work life, we are never called to complacency. We are called to move forward, stretching out our hearts and minds to continual growth as long as we live. Are there areas of our life that have become stagnant, that need stirring up? Are we tempted to keep looking back at past areas of mistake or criticism? Don’t delay moving forward: Christ is waiting.
St. Junipero Serra’s Intercession
As a missionary entrepreneur himself, St. Junipero Serra is an outstanding example of going boldly into new mission territory and faithfully pursuing peace through effective communication and cultivating community. Let’s model St. Junipero Serra’s steadfastness in mission, becoming men and women who never turn back in the pursuit of the Good.