Discerning the Spirit

Saint Junípero Serra was a complex man living in complex times. He once told the territory’s governor that if the natives should kill him, that they should be forgiven and pardoned. He penned what would go down in history as the native bill of rights. Yet he was also a man of his time, using self-flagellation as a form of penance and upholding corporal punishment, actions peculiar to us today.

Foremost, Saint Junípero Serra identified himself as a spiritual father. However, his spirituality can be challenging for one to discern due to the bulk of his extant writings pertaining to his role as an administrator. It is hard to incorporate one’s deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in a letter that deals with requesting wax and incense from a government official. The following are provided to help one get to know his beliefs and how they affected the depths of his soul. Use them to pray and reflect upon on the day that they fall.

January 7, 1780 - Saint Junípero Serra to Governor Felipe de Neve: “. . . when we [Fathers] came here, we did not find even a single Christian, that we have engendered them [Indians] all in Christ, that we, every one of us, came here for the single purpose of doing them good and for their eternal salvation; and I feel sure that everyone knows that we love them.”

February 10, 1770 - Saint Junípero Serra writes his superior in Mexico City, Father Juan Andrés, with an update on life in San Diego. Referring to the Indian revolt on August 15, 1769, he wrote: “And so it turned out, thank God, for seeing many of their companions covered with blood, they all fled. And I believe none of them were killed; therefore they can all yet be baptized.”

February 26, 1777 - Saint Junípero Serra to Fr. Francisco Pangua, his guardian in Mexico City, describing the native peoples: “They are in places one cannot visit without walking a long distance and sometimes going on hands and feet, but I put my trust in the Lord, who created them.”

March 1, 1777 - Saint Junípero Serra reflects on the local Chumash coming to his aid while travelling: “By their actions, those poor gentiles proved themselves worthy of receiving all that is good, which has taken so long to reach them. In the midst of my half-heartedness, tears came to my eyes when I saw how eager they were to help me. Since I could not travel on foot or horseback, with one person on each side, they took hold of my arms and carried me over the muddy hills. I was not able to repay them for their efforts and their act of compassion, nor do I think I will ever be able to repay them as I would hope to do” (Beebe and Senkewicz, 384).

May 15, 1769 - Saint Junípero Serra writes while on the Sacred Expedition to San Diego: “This was for me a day of great joy, because just after the Masses, while I was praying, retired inside of the little brush hut, they came to tell me that Indians were coming and close by. I gave praise to the Lord, kissing the ground, and thanking His Majesty for the fact that, after so many years of looking forward to it, He now permitted me to be among the pagans in their own country. I came out at once, and found myself in front of twelve of them . . . . I saw something I could not believe when I had read of it, or had been told about it. It was this: they were entirely naked, as Adam in the garden, before sin."

May 17, 1769 - Saint Junípero Serra writes while on the Sacred Expedition: “I said Mass there, but I had much trouble in standing on my feet, because the left one was much inflamed. For a year now, and more, I have been suffering considerably, and by now the swelling has reached halfway up my leg, which is covered with sores.”

May 21, 1773 - Saint Junípero Serra writes to Viceroy Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursua, Mexico City: "The Indians of this mission [San Luis Obispo] are the ones who, for three months before its foundation, gave subsistence to thirteen soldiers, whom the Captain of the presidio left there . . . . And there is every reason to praise God on hearing the soldiers tell what, throughout these three months, the poor gentiles did to appease their hunger. These Indians have kept the mission going quite a time. . . . Much might be said in their praise."

June 11, 1773 - Saint Junípero Serra to Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursua, Mexico City: "That at the first request of the Missionary Father . . . he [Commandant of the Presidio] should remove the soldier or soldiers who may have given bad example [to the neophyte], especially in matters of incontinence, and that they be withdrawn to the presidio and another or others be sent in their place who are not known as indecorous and scandalous."

June 18, 1771 - Saint Junípero Serra to Viceroy Francisco Carlos de Croix: “And through the mercy of God the Highest, in the short time we have been working here, we have already performed twenty baptisms. And of these twenty, four are slightly older boys who, in addition to knowing how to pray well, are making good progress learning the Spanish language. And with them as my teachers, I am doing the best I can to learn their language” (Beebe and Senkewicz, 222).

June 18, 1784 - Saint Junípero Serra writes from Mission San Carlos de Borromeo to Father Guardian Fray Juan Sancho in Mexico City: “The only good quality that I can feel pretty sure I have, by the kindness and grace of God, is my good intention. “

July 3, 1769 - Saint Junípero Serra to Father Guardian Fray Juan Andrés “. . . those who are to come here as ministers should not imagine that they come for any other purpose than to put up with hardships for the love of God and the salvation of souls.”

August 20, 1749 - Saint Junípero Serra writes home to console his parents while waiting for the ship to New Spain in Cadíz: “I wish I could share with them [his mother and father] the great joy that fills my heart. Surely then they would encourage me to move forward and never turn back” (Orfalea, 67-68).

August 22, 1778 - Saint Junípero Serra wrote to the Viceroy Teodoro de Croix, “In reference to the care we take of our converts, let me tell you: they are our children, for none except we has birthed them in Christ. The result is, we look upon them as a father looks upon his family. We shower all our love and care upon them.”

September 1741 - Saint Junípero Serra, Lector of Philosophy, Lullian University: “What we need, beloved students, is to seek and desire the light of philosophy by which these three years of instruction in Dialects will illumine the darkness in our human intellects, lest what we learn falls in the ditch of irrationality. The excellence, the nobility of this discipline of disciplines, this science of sciences, so great that it rightly merits to be called The Calculus of Whatever. It opens darkness from within. It spreads truth. It brings all things into clear light. Walk diligently in this light, so that you be His sons, Who is Light and in Whom there is no darkness. Seek wisdom. Lovingly pay attention to fear of the Lord” (Hughes, 12-13).

December 15, 1775 - Mission San Diego was attacked in November and three Spaniards killed. Serra would ask for leniency for the murderers. On this day, Serra wrote to Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa in Mexico City reminding him, “One of the most important requests I made. . . was that if the Indians, gentile or Christian, should kill me then they should be forgiven.”


Unless noted, all quotes are from Serra, Junípero. Writings of Junípero Serra, Ed. Antonine Tibesar. Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955.

Beebe, Rose Marie and Robert Senkewicz. Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.

Hughes, Barnabas. Junípero Serra: The Story. Phoenix, AZ: Tau Publishing, 2015.

Orfalea, Gregory. Journey to the Sun: Junípero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California. New York: Scribner, 2014.

© Christian Clifford, www.Missions1769.com. One may reproduce for instructional and educational purposes only.