Serrans’ mission of evangelization helps make space for the Lord
In July 1, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass with those gathered for the Serra International Convention in St. Louis. It was good to be with so many Serrans from around the world, including a number from the Archdiocese of Omaha, who are dedicated to offering support for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. I am grateful to Tim O’Neill of Omaha, Serra International’s outgoing president, for the invitation to celebrate the Mass in the city where I grew up.
This was the first time that Junipero Serra was commemorated on the liturgical calendar since he was canonized last fall by Pope Francis. What follows is an edited version of the homily I gave to the members of Serra International at the historic Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (popularly called the Old Cathedral) on the St. Louis riverfront.
I echo the praise given to you members of Serra by Archbishop Carlson yesterday. We experience a vibrant Catholicism in the Archdiocese of Omaha where I am privileged to serve, and Serrans are right at the heart of that experience. I thank you for your personal support for me and for so many bishops, priests and consecrated religious.
I thank you especially for your many sacrifices for the youth in our communities, helping to ensure that they know their dignity in God’s plan, and helping them hear the invitation of Jesus to be his disciples and friends. We know that the Lord wants to provide shepherds and teachers for his people into the future, and you assist in fulfilling that plan of his. You help us all face the future with great hope.
Our hope for the future is always built in part on the witness and sacrifices of those who have gone before us. We gather today in this historic church, completed in 1834, which is old for this part of the world. The Catholic experience here goes back even further. The settlement that became this great city was established here in 1764 by French fur traders who were both pious and patriotic.
They named the place for the saintly king of France, Louis IX. In planning their village, they set aside a spot for the Catholic church. This church stands on the only piece of property in St. Louis that has never changed hands. The founders of St. Louis wanted to make a space for the Lord, to ensure that in the midst of all that would develop here – commerce, education, beer, and baseball – the name of Jesus would be spoken and right worship would be offered to the Father in and through him.
In God’s providence, during the same decade, the 1760’s, a Franciscan missionary named Father Junipero Serra was laboring for Christ at the southwest corner of this same continent. He had left familiar surroundings of his home in Europe for Mexico. In 1769, he left Baja California to found a string of missions in Upper California – the first that same year in San Diego. The world was changing then, as it always is. Father Serra, too, wanted to make a space for the Lord in the midst of it all.
He did not set out on his own project. He was sent by the Lord; he had a purpose rooted in the great commission of Jesus to bring the joy of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The places he founded took the name of that Gospel purpose: mission. They remain today, not monuments to one man’s accomplishments, but dynamic places of encounter between the Lord and his people.
Junipero Serra’s motto was "Always move forward." He saw a future full of hope in the Lord, and he wanted to help shape that future according to the Gospel. It is the "future orientation" that is such an important characteristic of Serra International and the clubs active in so many dioceses.
There were many blessings that came from the visit of Pope Francis to the United States last September. We think in particular of one blessing today. The pope declared Father Junipero Serra to be St. Junipero Serra. Today is the first time he is so honored on the liturgical calendar.
The canonization process is painstaking and time consuming. Among other things, it must be evident that there is a popular devotion to the one considered for sainthood. People in the pews must find a connection to him and rely on his intercession. You can be sure that the prayers of Serrans for decades, your claiming him as a heavenly patron, besides God’s grace and his own virtue, had as much to do with his canonization as anything. How joyful and thankful you can be today.
We remember the controversy stirred up by some at the prospect of his canonization. He had flaws, he was a sinner, they claimed. And so he was. And so has been everyone chosen by Jesus to be a disciple, save Mary. The mission of Jesus is to call and to save sinners. Those who respond are made his friends and sent on a mission. Today’s Gospel – the call of Matthew – illustrates this so clearly. In fact, when the newly elected Pope Francis was asked, "Who is Jorge Bergolio?" he held up the example of Matthew, sinful, but chosen, to help us understand his own life and vocation.
You Serrans look prayerfully at the young people of our church. They have been told that money will satisfy them like Matthew – or pleasure, or possessions. That is a lie, but in our time, that is all they may know, unless Jesus can get their attention, offer his friendship and give them a share in his Gospel mission, as he did with St. Matthew.
By your prayers, sacrifices and good works, you amplify the invitation of Jesus in a noisy world. You help young Catholics look up from their counting tables – or devices – and look at Jesus who is looking so lovingly at them. Even the best of them are often tempted to let themselves be defined by their flaws, not seeing themselves as beautiful daughters and sons of our heavenly Father.
Like Junipero Serra, like those who set this place aside for a church, you are making a space for the Lord in a noisy and seductive culture. The church needs your witness. Young people need your prayers and support more than ever. Thank you for accepting the mission of evangelization as St. Junipero Serra did so heroically. May God bless and sustain you in this mission.
St. Junipero Serra – Pray for us.