Class with St. Junípero Serra: Inspiration from the patron saint of vocations

Note to reader: The following article was in the Fall 2018 issue of Today’s Catholic Teacher (1967-2020).

Governor Jerry Brown (CA-D) called Junípero Serra “one of the innovators and pioneers” in California history. Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego referred to Serra as a “foundational figure” of the Golden State. Not everyone admires Serra, though. In certain circles Junípero Serra symbolizes the negative outcomes of Spanish colonialism, though the historical record proves otherwise (the Church collected 2420 documents—7500 pages total—of Serra’s writings and 5000 pages of materials written about him from those who knew him, and testimony of people inspired by his life). Pope Francis succinctly presented Serra’s relevance to disciples today in the homily at Junípero Serra’s canonization on September 23, 2015 in Washington, D.C., “Today, like him [Saint Junípero Serra], may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!” In other words, his life can inspire us to proclaim the Gospel with joyful hearts, amid the many challenges. 

A Brief History

Marco Polo traveled an estimated 15,000 miles to see what existed beyond his known world. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 7,000 miles, to see what the fledgling United States had acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Saint Junípero Serra traversed an estimated 24,000 miles to share the Gospel message.

Saint Junípero Serra (1713-1784) came from humble beginnings. Born and raised in Petra, Mallorca, Spain, he responded to God’s call and was ordained a priest in the Franciscan order in 1737. From 1740-1749 he lived a comfortable life as a university professor. But he discerned that it was not the life God was calling him to and in 1749 he traveled to Mexico City. For the next twenty years he served the Christian Indians north of Mexico City. In 1769, he finally was given the chance to do what he had wanted to do for so long, be a missionary priest. The government of Spain wanted to keep Russia and Britain out of the lands they claimed, so they organized an expedition, intent on occupying what is now the state of California.

The Sacred Expedition had five detachments –three by sea and two by land. The one
with the military and spiritual leaders, Captain Gaspar Portolá and Father Junípero Serra, left Loreto, Baja California, by land on March 28 and reached San Diego Bay on July 1, 1769. The Sacred Expedition had 238 men, seventy-eight of whom were soldiers.

In 1776, two-hundred-forty settlers traveled from Mexico to colonize San Francisco. Priest, soldier, and colonist were surrounded by an estimated 300,000 Indians. The Spaniard never came into contact with the vast majority of the Indians who lived outside the Spanish sphere of influence. In 1790, just over two decades after Serra founded the first mission in present-day California at San Diego, eleven missions and four presidios had been constructed, occupied by an estimated 30 priests and 211 soldiers. By the time the last mission closed its doors in 1836, due to the Secularization Law passed in 1834 by the Mexican Congress, 142 Franciscan priests had ministered in Alta California. Two of these priests were killed at the hands of natives. A tragic unintended consequence of the cultural exchange was the majority of California Indians who did convert died due to diseases for which they had no immunity. James A. Sandos, author of Converting California, wrote, “Spanish authorities and Franciscan missionaries . . . sought to bring Indians into a new Spanish society . . . and were distressed to see the very objects of their religious and political desire die in droves.”

Professional Growth Plan

I created my professional growth plan at Serra High School on our school’s namesake. I had a brief conversation with a colleague about the vandalism of statues of Saint Junípero Serra occurring in California. I explained how sad it was and he agreed and said, “We know better [about the holiness of our school’s namesake]” Another time a different colleague asked me how I share my passion for Junípero Serra with my students. A few days later, I was teaching my students about how the monasteries of the Middle Ages were known for their hospitality. A student asked, “Serra was a monk. Didn’t he kill a whole bunch of Indians?” The following day, a student said a teacher had once told him that Serra had enslaved the Indians. I think Saint Junípero Serra was trying to tell me something. Possibly because we are a diocesan school, we seem to struggle to find a specific charism based on our school’s namesake. It all led me to think how ideal it would be to present to the community a Serran Spirituality. Therefore, I decided to incorporate my knowledge of and passion for Saint Junípero Serra directly into my classroom teaching. But how?

My outcome became, “Specifically, as a result of this plan, students will know the school’s namesake more intimately, deepening their understanding of the school’s core values [Faith, Wisdom, Service, Community. Leadership] and what it means to be a part of the Serra brotherhood [a bond based on the values of respect, integrity, inclusion, and compassion]” and “Be encouraged to turn to St. Junípero Serra to intercede on their behalf (Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age, III. B. 6.).”

The goal is to present to the school’s principal and president quotes and reflections pertaining to our school’s namesake for use on the school calendar. This would help the school meet a growth area of the Western Catholic Education Association Self-Study Report, that states, “The school has identified a need to develop a recognition of the qualities and traits of St. Junípero Serra and incorporate this into the school calendar and traditions.” 

So, in essence, the students would present what was most important to them and help others to reflect and pray in the future, thus creating a charism at the grassroots level through a focus group.

Class with Saint Junípero Serra Lesson Plan

We began with the Prayer for the Intercession of  Junípero Serra. For Prayers for Vocations, visit the USCCB website.

My research on the life of Saint Junípero Serra led me to fourteen direct quotes ( I numbered them and split the students into pairs to begin our class with Saint Junípero Serra. 

I set up the context and objective by reading the following to the class,

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 plates 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. 

In pairs, one member read the quote aloud and then both made a quick note ( The plan was created for a 40-minute class. Students spent around two minutes with each quote. The lesson was created for 11th-grade boys, but it can be adapted for any grade level. I recommended they note one of the following after reading each quote . . .

  • something interesting.
  • something surprising.
  • a question.
  • an important term.
  • the key point.
  • a three (3) word summary.

Pair-Share Samples

A student remarked for the September 1741 entry: “Serra was a true scholar.”

A student wrote for the August 20, 1749: “Serra is just like everyone else; he relies on other people to motivate him and encourage him to do good things.”

A student noted for May 15, 1769: “I thought it was interesting that Serra saw the Indians as Adam and Eve before the apple, which showed that he felt they weren’t evil.”

A student noted for the July 3, 1769 entry: “Sacrifice, salvation, hardships”

A student wrote for the February 10, 1770 entry: “The Indians revolted, yet Serra continued to preach the name of God.”

A student commented for June 18,1771: “The Indians are learning a lot from Serra and he learned a lot from them.”

A student asserted for the May 21, 1773 entry, “Indians are kind, even without Jesus.” For the same date, a student asked, “Did the Indians of the tribe convert to Catholicism?”

A student noted for August 22, 1775: “It is important to remember that Serra was on a hard journey and he needed help from God.”

A student remarked on March 1, 1777: “Key point: No matter what people believe they can show compassion for others.”

A student commented on the January 7, 1780 entry: “Religion does not serve as a blockade to love.”

The above samples are from students who identify as Agnostic, Atheist, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholics, a convert, a Hindu, a Mormon, and a Sikh, proof positive that the lives of the saints stirs the human spirit.

With approximately ten minutes left in class, I asked the students to individually reflect on the exercise.


Select the quote that was most memorable to you. They are attached (Discerning the Spirit) for your reference.

1. Note the number and date
# _____ Date ______________

2. Select one (1) to respond to.

a. How did it help you deepen your understanding of the School Prayer, School’s Core Values, OR School’s definition of Brotherhood? Find them at
b. How does what Saint Junípero Serra wrote relate to the world?

Reflection Samples

2. a. In the quote from May 15, 1769, Serra explains his beliefs that everyone, even Gentiles, were loved by God . . . . I believe that this relates to the line from the Junípero Serra School Prayer, “Help us face the reality of working together as a community.” Through this quote, Serra helped strengthen my understanding in the Padre Brotherhood and that we should love everyone, help anyone in need, and treat everyone equally. We shouldn’t hold grudges or biases based on others beliefs or past actions. Instead we should follow Jesus’ and Serra’s lives of always helping each other out and always expressing God’s love. 

2. a. The quote from September 1741 has helped me understand the meaning of the school’s values. One of the values mentioned is wisdom. In his quote, Saint Junípero Serra explains how one should look towards God in seeking wisdom. This directly aligns with the core values of the school, which state we should be challenged to rigorous study in pursuit of the truth. Saint Junípero Serra also mentions the pursuit of truth, saying that by following God’s light we may be guided toward the truth.

2. a. The quote from March 1, 1777, helped me deepen the definition of brotherhood because it gave me a sense of spreading the love through kindness to one another. The brotherhood is helping other brothers out and not leaving anyone behind, wanting to help them keep up and strive for greatness. This goes with what the school believes a Padre is, “a man of respect, treating others with love and kindness.”

2. b. Serra wrote on February 10, 1770, that he had to teach the Indians how to speak Spanish, but they also had to teach him how to speak their language.  This relates to the world because people need to be able to learn how to communicate effectively. If people can’t do that then the world will be a nasty place.  When people are able to communicate well people work out problems, get stuff done and will be able to not only learn from the experience but be able to show others as well.  This helps people to live peacefully. 

To conclude, I hope that you will spread the good news about Saint Junípero Serra with your students. You will not be disappointed. His life will surely inspire them to be living gospels. Saint Junípero Serra, pray for us!

Christian Clifford is a veteran Catholic school teacher and author of books about Catholic Church history in Spanish-Mexican California. Clifford’s writings have appeared in California Teacher, Catholic San Francisco, Catholic Standard, Today’s Catholic Teacher and on Aleteia, Catholic Exchange, Crux, Patheos, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and son. For more information, visit


TEMPUS FUGIT: Pep talk from 4th-century saint

Note to reader: The following article was in the Fall 2016 issue of Today’s Catholic Teacher (1967-2020).

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) gives great insight and clarity on the Christian vision of reality when he wrote in Confessions (Book XI): “O sweet light of my hidden eyes . . . there are three times . . . present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation.” The words of the great sinner turned Church Father is extremely applicable to the vocation of the 21st-century Catholic educator. 

We draw inspiration from Church history, or as Saint Augustine so eloquently put it, “present of things past, memory.” We are part of the largest organization in the world that, through trials and tribulations in its two-thousand-plus year history, has presented a clear, though imperfect, vision to the world. In short, we are part of something very, very big and extremely meaningful. We defend life. In the 4th century Emperor Valentinian, after lobbying from bishops, outlawed infanticide and provided funds to the Church to support orphans. We praise God in song. In the 7th century, Gregorian Chant was invented giving us the roots of written music. We are giving. In the late 8th century Peter’s Pence was created, the earliest large-scale organized charitable group. We seek to know God’s creation more intimately. In the 9th century universities were created out of the Cathedral schools (The University of Leuven in Belgium, is the oldest Catholic university still in existence, founded in 1425). We see nature as a gift from God.  According to Saint Francis of Assisi’s (1182-1226) student Saint Bonaventure, his teacher “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. We create tools to help discover God’s majesty. In the 16th century the Vatican Observatory was founded – one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. The modern calendar, organized by Pope Gregory XIII, soon followed. We attempt to heal not only the soul and mind but the body as well. We are the largest supplier of healthcare in the world. We speak out against injustice. In 1922 Oregonians made attending public school compulsory. In short, they wanted to close parochial schools. The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary would have none of it, arguing that parents have the right to send their children to the school of their choosing, taking it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Brace yourselves for the amazing gifts and talents that will be uncovered this year. Building the kingdom of God depends on it.

We are present and meet the student where they are, trying our best to be the model of Christ that they can see. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Some who come to mind are saints Jean Baptiste de la Salle, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Don Bosco, Katherine Drexel, and the first and greatest disciple, Mother Mary. The same Gospel that revealed holiness in them is also our light. Early in my career, a mentor shared with me that it is a good idea to keep a journal highlighting the good moments. I failed to see the point then, but it sure makes sense now. It is very important to take stock and remind ourselves of why we were called to the vocation of a teacher. One person shared with me that those in education are crazy, like a firefighter running into a burning structure without any gear. We know better, though. As in life, teaching has its good and bad days. It is untruthful to be Pollyannish. At times our vocation may seem more like a job — mundane, frustrating, trivial, and exhausting. Pope Francis reminds us in The Joy of the Gospel that all Christians are to care “for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds” (24.). What a glorious challenge! However, even Pope Francis gets impatient and flustered at times. He gives sage advice on how to deal with it. First, breathe in, breathe out! Just like when we tell young people to step back and think before they act, we sometimes need to heed our own advice. Pope Francis shares, in such a situation, one can choose between two attitudes, the one that is reactive and brash or the other, reflective and persevering “with this inner gladness, because you are certain of being on Jesus’ path.” Holy doors have been opened in cathedrals around the world symbolizing the Jubilee Year of Mercy. See the doors to your classroom, as Pope Francis shared in the bull “Misericordiae Vultus” or “The Face of Mercy”, “. . . through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope” (3.).

The most challenging for the educator, I would argue, is coming to terms with what Saint Augustine shared, “present of things future, expectation.” We will never know in this life the totality of the fruits of our labor. We plant seeds and pray that by the grace of God that they will bloom. I assume that nearly 1500 years ago in the early cathedral schools the educators saw their pupils graduate and they prayed often for their well-being, knowing that they would probably never see them again. The Parable of the Sower speaks so intimately to the Catholic school educator. As God’s instruments, we help the Sower. We yearn for our students to recognize the Catholic faith as rich soil (cf. Mt 13:1-8, 18-23). We hope that they will have a deep desire to lead virtuous lives continually seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. Our deepest fear is learning about the struggles of a past student. At the core of all that we do is give the young people in our care the tools to build a house that can weather any storm, to see and embrace the joy, and to live lives with hearts set on eternity. Someone did this for us, more than likely, and was a major reason we entered our vocation.   The words of the author of the Second Letter to Timothy, written 1900-plus years ago, still ring true today. Leaders in Catholic schools must, “. . . proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching” (2 Tm 4:2). Our solemn charge demands that we remain strong in the face of the unknown.

A quote from the mini-series Pillars of the Earth, based on the novel by Ken Follett, helps put all that we will do this year into focus. Philip, Prior of St-John-in-the-Forest, says the following at the consecration of the Kingsbridge Cathedral:

And for . . . our beautiful church, I thank God, our king, the people of Kingsbridge and several generations of tireless workers. But the cathedral is not finished and nor will it ever be. Just as human perfection is something we all strive for and can never attain, so this church will forever be changing, growing, crumbling at times, an ongoing legacy of our feeble efforts to touch God.

A cathedral, my friends, is neither stone nor statues nor even a place of prayer. It is a continuum of creation; beautiful work, that, pray God, will never end.

Though what we do may seem feeble at times, let us continue to strive to touch God. Like the workforce who built the cathedrals of yore, may we use our gifts and talents to shape the future for the greater glory of God. May we look forward to this year always with great hope. May we persevere in our own faith so that we can confidently pass the Faith on, knowing full well that God, with our help, will touch the hearts and minds of the young people in our care. Let our collective prayer for this year be; O sweet light of our hidden eyes, help us to see you with more clarity so that we may better serve you. Amen.

Christian Clifford has been a teacher in the schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco since 1997. He is also the author of Saint Junípero Serra: Making Sense of the History and Legacy and Who Was Saint Junípero Serra?


  1. Augustine. Confessions. San Bernardino, CA: Benton Press, 2013, 157. 
  2. Alvin J. Schmidt. How Christianity Changed the World, “The Sanctification of Human Life.” Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2004.
  3. Robert Sherrane. ipl2, “Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music.”
  4. Peter’s Pence, “An ancient custom still alive today.”
  5. Pierre Riché, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1988, 191.
  6. Regis J. Armstrong. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, New City Press: Hyde Park, NY, 2000, 590.
  7.  John Agnew, “Deus Vult: The Geopolitics of the Catholic Church,” Vol. 15, No. 1, Geopolitics, Dec 2009, 47.
  8. Pope Francis. “Time is God’s Messenger,” L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly ed. in English, n. 17, 24 April 2015, accessed June 14, 2016,
  9. Pillars of the Earth, “The Works of Angels”, August 27, 2010, accessed June 9, 2016,

Note: All scripture references are from the New American Bible Revised Edition