Throughout history, some great religious leaders — like the Buddha — were raised among the elites in great cities, while others, like Jesus Christ or Joseph Smith, have but humble origins. Obscure origins can neither predict nor prevent the ultimate manifestation of spiritual greatness. The lives of the two greatest Catholic teachers from the small island of Mallorca (Majorca) off the eastern coast of Spain, Junipero Serra (1713-1784) and Raymond Lull (1232-1315), exemplify this.
Junipero Serra was born to a peasant family in the small inland village of Petra, where his home is now a shrine and historical monument. As a boy, he worked the fields with his family. However, intrigued by the messages of visiting Franciscan friars, he was permitted to study with them at a nearby parish church. At 17 he moved to Palma, the island’s capital, where he studied for the priesthood. Receiving a doctorate in philosophy, Serra embarked on the life of a brilliant scholar and teacher.
But in 1748, at age 35, he felt called by God to serve as a missionary and abandoned his academic life for the Spanish colonies in the New World. After intensive study of native Indian languages and mission administration, Serra worked for a few years among the Native Americans of northern Mexico.
He also served as inquisitor, working to suppress surviving pagan beliefs and practices among nominally converted native Mexicans. Although these efforts of the Inquisition were considered a crucial part of missionary work at the time, they are often, and probably correctly, seen today as a form of religious persecution and forced conversion. Paradoxically, while humbly serving Native Americans as missionaries the Franciscans also persecuted many of them.
In this respect, Serra resembled many other late 18th-century Franciscan missionaries to the New World. His most important contribution was to serve as the “president” (1767-1784) of the fledgling Catholic California mission. As such, Serra led an arduous exploratory expedition from Mexico up the southwestern coast of California, where he supervised the founding of 21 Catholic “missions” — usually consisting of small Spanish forts, churches, trading posts and a few dozen people. The goal was to convert local Native Americans and integrate them into the Spanish colonial economy.
Serra thus founded the first Spanish missions of many of the cities of southern California, including San Diego, Carmel, San Gabriel, San Francisco and Santa Barbara. Amid some controversy, Serra was canonized by Pope Francis last year. Originally an obscure peasant farmer from the small island of Mallorca, Serra has become a modern saint, venerated by many millions.
Far from Serra’s humble upbringing, Raymond Lull (Ramon Llull, Lully) was born in 1232 to a powerful and wealthy aristocratic family in the Majorcan capital city of Palma. As a young man, Lull received a superb education, married into the extended royal family and served as tutor to the future King James II of Aragon. As a wealthy aristocrat, Lull lived a life of frivolous licentiousness until 1263. While writing a love poem to his mistress, however, Lull had a recurring vision of Jesus on the cross — paralleling St. Francis’ exemplar.
To the undoubted dismay of his wife and children, he abandoned his aristocratic life, gave his possessions to the poor and became a Franciscan monk.
Lull then embarked on years of study and contemplation in a monastery on Mount Randa in Mallorca. The author of dozens of theological works in Latin, Catalan (medieval northern Spanish) and Arabic, Lull is most noted for his book “Ars Magna” ("Great Art"), in which he claims all knowledge can be circumscribed into a system of logic and mathematics that can demonstrate the truthfulness of Christianity. Mixing logic, symbolism, mysticism and theology with wild abandon, Lull generated a complex system of symbols and charts, most notably the Tree of Knowledge and the “Lullian Circle” , a complex system of interlocking rotating wheels of letters, words and symbols that illuminates his teachings.
Lull developed his Great Art partially to facilitate missionary work to Muslims and Jews. During his last decade, he undertook several preaching missions to North Africa, where, in 1315 at the age of 83, he was stoned by an angry mob.
Though he was able to return to Palma, he eventually died from his wounds. For his contributions to Catholic mysticism and theology, Lull was given the title of “Doctor Illuminatus” (Enlightened Teacher) and was beatified in 1854.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.