♥’ing the Saint of the California Bays

Junipero Serra Mass Monterey harbor

Two hundred forty-six years ago tomorrow, Junipero Serra, aged 55, landed in San Diego bay. The building of the California Missions began. Fr. Serra presided over the construction of beautiful open monasteries all along the coast. The places we know as San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Jose, Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo, and, of course, San Diego, all got their names from the patron saints of these missions.

In California some enemies of the Church refuse to celebrate Father Serra as a Founding Father or even to remember him as a great and generous man. To the contrary, they accuse him of colonialism and genocide.

Last year I had the opportunity to visit the mission chain with a couple brother priests. The surviving missions offer the pilgrim a great deal of prayerful peace. Not that that proves anything in a historical argument, in and of itself. But it does make you wonder if the criticisms really make sense.

One important fact to keep in mind: the native tribes of California survived through the Spanish-mission period. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in the 1820’s, the government proceeded to confiscate the missions. Then, of course, Mexico lost her war with the United States. It was the Gold Rush of 1849 that doomed the indigenous natives of California. Genuine cruelty arrived in California not in 1769, but in 1849.

I think we should take special pride and rejoice on July 1 for these reasons…

Juniper Serra tomb1) Fr. Serra did everything as a son of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron of the northern parish of our beloved cluster.

2) This Franciscan qualifies as a genuine Founding Father of the USA.

No, he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. At that time, praying, baptizing, confirming, and teaching people the Gospel occupied all of his attention. In fact, in 1776, he had just buried the first martyr of California, one of his brother Franciscans, and he had to re-build the San Diego mission that a hostile Indian tribe had destroyed.

While Thomas Jefferson and Co. were declaring independence from England, Fr. Junipero was pleading with the Spanish authorities not to punish the Indians who had done the burning and martyring. He wrote, “”If I should die a martyr’s death at the hands of the Native peoples, I ask that no revenge or retaliation for my death be taken. What would be gained for our cause by such an action? Instead, show them and teach them the love and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

3) When Pope Francis comes to the US in September, he will canonize Fr. Junipero, and our land will have another saint. Last year I prayed at the tomb of this saint for you!

What Father Serra’s critics lack is sympathy with his fundamental motivation. He and his brother Franciscans believed that one thing gives life its true meaning: union with God in Christ. The Franciscan missionaries lived their monkish lives and made their monasteries places where the native peoples could learn and pray. The Franciscans owned nothing and insisted that the land belonged to the natives. Of the converts to Christianity, the friars demanded discipline. But it was no more than the discipline they demanded of themselves. The Franciscans were morally strict, never racist. Over and over again, they took up the causes of Indians who had been wronged by Spaniards.

Doesn’t mean the missionaries didn’t make mistakes. But the vision that Fr. Serra had of what America could be—that vision could really help us at this point in history, I think.

Not to beat around the bush: Fr. Serra had no conception of technological and material “progress.” He was actually an enormously successful entrepreneur, after his fashion, building up a huge, amazing ‘business,’ so to speak. But the idea of ‘capitalism’ meant nothing to him. He had no thought of anything other than a tranquil, simple lifestyle.

Nor did he have any idea of absolute individual freedom. He courageously stood up for the native peoples, but neither he nor they would have understood the idea of religion as a personal, individual choice. Rather, he believed that God had given the land as a common inheritance, so that people could live together in prayerful peace, practicing the religion of Jesus, making their way to heaven.

Not a bad founding vision for this beautiful land. And it’s not too late for us to try to follow it.

California Mission Road Trip

snapshot I took last Tuesday
snapshot I took last Tuesday at Mission San Diego de Alcalá

Certainly would have been more noble, and more evocative of Blessed Father Junipero Serra, to walk the Camino Real from south to north. Or to travel on horseback. Instead of driving in a rented Ford Taurus.

But we got close to California’s Apostle nonetheless, and close to the land–which ravishes the eye in a different way than the beautiful land here in the east. And we got up-close-and-personal to the freezing, churning surf, too. Quick list of tops from the trip:

Most California-gold-rush-feeling building we saw: San Diego’s downtown train station

Santa Fe train station, downtown San Diego
Santa Fe train station, downtown San Diego

Most all-around beautiful California Mission church: San Luis Rey in Oceanside.

Fr. Jayme martyredMuseum that comes closest to equaling the Cloisters in New York: Getty Villa in Malibu.

Martyr tomb we visited: Father Luís Jayme, at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Apostle tomb we visited: Blessed Junipero, in the mission church in Carmel.

Most Prayerful Non-Catholic Cathedral we visited: Muir Woods.

Most amazing stretch of road: Chumash Highway between Santa Barbara and Route 1. Second most: Malibu Canyon Road. Third most: Driveway from Route 1 up to the Camaldolese hermitage in Big Sur.

used to be Orchard HotelMost-fun Sushi Joint in Hollywood: Blue C Sushi, with Tokyo-Subway payment plan. Best waiter at Blue C Sushi: Seth!!

Best modern altar retablo: Basilica of San Juan Capistrano.

Best fish in a mission fountain: man-eating-size carp at San Juan Capistrano

Best Hotel in San Francisco: The Hotel Rex, which used to be the Orchard Hotel, where my dad and I stayed in 1987, and my buddy Eric Weingartner and I stayed in 1988.

Best View of San Diego: From the Presidio hill, above Old Town, where Blessed Junipero raised the cross and claimed alta California for Christ.

City with the most underwhelming cathedral I have ever seen, but with an excellent filipino sextant named Alberto: San Diego

City with a 5/8th replica of St. Francis’ portiuncula, as well as the National Shrine of St. Francis, and an Italian national church that would do any city proud as a cathedral: San Francisco

Most apparently ill-advised ecclesiastical purchase of recent memory: Diocese of Orange acquiring Crystal Cathedral (Why?)

Best View of Monterey Harbor: From the hilltop where Father Junipero offered the Holy Mass under a shade tree

Best Cocktail-Hour Beverage during a California-Mission Roadtrip: Ice-cold gin, made from juniper blossoms, in honor of Fr. Junipero.

Junipero Serra Mass Monterey harbor

Prayed for you and your beloved dead at the holy missions of: San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey, San Diego de Alcala, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Carlo Borromeo, and San Francisco. Thank you, Lord!

snapshot I took on Monday
snapshot I took on Monday at Mission Dolores in San Francisco