The Complexities of the Toppled California Saint

junipero serra statue toppled
photo from the Los Angeles Times

Two hundred fifty-one years ago today, Junipero Serra made landfall in San Diego bay, and his mission to California began.

In September of 2015, the pope came to the United States to canonize Father Serra. Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the eastern portico of the National Shrine in Washington, on an absolutely beautiful early-autumn day.

Two concelebrants to note: Your unworthy servant, a hundred yards away from the pope, in the fiftieth row.

And Theodore McCarrick.

McCarrick sat, in his scarlet zuchetto, in the first row of concelebrants, immediately behind the pulpit.

A few feet away from him, the pope’s host: then-Washington-archbishop Donald Card. Wuerl. Who had seen documentary evidence of McCarrick’s predations, a decade earlier.

A few more feet way: Pope Francis himself. Who had seen the same documents two years earlier.

Also nearby: Then-nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who had seen documentary evidence of McCarrick’s predation fifteen years earlier.

Complexities at the canonization Mass. Kinda like complexities in the saint’s life itself.

Pope Francis Shrine Immaculate Mass Junipero Serra
Junipero Serra canonization Mass

…The Calfornia missions: beautiful, evocative places. In the late 19th century, the ‘mission tour‘ began, as a way to showcase the state of California. That happened just a generation after the state became English-speaking, when the Gold Rushers brutally tried to exterminate the natives.

Father Serra never tried to exterminate anybody. But the coming of the Spaniards in the 18th century did cause a great deal of unintended death. They didn’t know about germs, but their germs killed a lot of natives. And they didn’t know about the plants and animals that the natives ate, but their own plants and animals destroyed them.

Father Serra loved the idea of preaching to unbaptized people. And he loved the unbaptized people, like a father loves his teenage children.

Sometimes Christian parents use force of one kind or another, to get their children to church. Father Serra held firm to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theo. II-II q10 a8. That is: The preacher may not compel faith by force. But authorities in the Christian community may restrain by force any baptized person who forsakes his or her baptismal obligations.

This meant that Father Serra ordered the capture and flogging of some baptized Chumash who got disenchanted with mission life and fled back into the wild.

Meanwhile, Father Serra held in check the far-crueler tendencies of the Spanish military. And he insisted that all the mission property belonged to the natives.

Father Serra went to his death firmly believing that he had built a future for his beloved new Christians, not for rich colonists. He never could have foreseen the twists and turns of history that followed, which left the natives with–surprise, surprise–nothing.

…A lot of Chumash and Kumeyaay died of imported diseases in the missions. When they did, the missionaries lamented their deaths, but praised God that they died as Christians, so they could go to heaven. To a lot of contemporary Americans, this sounds like a terrible way to look at it.

But: Would these natives have lived long, peaceful, and prosperous lives had they never met a Franciscan friar? Most likely not. The tribes had plenty of diseases of their own, and enemy tribes ready and willing to kill them brutally.

That said: Would they have died as young as they did, from European diseases, had they never met the Franciscans? Probably not.

Meanwhile: Do we 21st-century Christians believe that only Jesus Christ has opened the gates of heaven, just like the 18th-century Franciscans believed? Yes, we do. That’s exactly what we believe. And do we prize eternal life above this short pilgrimage below? Certainly.

…Lots of complexities, my dear ones. Don’t look at me for “the answer.”

Saint Junipero, pray for us.

The Angels in Vegas

st peter's cherubs angels

The Lord gave me an inspiration on the morning of September 11. We had gathered around the seminary security desk, watching the one tv in the building. Right after the first tower came down, I thought to myself: You shouldn’t just stand here. Go into the chapel and pray to the guardian angels of everyone who just died.

There is a realm in which guns can do no harm. That realm is invisible to our eyes now. But countless pure spirits live in that heaven of peace. They, our truest friends, will only what is good. And they understand things like why innocent people wind-up killed for no reason. The wisdom of the angels penetrates mysteries that look impenetrably dark and terrifying to us.

Now, something else happened yesterday, which I want to mention. The Archbishop of Los Angeles preached in Washington, addressing some justices of the Supreme Court, some members of Congress, and other officials.

Archbishop Gomez presides over the Church in the city named for the holy angels, the largest diocese in the US. Who founded that diocese, and the whole Church of California? St. Junipero Serra, of course. (That’s another memory for me: concelebrating with Pope Francis at Fr. Serra’s canonization Mass, two years and one week ago.)

Pope Francis Shrine Immaculate Mass Junipero Serra

In his homily yesterday, Archbishop Gomez reminded everyone how Father Serra wrote a Bill of Rights for the native Indians of California. He wrote it before Thomas Jefferson and Co. wrote the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights in Philadelphia.

Then Archbishop Gomez undertook to explain something that I myself had wondered about. Why did Pope Francis canonize Fr. Junipero in Washington, D.C.? Seems a little odd, since the saint never set foot on the east coast of the US. He’s the patron saint of California, after all. Why not canonize him in California?

But Archbishop Gomez explained Pope Francis’ reason. The Pope thinks that all Americans should revere Fr. Serra as one of the official Founding Fathers of the USA, right alongside George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

On a terribly sad day for our country, let’s remember: our nation began not with political struggle or material greed. It didn’t begin with strife and violence. It began with faith in God. Archbishop Gomez pointed-out yesterday: The Founding Fathers of the USA believed the revelation of Christ so profoundly, they regarded it as “self-evident.” Every human life is sacred and has a purpose. To quote Archbishop Gomez, explaining the fundamental idea of America:

Before God made the sun and the moon, before he placed the first star in the sky or started to fill the oceans with water — before the foundation of the world — God knew your name and my name. And he had a plan of love for our lives.

This is the Gospel, revealed to our minds by the ministry of angels. Not sure it really is “self-evident” to mankind. But it certainly is self-evident to all the guardian angels of mankind.

It’s hard to imagine anything more crushing to the hope and love of a nation than for one of our citizens to set up machine guns in a tall building in one of our big cities, and then randomly mow down his fellow countrymen in a crowd below.

This is going to take us a while to deal with. May our angels help us. And may the angels of the dead in Las Vegas carry their souls to heaven.

Independence-Day-Weekend Homily

Juan Epstein

Two hundred forty years.  Twelve score years.  Since…?

Yes, the Declaration of Independence.  But also, the same summer of 1776: St. Junipero Serra founded the California missions of San Francisco of Assisi and San Juan Capistrano, just south of Santa Maria de Los Angeles.

As we read at Sunday Mass, the Lord Jesus said, ‘The harvest is abundant. But it requires a lot of labor.’  We have worked at this USA thing for 240 years, expending countless, noble labors.  Working hard to communicate with each other, to cultivate a harmonious life together, to find and elect the right leaders, to educate our children, to step together into a hopeful future.

How can we not take pride in our USA?  By God’s grace, we share a genuinely sublime identity.  The eternal Son of God became man to reveal the love with which our heavenly Father made us.  Christ came to shine the divine light on: the sacred dignity of the human being.

This idea–the beautiful truth that our Creator has willed us all to exist and to thrive–that is the central, unifying idea of our nation.  That idea unites a huge, motley collection of pale- and swarthy-skinned people, in the common enterprise of the United States of America.

We read:  The Lord commanded His evangelists to say “Peace.” Peace to you.  Peace to your family, to your household, to your town.

The idea of human dignity offers us the one, true pathway to lasting peace. ‘Justice’–what does it mean?  Doesn’t it mean:  Respecting the true dignity of my neighbor?  Doesn’t it mean always remembering:  ‘This is God’s child, too.’ When we treat each other justly, what breaks out?

american-flagPeace.  Peaceful things, like cookouts, games of horseshoes, flowers growing in peoples’ gardens, young men and women falling in love and getting married, babies getting born, then growing up and going to school and learning things like Shakespeare and astronomy.

Christ came to teach us:  the heavenly Father never willed you to suffer though a wretched, hopeless, slavish life.  He wills that you live in full–occasionally enjoying things like fried chicken and ice cream, avoiding sin, and getting to heaven in the end.

By God’s grace, and the labor of the patient generations that have come before us, America has offered us a home where we can occasionally enjoy fried chicken and ice cream, avoid sin, and make our pilgrim way to heaven.

Am I right that the Christian concept of human dignity really is the crucial idea? Government by consent of the governed.  Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Habeas corpus and trial by jury.  Freedom from unlawful search and seizure.  Free thinking, free assembling.  Praying and serving God according to my own well-educated conscience.

Human dignity.  The Creator endows every Tom, Dick, and Harry; every Beckah, Susan, and Sherri; every black, white, mestizo, olive-skinned, or chorizo-eating Puerto-rican Jew with the same dignity.  Child of God.  Our Founding Fathers declared this to be “self-evident.”  Sure.  It’s perfectly self-evident.  Provided you assume that Jesus Christ lives and breathes and teaches pure truth.

Now, we also read at Mass about how the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem nurse at the abundant breasts of truth, justice, and peace.  Prosperity flows over the heavenly city like a river:  the prosperity of genuine brotherly love. The kind of genuine brotherly love that fits with a modest lifestyle and a small carbon footprint.

If we get a tiny, little share of that heavenly peace at a happy, multi-generational, American-family Fourth-of-July barbecue–how do we maintain such a peace?

It takes work.  Patient, humble labor.  The harvest is abundant–when the laborers labor.

As our Holy Father put it in his encyclical on Mother Earth, we must labor to find a new, 21st-century way of interacting with the land, the rivers, and the seas.  The 19th- and 20th-century ways have brought us to the brink of ecological disaster.

And we must labor for the rights of our neighbors to whom the promise of human dignity does not currently apply.  That, too, is the story of our nation: fighting for those to whom the American promise has not been kept.  From where I’m standing, right now that includes two large classes of people: innocent and defenseless unborn children and law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

May the Lord bless and protect our country.  We Americans have always hoped for a good future, first and foremost because the Lord has given us such a wonderful land to live in.  Why would we stop hoping now?

Yes, in this world, we will have troubles.  But Jesus has overcome the evil of the world.  So Christian hope does not disappoint.  Because God is real; His Christ is real; His Kingdom is real.  He says to His children:  Take pride in who you are; rejoice that your names are written in heaven!

Redskins (and Pope) to NY

Pope Francis pauses in front of a sculpture of Spanish-born Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC

Holy Mass outside the Shrine in Washington yesterday brought me (and the world, I think) many graces.

Papa Francesco declared that Father Junipero deserves veneration at the Church’s altars, all over the world. A mild, peaceful sun shone on an earnest gathering of 25,000-or-so people–an assembly of humanity with pretty much one common bond: faces turned towards Christ.

The intersection of 4th and Michigan, N.E., has never known silence like the moments of recollection during this Mass. Former Abp. of Washington, the late James Cardinal Hickey, loved to talk about how loudly the streetcars squealed at this intersection in 1940. But yesterday, with all the streets closed, and everyone praying in silence, you could hear the breeze rustle a bush 100 yards away.

We priests sang Pescador de Hombres together during the communion meditation, and I prayed for another twenty-two years just like the last twenty-two (which I have spent in the Church ruled by the Pope).

I love our Holy Father very much. He gave a speech inside the Capitol this morning. Some lovely lines, but I cannot defend it as an oratorical work of art.

Pope kisses the crucifix upon entering St. Patrick's Cathedral
Pope kisses the crucifix upon entering St. Patrick’s Cathedral

I heard the speech in the car, driving back to my beloved parish(es). It ended, and I sat in a stunned daze. The sentence that I had awaited never got said.

So I turned off the radio. I do not hesitate, as a two-decade veteran of the Pro-Life Movement, to say that I felt punched in the face. Holy Father had never said the word abortion. Had never referred to the innocent and defenseless unborn child.

So I meditated instead on another papal speech given during an early-autumn visit to Washington…

I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life—from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages—is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God. Nothing surpasses the greatness or dignity of a human person. Human life is not just an idea or an abstraction; human life is the concrete reality of a being that lives, that acts, that grows and develops.

Let me repeat what I told the people during my recent pilgrimage to my homeland: If a person’s right to life is violated at the moment in which he is first conceived in his mother’s womb, an indirect blow is struck also at the whole of the moral order, which serves to ensure the inviolable goods of man. Among those goods, life occupies the first place… Human life is precious because it is the gift of a God whose love is infinite; and when God gives life, it is for ever…

All human beings ought to value every person for his or her uniqueness as a creature of God, called to be a brother or sister of Christ…

For us, the sacredness of human life is based on these premises. And it is on these same premises that there is based our celebration of life—all human life. This explains our efforts to defend human life against every influence or action that threatens or weakens it…

And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened. When the sacredness of life before birth is attacked, we will stand up and proclaim that no one ever has the authority to destroy unborn life. When a child is described as a burden or is looked upon only as a means to satisfy an emotional need, we will stand up and insist that every child is a unique and unrepeatable gift of God.

[October 7, 1979, Mass on the Mall, John Paul II]

Torna presto. (Card. Dolan to His Holiness, when the pope was getting ready to leave St. Patrick’s after Vespers this evening.) Most charming line of the papal visit so far. Torna presto, dear reader, for more reflections on Holy Father’s visit.

Bells Soon to Ring

Shrine Serra banner

If you’re on the St. Andrew/Roanoke-Catholic campus at 4pm, you will hear the church bells ring. Why? To welcome our Holy Father to our country. All church bells will sound because: the pope, universal shepherd, successor of St. Peter in the Apostolic See, Vicar of Christ—here with us.

At Holy Mass today, we read from the book of Ezra about the house of God, and we sing Psalm 122, about going to God’s house. I know that a homily is hardly the appropriate opportunity to offer you my personal memoirs, but…

Tomorrow I will be at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Twenty-one years ago, I graduated from college on the steps of that house of God. Twelve years ago, I was ordained a priest inside.

I have spent more hours of my life praying in that building that I could ever count. In college, I did a paper on the architecture. I learned how to swing a thurible in there. I chanted the gospel there when I was a transitional deacon. I said Mass there on the first anniversary of my father’s death. I have been a pilgrim there, taken pilgrims there, heard pilgrims’ confessions there, said Mass for pilgrims there.

That building is a great house of God, a stronghold of prayer, high on a hill, visible from great distances. (Like St. Andrews!)

Pope Francis will do quite a few things while he’s here with us in the US. One of the big ones is: He will canonize a saint. A saint who lies in a tomb in Carmel, California. (I visited it in 2014.) An organizer, a builder, a man of enormous love, a patron of seminarians. I have loved Father Junipero Serra for twenty years.

Also, in my twenties, I knew a good number of Jesuits. Pope Francis reminds me very much of some of them, of how they thought and what they paid attention to.

Forgive me. I’m just a little overwhelmed by how one single day will draw together for me so many strands of memory and affection. A little pilgrimage to concelebrate with the Pope, that encapsulates 25 years of my life.

When you reach middle age, you hardly expect so much of your life to come together, in focus, on one single day. May God be praised!

♥’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.

Striving to Rest


The promise of entering into his rest. (Hebrews 4:11)

St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews offers us the definitive interpretation of Psalm 95. And Psalm 95 must be important, since we priests recite it every day, first thing. It is the daily opening of the Divine Office.

The psalm exhorts us to sing praise to the Creator, to acknowledge His universal sway, and to submit to him like sheep submit to their shepherd. “Today, listen to the Lord!” Soften your hearts. Because the stubborn will not enter into his rest.

Interpreting all this, St. Paul exhorts us: “Let us strive to enter into that rest.”

A paradoxical thing to say, to be sure. Strive! To rest. Since I am a runner, and therefore know that there is nothing more relaxing than running many miles, I can feature this paradox pretty well.

Juniper Serra tombWe all can, I think. Back in the day, before Roe v. Wade, the few weeks before Ash Wednesday had a sleepy, restful feel in the typical American parish, and naps were allowed. But we cannot rest in late January now. We have to go on a pilgrimage and stand up for human rights.

So we strive, in order to enter into rest.

Speaking of striving and entering into his rest: Father Junipero Serra, Apostle of California.

Perhaps you recall that some brother priests and I followed in Father Junipero’s footsteps for a week last winter. The California missions he founded wrap the pilgrim up in prayerful quiet and devotion to God even now, 200 years later. I prayed for all of us at Father Serra’s tomb.

The very-exciting news for us American Catholics: Holy Father will canonize Junipero Serra this fall! When Pope Francis comes to visit the U.S. Really wonderful news.

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