During his first pastoral visit to Philadelphia, Pope Francis intends to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, who inaugurated California’s famed Missions along El Camino Real, now the general route of the Pacific Coast Highway.
California is historically steeped in the faith of Blessed Junipero Serra; many of the State’s storied cities began either with the Missions or several comparable shrines of a secondary nature and described by the Spanish asistencia (i.e., the smaller “missions” lacking the usual Royal Charter). Because Holy Apostles Seminary had recently established a Master of Arts in Religious Studies there at the request of a highly regarded Carmelite convent within Los Angeles (Alhambra), I used to fly out summers to teach contemporary moral issues and bioethics to the Sisters, who both taught school and conducted a hospital. I still recall how privileged I felt to be offering Masses there, in California, on the memorial of Father Serra, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.
While in Los Angeles I was able to visit some of the Missions, especially San Fernando. Father Serra founded nine of them personally; Carmel, San Carlo Borromeo, was his favorite. I especially recall visiting the original Mission of L.A., originally named Nuestra Señora de Los Angelos (Our Lady of the Angels); the church, which remains a Eucharistic shrine, called La Placíta, is unforgettable.
The major missions, as I recall reading, were originally spaced about the distance of a day’s walk. Some still tax the imagination for what they provided California’s Native Americans: ample food, plus surplus products for the market; a degree of safety from despoilers and thieves; self-rewarding labor and dignity; and various other beneficial rewards – to say nothing of the freedom and sense of nobility that Christianity secures.
There are, of course, contemporary critics who refuse to view the Missions in their historical context; critics who accent the weaknesses and ignorances that constantly assail human beings, who, after all, can make mistakes. One area of criticism pertains to the missionaries’ attitudes regarding the discipline needed for good order. But, as the principle I was taught when beginning a lengthy six-year seminary course in church history at St. Bernard’s, Rochester, reading history requires standing back with a telescope, not standing above reality with a microscope. The German phrase for this, commonly used in Biblical studies, is grasping the Sitz im Leben (the real setting in life at the time).
Father Serra understood his own deficiencies. In penance, undoubtedly, he walked almost everywhere, despite a leg condition that caused him pain; in penance, too, he fasted and denied himself sleep. He wore a coarse shirt, suffered from scurvy, braved riding though dangerous underbrush, replete with scorpions, poisonous spiders and snakes. When he died in 1784, his nine Missions numbered at least 5,000 Indians who had embraced Christianity.
They became part of the nucleus of the State of California, which chose Father Serra for one of the two statues for the United States’ Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
Whenever one approaches the subject of the California Missions, it is important to understand what Father Serra and his colleagues actually experienced. As I have already noted several times over, it seems, the major Missions (e.g., San Francisco, Carmel, Santa Barbara, etc.) were established about a days’ walk apart; these required a Royal Charter. However, intermediary Missions were also needed not only because of distances, but also for pastoral reasons. Among the latter is Mission Dolores in San Francisco, which I have visited three times (twice for press conventions and once on a three- or four-day vacation with my father). Dolores, a simple shrine, with chapel and nearby burial grounds, was among Father Serra’s 1776 foundations.
The day I visited La Placíta with several Carmelite Sisters who were in the theology classes I was teaching summers, the old Mission Church was filled with nearby Hispanic families, all praying before the Blessed Sacrament enthroned on the altar. It was a scene I have never forgotten, and cannot possibly forget. Here were people of deep faith, for whom eucharistic devotion was obviously real, profound and dynamic. On this subject, I can recall when American radio’s national broadcast pronunciation was changed to the English pronunciation for Los Angeles (a youth then, I was auditioning for radio part-time openings in Fairfield County; i.e., for a sports announcer or for network identification call letters, etc.). The irony, however, is that Los Angeles was originally named Nuestra Señora (Our Lady) of the Angels. Why Mary’s name was set aside, I can only guess; today, of course, the name is often reduced merely to “L.A.” – creeping secularism. Maybe someone can lead us all back to reviving the phrase, which is in itself also a prayer, “Our Lady of the Angels.”
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.