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How the Church Has Changed the World: The Father of California


Several years ago my son and I were sitting in the beautiful courtyard of San Juan Capistrano.

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idaSaint Junípero Serra

We'd never been to southern California before, we were footsore from walking about the ruins of the mission, and we were thirsty. And there on the grass were fresh oranges, fallen from the tree.

I approached one of the curators. "Is it all right if my son and I have a couple of those oranges?" I asked, sheepishly. "They're on the ground anyway, and we've never had a fresh orange before."

"Go right ahead," she said, and we did, amid the chatter of tourists, the twitter of swallows and finches, the hum of traffic, and, somewhere beyond it all, the murmur of the waves of the Pacific breaking upon the white sand beach.

I have no love for cities, and little attraction to the pomps and glamor of Hollywood, but there I sat with my son on a sunny March day, in the old mission tucked between the rumpled coastal mountains and the sea, eating an orange, looking out on gardens of roses and palms and prickly pears, and thinking that for sheer natural bounty there might not be a finer place on earth.

It was not always so. Let's go back two hundred years and more. What do we see in this magnificent place, San Juan Capistrano?

Heart aflame

There are no roads, no gardens, no fields of grain, no orchards, no vineyards, no olive groves, no permanent settlements. There are no ranches, no dairies, no stables. Even the dog and the cat have not been domesticated. The natives in the hills enjoy a life more comfortable but not much more admirable than that of their poorer counterparts farther south, on the arid peninsula of Baja California. Their diet is better than vermin and grasshoppers. They are taller and more robust, less fearful of their neighbors. They live in grass huts, not holes in the ground. They can be as friendly as children and as treacherous.

The men go stark naked, sometimes hunting deer, but usually indulging in indolence. The women live in drudgery. A wife can be dismissed on a whim, and a man is shamed by his fellows if he shows special tenderness for her feelings. When food is scarce they raid other tribes. But all the fire of the summer sun leavening the earth did not burn warmer than the heart of the father in the brown robe, who came to teach them, correct them, protect them, and love them with a love they had never known.

The father was a spare, wiry man. He walked with a bad limp, ever since his first trek from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, when he had been stung by venomous insects, which swelled his leg and nearly killed him with fever. That was many years and thousands of miles ago, miles almost always crossed on foot. He came to bring them the sacraments, and to save their souls for Christ. He was a son of Saint Francis, and he belongs among the bravest men who have ever lived — but how many of those heroes ever gleamed with his greater virtues of mercy, humility, and charity? His name was Father Junípero Serra.

Many an energetic missionary has had a lust for adventure. Father Serra did not, though his journal and letters show that he was a close observer of tribal customs, geography, good farmland, and the characters of men. Junípero grew up on that Mediterranean jewel called Majorca, the son of a peasant. He was a bright boy, and the Church, quick to make use of God's gifts, made of him a formidable scholar. He held a prominent post in theology at the university of Palma in Spain. He could have lived there as a beloved teacher, with his parents and his kin, and their neighbors. He felt no wanderlust. Maybe we should call it a wanderlust: an unquenchable thirst to bring to lost mankind the glorious liberty of the children of God. He left Majorca in 1749 at the age of thirty-six, with several other friars, his dear friends. He would never see his family or his native land again.

The hills and valleys resound

Journeys and missions in those days must be reckoned not in days or weeks, but years, many years. Consider how long it would take for the viceroy in Mexico City to send a request to the court in Madrid and to receive a reply. Or how difficult it would be to haul the bare essentials of food and tools, by mule train protected by a handful of soldiers, over a thousand miles of barrens and deserts. Or that what we now call California was unexplored, so that once a mission was established, there was no easy way to tell the authorities in Mexico just how to find the nearest harbor. Or that the tribes were unknown, their habits unfamiliar, their language incomprehensible. Many good Franciscans lost heart and preferred to remain servants of God in the colorful gardens of Mexico City. Not Junípero.

His goal was to create a golden catena of missions from south to north, all the way to the bay he named for Saint Francis. He chose sites near to fresh-flowing streams and the sea. When he marked a new mission, he'd first erect a cross and string up bells — for Junípero, spare of diet, merciless in mortifying his body, was most generous in the things of God. And he'd grab the ropes and cry for joy, "Hear, Gentiles, come, come to the Holy Church, come, come to receive the faith of Jesus Christ!"

"Why do you tire yourself in this way?" one of the friars once asked. "There are no Indians in sight. It's a waste of time to ring the bells." "I'd like these bells to be heard by all the world," said Junípero, "or at least by all the Gentiles who live in the mountains."

And they came, if for nothing else than to see what made those sounds they had never heard before. They learned to see in Father Junípero a man without guile; someone who planned, labored, taught, and prayed; who fed them, blessed their children, and shared their joys and sorrows.

His paternal love often met rebuffs from shortsighted military men. The depth of his love is well-illustrated by what happened to the mission at San Diego. It was a thriving village and farm in the open fields, without palisades, because the Spaniards thought they had made good friends of the Indians nearby. But a couple of the newly baptized deserted the farm and stirred up the tribes to attack. The mission was destroyed. The Spanish, greatly outnumbered, defended themselves as best they could, but their losses were great, and included people who were there only to forge tools or till the fields.

The commander wanted to scour the hills and hang the attackers. Father Junípero opposed him, saying that the Indians acted more from ignorance than from malice. When the two treacherous converts, troubled in conscience, returned to the mission, Junípero protected them. He pleaded his case to the authorities in Mexico, begging for more protection for the missions and for permission, within the missions, to punish wrongdoing without appeal to the military commander. In other words, he begged for the rule of Christ as opposed to martial law. He prevailed. The missions were islands of civilization and gentle but firm discipline, where the self-denying priest ruled, not the soldier.

Junípero had no notion of "race," except as a curiosity. He wrote to the Mexican governor that the missions had to be populated, so he hoped that Spanish men might be sent north to work the farms and to take wives among the Indian women. Just at this time, unknown to him, American colonists in the east were rebelling against British rule, with a slaveholder writing that God had created all men equal.

Spreading a table in the wilderness

So my son and I ate our oranges, brought to California by the friars, and walked about the mission. Here were the remains of an oil press and a small oil factory, to crush that most useful of fruits and to refine and store its essence; the olive had been brought by the friars. Here were fig trees, brought by the friars. Here was the wine press; grapes grew wild in California, and the friars brought European varieties like the muscadel; eventually California wines would be known the world over. Here were cisterns for rainwater and irrigation; here was the well. Here was the smithy for forging nails, plows, axes, and horseshoes. Here was the chapel, built of stone and adobe by the hands of friars and soldiers and natives, in that simple and beautiful style that the friars invented, as if they saw it rising from the earth of California, another natural growth in this bountiful land.

How different was this enterprise from anything going on out east! Our humanitarian enterprises even now are a pale and sometimes sinister shadow of the sun-drenched love of Father Juníper. He brought the Indians the bread of the earth because he longed to bring them the bread of heaven, the bread that has all sweetness within it.

He was tireless. Even on the night before he died he showed his complete self-donation to God. He would not rest before his rest. Somehow he dragged himself to the chapel to celebrate Benediction, and there he received Viaticum and the last rites. He died the next morning in his cell, a wooden cross upon his chest. The Indians he loved so well searched the hillsides roundabout for his favorite wild flowers, decking his body with them.

"Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" grumbled the children of Israel. Only God can do so. For the world otherwise knows no one like Saint Junipero Serra.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The Father of California." Magnificat (September, 2015).

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The Author

esolen54smAnthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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