It’s been a while since I have blogged … much longer than I would like to admit! I could give plenty of excuses and examples of what has been filling my time over the past few months, but suffice it to say that life and ministry have been busy! But I do hope to get back to a regular blogging schedule, and to bring things back, I’d like to share some reflections that I gave to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis seminarians during their annual convocation last week. In preparation for Blessed Junipero Serra’s canonization during next month’s papal visit to the United States, I offered retreat conferences to our seminarians on Blessed Serra and the three other missionary priests who represent their states in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC. Along with Blessed Serra representing California, the other missionary priests in the U.S. Capitol are St. Damien of Molokai representing Hawaii, Fr. Eusebio Kino representing Arizona, and Fr. Jacques Marquette representing Wisconsin. Taken together, these four priests represent the many Catholic missionaries who evangelized this land during the years of European settlement.
Last month, I traveled to California for a brief pilgrimage to the tomb of Blessed Junipero Serra and some of the mission churches he founded along the California coast in the late 18th century. Serra was a Franciscan, and the intention of the missionary orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits), was to evangelize among the unbaptized Native Americans, establish churches, and then hand them over to native diocesan clergy. Serra himself founded 9 of the 21 mission churches in California, and today those churches are indeed still active, vibrant parish communities. I suggested to our seminarians that there is much that we can learn today about missionary discipleship in our parishes from the example and witness of people like Blessed Serra. Here are some parallels:
- The mission churches founded by Blessed Serra and other missionary priests attended to both spiritual and temporal needs of the people they encountered. They taught farming techniques, provided food and shelter, offered basic education, and much more. So, too, today’s parish churches are called to be attentive to the temporal needs of the people in their communities along with their spiritual needs.
- Blessed Serra never went alone or staffed a mission on his own – he always took with him fellow Franciscans and worked in collaboration with other missionaries. Even in diocesan priesthood today, priestly fraternity and collaboration is important. While we diocesan priests might often live and work in a parish as the only priest there, we cannot minister successfully without the support and collaboration of our brother priests.
- Blessed Serra saw the sacraments as the heart and goal of mission work – particularly Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confirmation. As parish priests today, we should strive to make the celebration of the sacraments the heart of parish life. Nothing else that we do at a parish is as important as the celebration of the sacraments.
- Blessed Serra felt that a monstrance was the most valued object in the missions – and in visiting Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, California, you can see the monstrance that Serra had sent from Spain for use especially in Eucharistic processions. The annual Corpus Christi procession thus became the highlight of the liturgical year for these communities – it was a way to bring Christ into the communities and among the people. In our parishes today, we would do well to think of how we also might be able to bring Christ into the neighborhoods and communities around our churches – whether through Eucharistic processions or in other ways.
- The mission churches founded by Blessed Serra and others were not always successful and most of them failed at some level – but they are still there and are still active parish churches today, a reminder that we don’t often see the fruit of our labors and must trust that God will provide the growth after we plant the seeds, even years and decades and centuries later.
I imagine (and hope) that we will be hearing a lot about Blessed Serra in the coming weeks as we prepare for his canonization – there are valuable lessons to learn from his mission work in this land. And if his goal – and that of the missionary orders in general – was to evangelize among the unbaptized, today there is a great need to re-evangelize among those who may have been baptized but have not yet fully heard, understood, or integrated into their lives what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.