Sunday, July 24, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 30 ~ St. Christina the Astonishing

Last week, I was thinking about which saint I should write about next, and the name of St. Christina the Astonishing popped into my head. I have no idea why. I hardly ever think about her, and I didn't know much about her either. I first heard of her from a friend when I was the secretary of the Catholic campus ministry at the University of Memphis about 30 years ago. The only thing that I really remembered about her was that she used hide in ovens to get away from the smell of people--a smell that was caused by their sins. At the time I assumed the ovens were cold, but I have since learned otherwise.

Saint Christina the Astonishing, © 2002, Cynthia
Large, Used by permission
Then, when I started looking around the internet for information about her, I found that today, July 24, is her feastday, so obviously she was the right choice.

St. Christina the Astonishing was born in Sint-Truiden, a town in what is now Belgium, in 1150. She died around 1170, and then again on July 24, 1224. An orphan at 15, she was a shepherdess who lived with her two sisters. The cause of her first death isn't completely clear. Thomas of Cantimpré, a Dominican student of St. Albert the Great, and the earliest chronicler of her life, says that, "...she grew sick in body by virtue of the exercise of inward contemplation and she died.* Some speculate that she had a seizure, or perhaps she had anorexia, but in any case, she died. That's when things began to get astonishing.

During Christina's funeral Mass, right after the Agnus Dei, Christina sat up and flew into the rafters of the church. As you might imagine, the attendees of the funeral found this rather startling and they ran from the church in another kind of flight. The only two people who were intrepid enough to stay until the end of Mass were Christina's sister and the priest. After the Mass, the priest talked her down from the rafters where she had flown to escape the stench of the sins of the people present.

According to "an old version of Butler's Lives of the Saints:"
After her death experience, she related that she had witnessed heaven, hell, and purgatory. It is written that she said “As soon as my soul was separated from my body it was received by angels who conducted it to a very gloomy place, entirely filled with souls” where the torments there that they endured “appeared so excessive” that it was “impossible to give an idea of their rigor.”
She continued,”I saw among them many of my acquaintances” and touched deeply by their sad condition asked if this was Hell, but was told that it was Purgatory. Her angel guides brought her to Hell where again she recognized those she had formerly known.
After this, the Lord gave her a choice between going to Heaven right away, or coming back to earth to do penance for the souls in Purgatory, and she chose the latter.

St. Christina the Astonishing:
a Pelican in High Places,

© 2007, Cynthia Large
Used by permission
Having come back from the dead to do penance, she took her job seriously. Besides climbing into hot ovens, she threw herself into waterwheels, and fires. People could see her being burned by the fires, but when she came out, she had not been harmed. She spent long periods of time in freezing water, and tombs. She also flew to the tops of trees. Like her savior before her, she had no place to lay her head. Homeless and ragged, sometimes she frightened people with her bizarre behavior as well as amazed them. Some thought she was mentally ill or possessed.

Looking at Christina's life today, we have to wonder why the Lord asked for such violent penances or permitted such strange manifestations. As several websites I read mentioned, we certainly are not meant to emulate her. What do we learn from St. Christina?

One thing Christina's life might cause us to think about is the seriousness of sin. It is sobering to think about what Christina might have seen that would lead her to such extremes. If her visions of Purgatory and Hell led her to live in such a painful way for over 50 years, they must have been terrifying indeed.

Another thing is that she makes me wonder about people I come across in my own life, people who are indigent, and dirty, and seemingly crazy. Could some of them also be very holy? I've come across a couple who might be. It is entirely like God to use the most unexpected people.

As I have written about elsewhere, we are all in some way suffering from a war between our bodies, and souls. We know that St. Paul wrote about this at length, and we're all very aware that like Paul we do not do the good we want to do but do instead the evil we do not want to do. Christina was especially aware of this and was heard having arguments in which her body and soul contended against one another and then reconciled. Perhaps we could ask her to intercede for us when our struggle to become more integrated within our own self seems impossible.

Then again, we might emulate her in that we might try to be more conscious of the need that others have for our prayers and sacrifices. I seriously doubt that anyone reading this is called to go jump into a fire, but a small weekly or daily sacrifice for the salvation of souls would be a good idea for any of us.

Both during Christina's life and afterward, people questioned whether she was truly holy; whether her unusual manifestations were from the Lord; and whether they even happened. One person who believed her to be a saint was St. Robert Bellarmine, who said:
We have reason for believing [Thomas of Cantimpré’s] testimony, since he has for guarantee another grave author, James de Vitry, Bishop and Cardinal, and because he relates what happened in his own time, and even in the province where he lived. Besides, the sufferings of this admirable virgin were not hidden. Every one could see that she was in the midst of the flames without being consumed, and covered with wounds, every trace of which disappeared a few moments afterwards. But more than this was the marvellous life she led for forty-two years after she was raised from the dead, God clearly showing that the wonders wrought in her by virtue from on high. The striking conversions which she effected, and the evident miracles which occurred after her death, manifestly proved the finger of God, and the truth of that which, after her resurrection, she had revealed concerning the other life.
Christina had few friends, but one, Beatrice, was a Dominican prioress, with whom she spent her final years.
Christina died at the Dominican Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sint-Truiden, of natural causes, aged 74. The prioress there later testified that, despite her behavior, Christina would humbly and fully obey any command given her by the prioress. (Wikipedia)
Nick Cave, Lisa Tribo
Used by permission
It seems that several poets have been inspired by St. Christina, among them singer and songwriter, Nick Cave. You can hear his haunting song, Christina the Astonishing here. I chose this video (which is really just a picture of a billboard) because the lyrics to the song are below the video.

I read a lot of different websites before writing this post, including the four that I linked to above, and this one, this one, and this one, from which I gleaned bits of information. The most helpful, best written, and most well-researched post of all by far was *St. Christina the Astonishing, by Cynthia Large. I suggest that you follow that link, and read what she has written. You will also find there the poems inspired by St. Christina.

Cynthia is also the artist who painted the lovely pictures above, which she was gracious enough to give me permission to use. She also has many other very nice pictures on her site. You might want to go look at them.

AMDG

Janet Cupo is the proprietor of this blog.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Will You, Won't You?

In an effort to do what I have encouraged others to do, I was listening to the beginning of the book of Matthew yesterday. In the fourth chapter, we read about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. As I was listening to it, I started thinking about the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).

Now the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a lot of people must have made this connection before, and a quick Google search showed that this is true. It had never occurred to me before, though, and I'm fairly certain that I have manged to reach the age of 65 without ever hearing a sermon about it.

It seems as if Jesus, before He began His public ministry, had to go back to the beginning of the end of paradise. Just as this long, sad fall away from grace began with Eve's temptation, the path to redemption had to begin with the temptation of Jesus. The enemy tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the tree, which was death; he tempted the Lord to refuse to eat that same fruit to achieve our salvation.


There are lessons for us in both of these passages. In the first, the enemy deals in the same kind of obfuscation and half-truths that we see in the story of Denethor. He starts by trying to put God in the wrong, implying that He would be so unjust as to forbid Adam and Eve to eat any of the fruit in the garden. Then he tells Eve that if she eats the fruit, she will be like God. She already is like God--made in His image. He offers her something she doesn't need, and leads her to mistrust the One Who is always trustworthy. He makes her forget who she is.

In the case of Jesus, there is no way that the evil one could make Him forget Who He is, so Satan takes the opposite tack. He wants to remind Jesus Who He is. Why should He sit out in the desert and starve, alone and powerless? He could rule the world. Jesus resists the temptation and sets out on the road to the cross.


Another thing that I've never thought about before is how Jesus overcomes temptation at the exact moment when we excuse ourselves for giving in. He is very hungry, and He must have been very tired. Hungry and tired is my best excuse for yielding to my habitual sins. It makes me think.

I'm hoping it will make me do more than think. Coincidentally, as though there were such a thing, since I started writing this post yesterday, I have had ample opportunity to practice what I'm preaching here, and I can't say I've been a stellar success. At least I've been aware of exactly what I was doing. That's a beginning.


AMDG


Sunday, July 17, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 29 ~ St. Petrus Ascanus and the Martyrs of Gorcum

All my children were born in a hospital in Asse, a substantial village about six miles from where we live. The most direct route from our house to the hospital runs partly along a street named for Petrus Ascanus, and past a chapel dedicated to his memory in 1891. Until today I had never really thought of him or his chapel except in navigational terms. Last night (at time of writing) [July 8] Janet asked if I had another saint to hand for her series, and I said that I would see what I could do, but didn’t really have any ideas. Today I noticed that it is the feast of the Martyrs of Gorcum, and that one of them is a local hero. Petrus Ascanus, born six miles from where I live, was bursar of the Franciscan house in Gorcum, Holland, when the community was massacred in 1572.

I have been running into the Martyrs of Gorcum for years, without ever seeking them out. The summer after I graduated, to keep my linguistic and historical skills honed, I started translating a 16th-century chronicle written by an anonymous Dutch nun. This translation was eventually published, in 2001, by a fly-by-night outfit called Davenant Press, so in a sense it is my first translation that would be published (although later translations had been published earlier, if that makes sense). The text can be found at this link. The chronicle is an account of the horrors that the author witnessed or heard about over a ten-year period from 1566 to 1576. This was the first decade of the Dutch Revolt, when rebels often inspired by Calvinism (and allied mercenaries from England, France and Germany) fought against loyalists who were usually Catholic (supported by Habsburg troops from Italy and Spain, and more mercenaries from Germany). It was not a religious war as such, but one of the outcomes was a divided Netherlands in which the North (the Dutch Republic, now the Kingdom of the Netherlands) was predominantly Calvinist, with Catholic worship prohibited, while the South (now Belgium) was officially Catholic, with Protestantism proscribed. The most important of the early leaders of the Revolt was William of Orange, a relatively tolerant individual who favoured freedom of conscience, but not all his lieutenants were as eirenically inclined as he was. The Lord of Lumey, in particular, was given to gratuitous cruelty and a hatred of the clergy. He was so much a law unto himself that in 1576 he was banished from the nascent republic.

One of the passages in the chronicle describes the deaths of the Martyrs of Gorcum as reported in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the summer of 1572:

About the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, the Rebels came to Gorcum, where there is a castle which is called the Blue Tower. Therein lived the constable, who was an old man and true to his baptism, and he shot at the Rebels and hoped to stop them. For many goods had been stored there from inside and outside the town. And there were many good people there, particularly priests, and at least 12 or 13 friars. And since the constable received no help or support from the citizens he could not stop them and the Rebels came on them with great fury and said, ‘Give yourselves prisoner, we shall treat you in such a way, that it will be talked about for many years.’ And then they took all the goods stored there, and they took the constable’s wife and daughter, and the friars and the chaplain, and brought them to the flying captain, who could not stand the sight or smell of religious persons. And they piteously martyred the chaplain and the friars, to wit they cut off their ears and noses and their manhood too and stuck them in their mouths. Then they hanged them by the chin on a hook and they hanged alive like that in great pain, until they died, to wit eight friars and a chaplain. The dean was ransomed by his friends at great cost, for they paid 3000 guilders, and they also took all the goods that he had. The constable was tortured and imprisoned there, but not killed. It is said that there was a poor man, who could not earn his bread because he was in such poor health, who walked under the gibbet that these new martyrs hung on, for he had heard much about their patience and endurance. For they would rather die and suffer all the torments that could be inflicted on them, than give up their faith, as they had publicly answered those who asked it of them when they were about to be killed. Item. So this man sincerely invoked them and prayed to be healthy so that he might earn his bread, which he was granted before he left there healthy and well, and thanking God and these new martyrs.

Although this was the immediate news, it was not in all respects accurate. There were in fact not nine martyrs, but nineteen. Eleven of them were Franciscans (some priests, some lay brothers), another four were secular priests (including the chaplain mentioned in the chronicle), and with them were two Norbertines, a Dominican, and a canon regular. They were killed after a fortnight in captivity, during which they had been subject to numerous insults and injuries.

For my M.A. dissertation (later the basis of a book)  I studied a writer called Richard Verstegan whose many publications included an account of contemporary martyrs, first published in 1587, entitled Theatrum Crudelitatum Haereticorum Nostri Temporis (A Theatre of the Cruelties of the Heretics of Our Time). In this he too provided an account, slightly more sanitized, of the deaths of the Martyrs of Gorcum (pictured). After being given an opportunity to renounce the Faith, they were forced to walk in procession while being mocked and beaten, and were then hanged in a barn.

A few months ago I began cycling to work in Brussels, and on my usual route I pass a church dedicated to St Nicholas. Visiting it one day out of curiosity, I found myself examining the reliquary of the Martyrs of Gorcum. It is impossible to say whose bones are which. The corpses of the martyrs had been buried unceremoniously in the ruined barn in which they had been hanged. The Revolt became a war that dragged on until 1648 (this was the war in which the father of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God served), but in 1615, during a truce, a secret mission was sent north to recover their relics and smuggle them back to Brussels.



The Martyrs of Gorcum, Petrus Ascanus among them, were beatified in 1675, and canonized in 1867. Their commemoration is 9 July. The war-torn country in which they were murdered for hatred of the Faith is now stable and prosperous, but news of similar killings is all too frequent elsewhere.

Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.). He has also written about St. AnthonySt. CuthbertMargaret, and St. Kizito  for this series.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Last month I re-read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy for the first time in years. I have read it out loud to children at least twice, and at least three times to myself. It has been long enough since the last reading that I had forgotten some things, for instance, I had forgotten what an absolutely wonderful character Faramir is. I was also able to divorce myself fairly well from my memories of the movies.

There were many passages in the books that seemed to have more meaning than in the past. It was like reading a book about parenthood after you have children. Before it was academic, but now you really know what they are talking about. This time around I'm more familiar with the temptation to give up hope in the face of a powerful adversary.

I have thought about the stories of Théoden and Denethor in the past, but this is really the first time I've considered them in apposition to each other. Their stories are basically the same. Théoden has been seduced by the poisonous advice of Gríma Wormtongue, the tool of Saruman, and has given up all hope of victory. He has laid aside his sword and spends his days in darkness and despair.

Denethor, on the other hand, thinks he is still in control, but he is, all unknowing, being controlled by Sauron. Denethor has a palantír by means of which he sees what is going on in Middle Earth. He thinks he knows the truth; however, the things he sees are being edited by the Enemy, and so he, too, believes all is lost.

When Gandalf comes to see Théoden he overpowers Wormtongue (in some way I don't really understand), and Théoden's eyes are opened to the treachery of his advisor. He turns Wormtongue away, takes up his sword, and becomes again the great warrior he once was. He dies a valiant death on the battlefield, and his memory is honored in Middle Earth.

Denethor at first listens to the admonishments of Gandalf, but worried that he will lose his power, he returns to the palantír where he is drawn back into Sauron's web of deceit. He despairs, and in his despair he abandons reason. Tragically, he dies horribly by self-immolation.

In the end the difference between triumph and tragedy depended on the voice they chose to hear.

All Christians are, and always have been in a great battle. The imminent dangers wax and wane, but never completely cease. Now, we seem to be surrounded on every side, and from every direction, both without and within, there are voices that will overwhelm us if we listen to them. Each of us has advisors who counsel despair, and each of us has his own little palantír insinuating half-truths into his mind. You're looking at yours right now. How do we escape?

Well, first we have to silence some of those voices by just refusing to listen, and then in their place we have to put the truth. The scripture of course is the first thing that comes to mind. It's an old answer. We'd probably like a new and astounding answer, but it wouldn't be as good. What would happen if we all spent as much, or even half as much time as we spend online or listening to the media reading scripture?

When I read the Old Testament I find time again that God saves his people by means that seem almost ridiculous. In the story of Gideon, He makes Gideon reduce his army to 300 men and then has them break jars and yell, "A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!" At Jericho they march around the wall and shout. In yesterday's first reading in the Office of Readings, He tells Jehoshaphat to have his army do nothing! They just go down and find their enemies lying dead on the ground after tribes turned on one another. We don't have to see the big picture or understand what the Lord plans to do. We just have to do whatever it is that we are called to do that day.

It may be that we will suffer and suffer greatly and lose everything in this world. That's another thing that we will find in the scripture. It's what we're told to expect when we come to serve the Lord. If Paul is right, it's cause for rejoicing. It's a tremendous help to be so familiar with these kinds of scriptures that when trials come, they are the first, or near the first thing that comes into our minds.

And then, we can also fill our minds with books like The Lord of the Rings. Books by men who knew the Truth and knew how to share it. Books where you kind find passages like this one:
The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.                                           Haldir in Fellowship of the Ring

AMDG

Sunday, July 10, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 28 ~ St. Bonaventure

SAINT BONAVENTURE (1221-1274)

Saint Bonaventure was the almost exact contemporary of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The ‘Angelic Doctor’ (Thomas) and the ‘Seraphic Doctor’ (Bonaventure) were the two great brainy saints of the thirteenth century, and indeed of all time. They were both Italians, Bonaventure hailing from Viterbo, and Aquinas, obviously enough, from Aquino. In their time, before the founding of the Jesuits, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the two new mendicant orders to which Bonaventure and Aquinas belonged, were rivals. Aquinas is the model Dominican theologian (I recently caught a Dominican writing, ‘our father Saint Thomas’, and had to point out to him that ‘our Father’ in the order is Saint Dominic). And as I will say later, Bonaventure really did take up the baton from Saint Francis in an important way. So these two great saints, Bonaventure and Thomas, are often taken as rivals, as if they had been competing athletes, like two tennis champions of the same age who year after year batted it out in the Wimbledon final.

Because they were the two leading lights of high scholastic theology, Thomas and Bonaventure have often been contrasted, and indeed, to put it more strongly, theology has often made the two saints to represent two opposing paths in theology. The Franciscan Saint Bonaventure is made to represent a rigorist, anti-intellectual, Augustinian path, whilst the Dominican Thomas Aquinas is taken as a model of pro-intellectual, Aristotelian theology which is tough-minded, inclusive and open.

There is some truth in the contrast, but also a mistake. Let’s start with the mistake. It’s a mistake to think that Aquinas was a mediating, inclusive theologian and Bonaventure was not. Aquinas’ great vocation was to mediate Aristotle to his contemporaries. He had to ‘baptize Aristotle’ for his contemporaries because a determined group of people in the Latin West were set upon taking up the new discovery of Aristotle’s writing and using it to promote untrammeled naturalism, secularism and a radical separation of philosophy and theology which made theological faith sound ridiculous and contradictory. So Thomas had to baptize Aristotle because in the mid 13th century, an unbaptized Aristotle was not just a neutral pagan from the 5th century BC, but a dangerous and deliberately anti-Christian thinker. I’m sure Thomas Aquinas also loved Aristotle and rightly thought the Metaphysics and the Ethics are great stuff, but above all, this rigorist Dominican saint recognized the danger of Aristotle-the-loose-canon, whose thought had not been integrated with Christian thinking.

Bonaventure performed just the same task of mediatory integration, only not with Aristotle but with ‘radical Gospel Christianity.’ It’s well known that after Saint Francis died, the Franciscan order was split between the ‘radical’ group, who wanted the order to follow Francis very literally, and the more moderate, worldly, ‘spirit of saint Francis’ Franciscans. The first lot, the radical Franciscans also quickly got mixed up with imminent eschatology, that is, with folks who took the book of Revelation very literally and saw the life of Francis and the birth of their own Franciscan order as harbingers of the End Times, end times which would be played out in technicolour in the very near future. The radical Franciscans were fervently attached to poverty because it was all part of the literalistic reading of Scripture which made them hope that the marriage of heaven and earth depicted in the last chapters of Revelation would soon be consummated. At the time that Bonaventure took the helm as General of the Franciscan Order, in 1257 his predecessor had been put in the slammer for professing and promoting Radical Franciscan doctrines.

The radical Franciscans were known, annoyingly enough, as the ‘Spirituals.’ The moderates were called ‘Relaxati’, which brings to mind chilling out with a good glass of red wine after a bowl of spagetti. Being relaxed is obviously preferable to being grim and ‘Spiritual.’

What Bonaventure did, nonetheless, was to attempt to mediate between the Spirituals and the Relaxed, that is, between those who wanted to follow Francis’ rule literally, and who likewise took Revelation as a literal historical documentary-depiction of the End-times, and the Relaxed, who took things more lightly and prudently. If the Franciscans were going to survive in a world which did not, after all, come to its End very ‘soon’, they had to own property and they had to made provisions for that future. All of this Bonaventure saw quite clearly. He realized that Francis had to be followed not in the letter but in the spirit, if the Franciscan charism were to be made capable of transmission through the generations. But in every way that it was possible prudently so to do, Bonaventure attempted to absorb what was true in the Spirituals’ vision into his guidance of the Franciscans.

Just as Thomas recognized that his beloved Aristotle was dangerous, and so baptized and integrated that danger, so the other-worldly Bonaventure recognized that Spiritualism and eschatologism were dangerous, and therefore needed, not to be expelled and expunged, but rather integrated into the Franciscan charism. Bonaventure, too, was a mediating thinker, integrating ‘Gospel radicalism’ back into the mainstream of mendicant life. In short, he did what he could to relax the Spirituali, and to redirect their dynamism into a more prudent, tenable channel.

Bonaventure’s theology is said to have been an intellectualization of the spiritual experience of Saint Francis. All of his theology, in other words, transmutes Saint Francis of Assisi’s spiritual experiences, his conversion, his opting for poverty, his living by faith, his stigmatization by the Seraph, into a doctrine and a thought out ‘wisdom.’ At the base of Bonaventure’s theology is a spiritual experience, the experience of Francis in which ‘the creation’ lives and breathes its Creator.

So Bonaventure’s theology has been spoken of an ‘expressionism,’ in which aspects of ‘the creation’ are seen to express the Creator. Bonaventure is named by Hans Urs von Balthasar as a ‘theological aesthetician,’ not least because of this tendency to think of God like an artist, expressing himself in the creation, and thus to understand divine creation as an act of ‘self-expression’ on the part of the Creator. Bonaventure is a patron saint to artists because he envisages God as an Artist.

Bonaventure turned Francis’ unique, untransmissable personal experience into a communicable theology and integrated it into the rules of the Franciscan Order. Here it where there is a real contrast with Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas is not an ‘experiential’ theologian. Bonaventure is. For Bonaventure, the bedrock of theology is experience.


If you want to read about Bonaventure, I recommend these texts. 1) very long and hardgoing: Etienne Gilson, Saint Bonaventure and Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure. This latter book is Ratzinger’s ‘Habilitation’ thesis, and its not a limpid read like some of the professor’s later works. 2) Medium range difficult would be the chapter in volume 3 of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord: Theological Aesthetics: Clerical Styles, on Bonaventure. 3) A nice clear easy read is a much later, short(ish) sermon by Benedict XVI on Bonaventure, called “Saint Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas: Love Sees Further than Reason.”

Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest. 

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 27 ~ St. Junipero Serra, Part I

Statue of St. Junipero Serra at
Mission San Diego de Acala
This past Friday, July 1, 2016, we celebrated the feast day of St. Junipero Serra for the first time, since he was just canonized last September. I almost missed it because I was off work that day and I would not have gone to Mass except that there was a funeral later that day, and I wanted to go in and make sure everything was ready. And then, there wasn't another lector there, so I got to read. Even though the priest did not celebrate the memorial or even mention St. Junipero, I was very glad that things worked out as they did. 

I have always loved Junipero Serra, although my first reason for adopting him as a favorite saint was purely coincidental. I was born on his birthday. I'm sure that I learned in school that he was considered the founder of the state of California, and that I read about the missions, but I don't remember any details. Then in 1995, I read an article in Caelum et Terra magazine by Lesley Payne about taking her children to visit the California missions, and ever since then, I have had a great desire to visit them all. Later, I listened to a series of tapes by a man named John David Black, a protestant minister who was converted to Catholicism during a walking pilgrimage to all the California Missions, and that only whetted my appetite. 

Since then I have learned more about St. Junipero and the missions. One thing that purely delighted me was finding out that the saint's name before he became a Franciscan was Miguel José. All unawares, I had named my son Michael Joseph after him. And then, Michael's confirmation name is Francis. I love all these little connections and coincidences.

I had planned for this post to be the first of this series, and even had begun writing it, but Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (who will be canonized on October 16, 2016) intervened and somehow St. Junipero kept getting pushed further and further into the future. I tried to read some books, and did read a good bit of one of them, but I never had the time finish them, and I don't remember what I read clearly. So, I decided that I should go ahead and write the post in the week of his feast day, and write more from my own perspective than stressing a lot of historical facts, but here are a few.

Miguel José Serra was born into a poor farming family in Majorca on November 24, 1713. He was a sickly baby and always very small for his age. He loved school but it was very unlikely that a boy from this small community would receive much formal education; however the Franciscan Friars who taught him recognized his exceptional intelligence, and he received a good education, and eventually was sent to the University of Las Palmas where he quickly excelled, and was soon studying with the more advanced students.

All of his life Serra had been intrigued by stories of faraway places, and while he was studying at university, he heard a missionary speak about the missions in Mexico. He conceived a desire to become a missionary himself, and learned all he could about Mexico and even California. He soon received a call to the priesthood, and at the age of 17, he asked the visiting Minister General for permission to become a Franciscan. Having told Serra that he was too young, and heard his reply that he was 17, the Minister General became angry because he believed that Serra was lying. At this time the young man still only looked about 13. The Minister General told Serra that he would have to wait.

However, the Minister General asked the professors about Serra and was surprised at the responses he got. He found that not only was Serra really 17, but that he was excelling in all his studies. He received glowing reports from everyone, and so consented that Serra should begin his preparation for the priesthood. He asked they young man if he realized that becoming a Franciscan friar meant that he might never achieve his ambition to become a missionary. A Franciscan friar's ministry is determined by his superiors to whom he owes perfect obedience, and his own desires do not always match the needs of the community.

For a long time, it looked like the Minister General's warning was prophetic. Serra was so brilliant that his superiors charted a course in academia for him, and thought that he might become a doctor the Church some day. They believed that his abilities were too great to be wasted on preaching to simple Indians. He became a professor of Theology at the Convento de San Francisco in Palma in 1740, and in 1744 at the age of 33 became the youngest person ever to be appointed to the Duns Scotus chair of Philosophy at Lulling University. It was not until 1749 that he was allowed to go to Mexico, and not until 1769 at the age of 56 that he began the work that think of when we hear his name. This is the year that he founded Mission San Diego de Acala. 

One reason that St. Junipero desired--not just wanted, but truly desired--to go to the mission field was to renew his own faith. It wasn't that he no longer believed, but it was that after so many years of dealing with theology and philosophy in an academic way, he felt that his love was growing cold. He wanted to renew his fervour by going to the missions in the same way that St. Francis Solano had done. And despite the fact that early in his missionary journey he wounded his leg in a way that would never heal, and that would cause him great difficulty in traveling, he never turned back from his original intention. In the fifteen years that remained to him after he came to California, he founded 9 of the 21 missions and oversaw some of the others. 

It was during the time that he was teaching at Lulling University that he met Francisco Palou, his lifelong friend and biographer. If you go looking for something to read about St. Junipero, most of what you will find is fairly recent books with fairly recent prejudices. This is not to say that there is no truth in them, but the best place to start reading about him is in the book written by the person who was there, Francisco Palou's Life and Apostolic Labors of the Venerable Father Junipero Serra.

Currently, there is a great outcry from some quarters condemning St. Junipero and the other missionaries who worked in California. I don't know all the ins and outs of the arguments, and if I did, I would hardly have room to write about them here. There may be, I'm sure that there are, some legitimate complaints, but it seems that there are a great many misconceptions also, and that many people are judging the missions with 21st century sensibilities, and little understanding of life in 18th century Spain and California. 

The only way that I can judge the work of the Franciscan missionaries in California is by the testimony of their contemporaries, and the fruit of their labors, the missions themselves. I was going to write about them here, but this post is already a great deal longer than I thought it would be. There have certainly been more than a few historical facts. I think that instead of making this post over-long, I will wait a couple of days and write about the missions in another post.


I mentioned above that I loved all the connections and coincidences, and here is another. In a way this whole series on the saints came about from the same source as my desire to visit the missions, since the magazine Caelum et Terra eventually led me to the blog of one the editors, Light on Dark Water and the plans for this series were hatched on that blog.

Janet Cupo is the proprietor of this blog.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.