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On the Missions

This essay was originally written for the book Dominus Illuminatio Mea available here. Today, it seems more timely than ever.


Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo


St. Serra arrived on the shores of the Monterey Bay after sailing for a month and a half on the packet boat San Antonio. The land expedition led by Fr. Crespi, St. Serra's friend and companion, having reached the Bay eight days prior. The mission bell was hung and an altar built under the same oak tree where the priests of Viscaino's expedition had sung mass over a century and a half before. The Veni Creator was sung as a cross was erected and consecrated and the Spanish flag unfurled.


On June 3rd, 1770, the Feast of Pentecost, St. Serra founded Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo and sang the first mass followed by the Salve Regina and Te Deum. Following the solemnities of their faith, the Spanish officers took possession of the land in the name of the king of Spain.


Who were these Spanish missionaries and what was it that brought them to this land far from the comforts of home?


Greater Love


"Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

John 15:13


This simple phrase of St. John's speaks volumes about the souls of St. Junipero Serra and his missionaries. As a prominent theologian and professor in Spain and Rome, St. Serra had the opportunity for a life of comfort and prestige. Instead, he left all to follow the yearning God had placed in his heart. This yearning was not one of earthly status or glory; he and his missionaries would leave their homes, never to set foot on Spanish soil again. They would be forgotten by all but their superiors and closest family; even to those, they would be a distant memory. The glory they sought was for God alone. Their love for God manifested in love for souls. Souls they had never met. Souls on the other side of a quickly growing world. Souls who had never known the God of Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

The missionaries left all, hearts enflamed, to bring eternity to this new land and these new people; their friends they had never met in their home they had not yet seen. The missionaries knew they would never see home again. They were ready to accept the cross however God would present it to them; even preparing their souls for martyrdom. Whether through a life of hardship and toil, through loneliness and spiritual desolation or through the crown of martyrdom, these holy men were prepared to offer all for God and for the souls in His creation.


Spiritual Life


The spiritual life of the missionaries was one of uncompromising faith, hope and charity. Difficulty and hardship besought them from the beginning; as steel is tempered with intense heat and force, so Our Lord tempers souls with trials.


Storms and Trials


While on a voyage of 90 days by ship from Cadiz to Puerto Rico, 21 Franciscan missionaries along with a handful of Dominicans, passengers and sailors faced starvation as their food rations ran low. Water was given so sparingly that it barely quenched the passengers intense thirst. St. Serra's answer when asked if he suffered thirst was, "not specifically, since I have found out the secret to not feeling thirsty, which is, to eat little and talk less, so as not to waste the saliva." He said mass every day and heard confessions every night. His calm faith set the rest of the ship at ease until they reached the harbor.


On the next leg of their journey, when sailing from Puerto Rico to Vera Cruz, a fierce storm arose threatening to destroy their ship. Though they were in sight of the harbor, all aboard assumed their death was at hand. The storm raged for two days and their demise seemed imminent throughout. The peril was magnified when the crew became mutinous, attempting to run the ship aground in order to flee the storm.


As all human means of bringing the ship safely to port had been exhausted, the Franciscans appealed to Heaven for intercession. Each religious wrote the name of a saint he desired to appeal to for help. The names all compiled, they drew out one slip, the name of St. Barbara. All exhorted, "All hail Saint Barbara!" with complete abandon and confidence in her intercession. The storm, which had raged until the moment of their exclamation of faith, ceased immediately and the sky cleared. The boat was harbored safely.


How often do we face storms in life with fear and anxiety when we aught to have acceptance, faith and hope? God will not try us beyond our abilities nor will He put difficulties in our path if they are not meant for our edification. Once we can accept trials as gifts from God to be used for His glory and the good of our souls, even the fiercest storm will seem timid and the fiercest storm a mere trifle.


In prayer do we turn to God with complete abandon? Do we truly ask as though we believe He will listen? Do we hesitate, pull back and guard ourselves so as not to, "set ourselves up for disappointment"? We would do well to recall the words of St. Theresa of Avila, "You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him!" He wants you to turn to Him with complete and total faith and abandon. He answers humble prayers from penitent, persevering hearts.


Abandonment to Divine Providence


Upon landing in Vera Cruz, St. Serra received permission to make the journey to Mexico City on foot. With a single companion, St. Serra walked without map, without supplies and without food. They relied completely upon Divine Providence to care for them. This was no small matter! The journey of 250 miles taken on foot through a land neither had ever seen before! What faith in God's guidance! St. Serra and his companion truly relied on God's aid to fulfill all of their needs.


When, after a day's journey they had not yet reached a settlement, they found themselves at the bank of a river under the cover of darkness. To stay on the bank for the night was too dangerous to consider yet to cross the river without knowing its depth or strength was treacherous. Unable to determine a safe place to cross, they sung a hymn in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. No sooner had they finished than a figured appear on the opposite bank. He lead them to a safe crossing and provided them accommodations for the night. When asked why he was at the bank of the river so far from his home he would give no response. The next day, after saying mass, they continued on.


Days later, filled with hunger after having given their last loaf of bread to the poor, St. Serra and his companion were once again visited by their benefactor. This time, he met them on horseback and gave them a loaf of bread which completely restored their strength. After this encounter, it was believed that their benefactor was St. Joseph protecting them on their way.

We too ought to turn over all to God with the faith that He will guide us where we are to go. Through turning our will completely to Him, abandoning ourselves completely into Him, our souls flourish. We need not know where the path will lead but only to have confidence that our guide will not lead us astray though the road may wind and become difficult. Don't worry that you cannot see very far ahead in times when shrouded in fog or darkness. Instead, focus on the present step; embrace where you are and offer it to God. By doing so, by being in the present, leaving the past behind to God's Justice and Mercy and the future to His Providence, we will be able to persevere. In the events of life that we can control, in our actions, in our work, in our families, do them for God. In life's events that we cannot control, those that happen to us: in sickness and in health, in richer or poorer, through tragedies and joys, these accept as coming from God for the good of your soul.


Perseverance in Prayer


Within six months of founding Mission San Diego, the venture was in danger of being abandoned. Supplies of food and provisions had to run dangerously low. Governor Portola, stationed at the mission with his soldiers, doubted their ability to survive for more than a few months and declared that if a supply ship did not arrive to bring them reprieve by March 19th, he, along with his troops and the missionaries, would return to Mexico.


St. Serra began to pray day and night for Heavenly intercession. He did not cease for months. In spite of hardship, subsisting on a single tortilla and herbs from their garden for a day's sustenance, he persevered in prayer. Even if the supplies ship never came, even if all else was abandoned St. Serra resolved to stay at the mission. He would not abandon the souls of California though it would certainly mean his death.


As mid March approached supplies were nearly exhausted and all prepared for their departure. On March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph, St. Serra sang mass in honor of the great Patriarch of the Church. Still no ship arrived. By evening all were busily preparing to abandon the mission. Just before nightfall, after another humble, faithful prayer came from the whispered voice of St. Serra, the fog that had covered the bay throughout the day lifted. A ship was seen on the horizon! This glimpse, this glimmer of hope, enlivened, strengthened and edified all present. They joyfully awaited its entrance into the harbor and remained to continue the work at hand. St. Serra, who attributed the lifting of the fog to reveal that their deliverance was at hand to St. Joseph, sang mass in his honor on the 19th of the month, every month, for years to come.


How often does our impatience cause our faith to falter? How often do we abandon prayer when hardship strikes or when we do not receive immediate reprieve from trials? Could we pray day and night with faith and confidence though everyone around us had given up and all conditions point to failure? When it seems that all is lost, when it seems that our prayers are not heard, when we feel as though we are just talking to the wall, that is when we must commit most to the Divine Will. How often our prayers are answered this way! God wants us to show our commitment to Him by continuing in prayer even when He removes His sensible devotion. When we feel God's presence, it is a gift from God, freely given, and not something we have earned or really are deserving of. When He removes this grace, it is for the good of our souls that we may demonstrate faith.


Even when all hope seems lost, know that God is present. He is as close when you feel abandoned as when you are consoled. In times of trial and abandonment, we are like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. We realize our helplessness. We know there is nothing we can do for our own redemption; there is no way to pull yourself of of the cross. We turn to Jesus to ask help but He does not embrace us immediately. It is not for lack of love or because our prayers fall on deaf ears. He is crucified with us. His own hands are nailed in place. He turns His Holy Face our way instead. Know that His gaze is upon you though His hands do not ease your burden. Be consoled that, through the cross and your humble supplication, you will be with Him in Paradise! If perseverance through the cross is the path God leads you down carry your cross with joy! It is greater to carry the cross on the path to Paradise than to walk with ease on the road to perdition.


When, by the grace and goodness of God, our prayers are answered do we accept the Divine grace and change our lives for the better? If the eternal God, creator of all that is, has given of a gift, should we not spend the rest of our lives giving thanks? Do we, as St. Serra did, offer prayers of thanksgiving for years to come? Answered prayers become most fruitful when we accept the grace with humility and thank God through devotion. When the time of trial has faded to memory, when we seem so removed from the difficulty that it is nearly surreal, we ought to maintain the practice of devotion. By creating the habit of prayer we will show God more love. By praying and thanking Him, even though the feelings of pain and reprieve are distant, we demonstrate true devotion.


Can we say that we have true devotion if we do not give continual thanks to God for all that He puts in our lives? We are not deserving of His goodness. We do not warrant it. He gives it to us out of the abundance of His love. Answered prayers should leave our souls eternally changed. Even when the feelings of gratitude have slipped away, the will remains. We must will to give thanks to God. We must decide upon devotion and act upon this decision. This is how we demonstrate faith in our Lord who grants what is best when we ask with humble faith.


We must work as though all things depend on us and pray as though all depends on God. Persevere in both! We must do the work. We must commit and follow through. Though all seemed lost, do not give in to despair or allow faith to falter. Pray without ceasing and know that your prayers are heard! If you do not immediately feel His consoling embrace know that it is because He is crucified with you. His hands may not hold yours as they too are pierced by nails. Through all His gaze is upon you. When you meet His gaze, humbly accept that your cross was made for you. When you can turn to Jesus and say, "Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into thy kingdom." you will hear in the silence of your heart, "Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with


me in paradise."

Luke 23:42-43


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