Saturday, March 5, 2011

Walking In Their Sandals

I just returned from preaching a parish mission at the Mission Basilica at San Juan Capistrano.

A 16-ton, 40-feet high, gold-leafed reredos or Grand Retablo was recently installed behind the altar, a Spanish design carrying the images of St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Junipero Serra, St. Joseph, Blessed Kateri Takakwitha, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, plus representations of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

The preaching of the parish mission was devoted to the lives and charisms of the retablo's saints.

The statue of St. Francis recalls the Franciscan missionaries who founded many misions from Baja California up through Alta California, including San Diego, San Gabriel, San Carlos in the Carmel valley, Los Angeles, and, of course, San Francisco.

Blessed Junipero Serra was the Franciscan friar who founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, honoring an Italian Franciscan saint, Giovanni de Capistrano.

St. Joseph had to be on the retablo because of the long-standing celebration of the return of the swallows on March 19, Joseph's feast day.

Although she lived on the opposite end of the continent, Blessed Kateri was chosen as a representative of the Native Americans who embraced the Christian Gospel and lived it to the fullest.

And the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was "a must" too --a cultural as well as religious icon of the people of Mexico.

Being in San Juan Capistrano gave me the opportunity to spend hours walking through the mission grounds, praying in the old Serra chapel, and reflecting on the sacrifices and courage of the missionaries who came to the New World to spread the Gospel.

In his first letter from Alta California Serra wrote, "Let those who come here as missionaries not imagine that they are coming for any other purpose but to endure hardships for the love of God and for the salvation of souls."

Sometimes the missionaries and the Spanish soldiers who accompanied them were abusive to the Indian populations they thought to civilize and evangelize. Many an indigenous population in mission lands around the world would say, "When the missionaries came we had the land and they had the Bibles; now we have the Bibles and they have the land."

History suggests, however, that Father Serra went out of his way to treat the Indians with respect, compassion and forgiveness. He often pleaded with the military authorities for clemency when the Indians rebelled or stole or even killed.

The rather primitive conditions in which the missionaries lived, their reliance on supply caravans that were often delayed, the struggle to communicate the Gospel in languages unknown to them --these hardships and many others were the price these men had to pay in response to Christ's commission, "Go into the whole world and make disciples..."

At least for a little while I hope to be a little less sensitive to the inconveniences I encounter in trying to be a preacher of parish missions. Compared to what the friars faced in 1776 at San Juan Capistrano, my troubles are petty and short-lived.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see things through the eyes of these California missionaries. Walking in the shoes (or sandals) of someone else helps us gain new perspective. When I hear on March 19 that swallows have returned to Capistrano, I will think more of the missionaries than of the birds.

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