A pilgrimage is one of the most powerful tools lay Catholics can use to stay deeply connected to their faith. For Catholics living in Orange County, the opportunity to make that journey can be done within a few days’ drive. A new book, Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to the California Missions by Stephen Binz, introduces readers to the string of California missions established by St. Junipero Serra in the 18th century.
The Camino of St. Junipero Serra links 21 mission churches along the coast of California. The pilgrimage route begins in San Diego and ends in Sonoma. With the exception of two, all are still functioning churches bustling with weddings, baptisms and Masses every week, including the Diocese of Orange’s only mission, Mission San Juan Capistrano.
“Because Catholicism is an incarnational sacramental religion, the things of the created world that we can see, hear and touch can be ways to encounter God,” says Binz. “Going to these tangible places in order to experience God in a new way and to be transformed by that experience. In a pilgrimage, there’s always the external journey but which is always parallel to the inner journey that goes along with it.
On a pilgrimage journey we’re always asking ourselves, ‘How does this, what I’m experiencing externally through my five senses, transfer to my heart? How am I being changed by this experience? And how am I going to be different after having experienced this pilgrimage?’”
Born and raised in Spain, St. Junipero Serra was a Franciscan with a successful career as a professor of theology and philosophy after receiving his doctorate degree in 1742. He had a promising future within the Franciscan order and in the university system but he possessed a passionate missionary spirit.
After much discernment, the Franciscan priest left behind a stable career to pursue life as a missionary priest in 1749. He worked his way through parts of Mexico, evangelizing to the native people and continued his work in California with the native Indians.
“He defended the natives in many ways from the Spanish military and colonizers coming into the land,” says Binz. “He was an advocate for the native people and they loved him. There’s very clear evidence of that as well at his death where hundreds and hundreds of California Indians came and put flowers at his tomb.”
St. Junipero Serra founded the first nine missions in San Diego, San Carlos Monterey-Carmel, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara and San Buenaventura. He was present at the founding of Presidio Santa Barbara. The rest of the missions in the chain were built according to his vision of forming a holy ladder. He died in 1784 at the age of 70. By the end of that year, 6,736 Indians were baptized at the nine missions.
In 1988 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II, and then in 2015, he was elevated to sainthood by Pope Francis.
“St. Junipero Serra experienced a deep desire and longing to go to the new world to share the gospel with others who had never heard the gospel before,” says Binz. “I think that missionary spirit is what is so attractive to Catholics today because we, too, are called to evangelize. I think the second Vatican council says that, in summary, we as Christians have two primary callings, the universal call to holiness and the universal call to mission. So missionary discipleship is something we should all strive for as baptized Christians and each of us experience that in different ways in our lives. But the inspiration of our new saint is a wonderful model for missionary discipleship.”
Binz says that was part of what inspired him to write this book.
“I started learning more about him when Pope Francis announced that he was going to canonize him on his visit to the United States.”
The book includes a historical background on the saint with accounts from the saint’s journal, ideas on how to prepare and make a pilgrimage, inspiring quotes from and about St. Junipero Serra, a compilation of the rich history of each mission, nearby sites to take advantage of while on the route and a section for prayers and scripture readings at the end of each mission for pilgrims to reflect on before moving on to the next mission.
Binz has spent 25 years leading pilgrimages exclusively to the Holy Land as a primary focus on biblical studies. He later expanded his focus on leading pilgrimages to other holy destinations to start experiencing them himself and the California missions became one of them.
“There are lots of different ways people can take a pilgrimage including something I talk about in my book which is armchair pilgrimage,” recommends Binz. “If you’re not able to go physically, with this book in hand you can experience these sites by reading about them in the book and linking to the websites I provided for each mission and supplementing them with online material. Take a mission a day and go on a pilgrimage from your own living room.”