“St. Junipero Serra as a Model for Authentic Liturgical Renewal”

Feast of St. Junipero Serra, Apostle and Father of California
July 1, 2022
Homily delivered at Mission Dolores Basilica
San Francisco, CA
On the occasion of
The conclusion of the 2022 Sacra Liturgia Conference

Introduction: Gratitude

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of Holy Spirit. Amen.

Your Eminences, Your Excellency, my dear brother priests, religious, brothers and sisters in Christ: I would like to begin by expressing some words of thanks. First, a very sincere thanks to Father Francis Garbo, the pastor here at Mission Dolores Parish, and to the entire parish community, who welcome us here with their hospitality. They have been very gracious and accommodating to us for this very beautiful and wonderful day. I thank all of those who have worked so hard on this liturgy and all those who worked on the Sacra Liturgia conference, which this Mass concludes.

I offer a special word of thanks to Mr. Terry Caster, the patron of this Mass, whose resources made the Mass possible. We offer this Mass for the repose of the soul of his beloved wife, Barbara. We are deeply grateful to him and his family. Let us please keep him and his family and the eternal repose of Barbara in our prayers.

The Founding of San Francisco

It was 246 years ago almost to the day that Mass was celebrated for the first time here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it was really the first Mass in Northern California. It was nearly on this very spot and it marks the beginning of the founding of this mission, which was to become the thriving metropolis of San Francisco. This was the sixth in the chain of 21 Franciscan missions all along the California Coast and of the nine personally founded by St. Junipero Serra himself before he died.

To be exact, the date of the first Mass was June 29, 1776. As Catholics, we notice June 29. It was the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, a very important date in the Church’s calendar. For those of us who are from the United States or familiar with U.S. history, the year and the timing also stand out. It was just five days before other major events happening on the other side of the continent on the East Coast: The Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the American Revolution.

An Inevitable Encounter

It was inevitable that the people of these two continents, Europe and the Americas, were going to discover each other. It was also inevitable that the Europeans would be the ones to discover this continent due to their more advanced technology. They were capable of crossing a large ocean, and following the pattern of all of human history, once they found this continent, they were not going to go back home. They were going to stay in the New World.

It was also inevitable that they would stay and explore and yes, exploit. However, they would not only explore and exploit, but also evangelize. Others came to evangelize as well. This was the vision of the Franciscans who came here to what is now the state of California. They came to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and build a new Christian civilization as had happened already in other parts of Mexico and Central and South America.

The Apostle and Father of California

And so, they came. St. Junipero Serra was the first to come. He came not to give silver or gold, which he did not have, but to give the best gift of all: Jesus Christ and His saving Good News. St Junipero and his brother Franciscans knew how to enculturate the faith in this new land, and we still see the influence today. The music composed in the mission era was typical of the newly composed Mass we celebrate today in honor of St. Junipero Serra. The mission church architecture greatly reflects this part of the world in keeping with the Church’s tradition of worship. St. Junipero Serra truly is the Apostle of California. He was the first one to bring the Christian faith to this land.

He is also the Father of California. When he became upset with the abuse of the indigenous population by the soldiers, he asked for married soldiers who would come with their families to reduce the risk of abuse, especially of women. As the populations grew, pueblos developed and commerce increased. This fostered the creation of a new land, a new identity and a new state. The goal of St. Junipero and his brother missionaries was to introduce the indigenous population to the Catholic faith so that they might know the Person of Jesus Christ and come to be saved. They wanted them to be equal to the Spaniards who came to the New World, and they wanted to hand over the territory of the missions to the indigenous population for their own self-governance.

The goal, unfortunately, was not realized, as it had been elsewhere in this hemisphere, where missionaries got an early start, and civilizations had much more social and cultural infrastructure to build upon, such as the great civilizations of the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Incas. In 1834, after Mexico received its independence from Spain, it secularized the missions, seized the land and expelled the Franciscans. So, while the plan was not realized, St. Junipero and his brother Franciscans nonetheless made great sacrifices to educate, teach, evangelize and bring the people into the faith. Saint Junipero in particular made truly heroic sacrifices born of great suffering. Pope Francis rightfully canonized him here on U.S. soil.

The Mystery and Legacy of St. Junipero

I think St. Junipero Serra is easily identified with St. Paul in 1st Corinthians, who was a great man of heroic virtue defending a vulnerable people. Like St. Paul, St. Junipero is slandered, serving as a scapegoat for so many abuses that were perpetuated on the indigenous population. St. Paul said to the people in Corinth, “You are held in honor, but we in disrepute….we wander about, homeless….we toil working with our own hands,” reflecting those great sacrifices made by St. Junipero. St. Paul also tells us the response we are to give in such a circumstance: to bless when we are ridiculed, to endure when persecuted and to respond gently when slandered.

The Franciscans were not able to realize their goal, but they left their mark on California. We see it all over, beginning with the very names of our cities, including the capital city of our state, named after the Most Blessed Sacrament. We see it, as I mentioned earlier, in the mission church architecture, which is a very cherished style of architecture, so much so that it is often repeated in secular buildings. The Franciscans knew not only how to enculturate the Gospel, but they also demonstrated how the Gospel transforms culture. The local population held onto its Catholic faith.

In 1879, 45 years after the missions were secularized, the great American author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about his visit to the Carmel mission. As in so many other places, the Carmel mission could only have one Mass per year due to the limited number of priests. On the feast day of the mission, St. Charles Borromeo, Stevenson visited the mission and wrote:

“Padre Casanove will, I am sure, be the first to pardon and understand me when I say the old Gregorian singing preached a sermon more eloquent than his own. An Indian, stone blind at about 80 years of age, conducts the singing. Other Indians compose the choir. Yet they have the Gregorian music at their finger ends and pronounce the Latin so correctly that I could follow the meaning as they sang. I have never seen faces more vividly lit up with joy than the faces of those Indian singers.”

They held onto their Catholic faith, even when being deprived of the priests who introduced the faith to them.

Active Participation in the Liturgy

We see how the Franciscan missionaries anticipated the call to liturgical renewal issued by Pope St. Pius X some one-hundred years later. Today, we often hear about active participation in the Liturgy. The active participation that Pope Pius X promoted was that the people in the pews know the Gregorian chants and can sing them together. The Franciscans had already achieved that here in California.

We can also understand the Second Vatican Council’s call for a “restoration” of the Sacred Liturgy, using that very word repeatedly in Sacrosanctum Concilium. The best of the liturgical renewal movement is a “restorationist” movement in the authentic sense of what that word means— not in what is referred to as “archaeologism,” which can refer to a romanticized recapturing of an imaginary Golden Age, but an entering of the People of God more deeply into the liturgical action. It is a prayer of the whole Church.

In 1974, Pope St. Paul VI issued a booklet, the Iubilate Deo hymnal, asking bishops around the world to implement and teach it to their people so that the whole Catholic world could sing the Mass together. It was intended as a minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant. In the letter to bishops of the world that accompanied this hymnal, he wrote, “Would you therefore, in collaboration with the competent diocesan and national agencies for the liturgy, sacred music and catechetics, decide on the best ways of teaching the faithful the Latin chants of ‘Jubilate Deo’ and of having them sing them, and also of promoting the preservation and execution of Gregorian chant in the communities mentioned above. You will thus be performing a new service for the Church in the domain of liturgical renewal.”

The Purpose of Authentic Liturgical Renewal

It is most important to remember that the reason for this is not purely aesthetics. It is not because we find it interesting to study. It is not just an academic enterprise, but it is for the salvation of souls, introducing people to Jesus Christ to bring them more deeply into communion with Him. There is a great need for this today. Contrast the beauty and simplicity of the faith of those evangelized by St. Junipero and his brother Franciscans—singing their cherished Gregorian chants—with the hostility and bitterness that envelops the world today. There are so many people who act in bad faith, who seek out every possible way to criticize and to slander—not stopping short of fabricating things. Others blow things out of proportion and take things out of context, doing whatever they can to attack those with whom they disagree rather than seeking to understand and build good will.

This is the Christian response, as St. Paul reminds us: to bear it patiently, to seek to understand, to look for good will. St. Junipero Serra embodies for us the reminder of why we should be committed to the work of authentic liturgical renewal. Deeply imbued with the truth, beauty and goodness of Jesus Christ, our society might become not just a more perfect union, but a more perfect reflection on earth of the Kingdom of God in Heaven. This is truly transformative, and it is why when Father Serra passed from this life to the next, he was mourned by Spaniard and Indian alike.


May the graces of these days together at Sacra Liturgia and this Mass on this holy site, consecrated by the faith and devotion of generations of indigenous people, missionaries and immigrants alike for more than two centuries, move us to an ever-deeper encounter with Jesus Christ. May our hearts be set on the inexhaustible treasure in Heaven that no thief can reach or destroy, and so we may be prepared to receive the Kingdom our Father is pleased to give us.

In the name of the Father and the Son of the Holy Spirit. Amen.