Topic: New Evangelization

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

The Apostle of California

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You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.”(Acts 1.8)


Among the many aspects of the much-touted “New Evangelization,” one of its primary thrusts is a kind of “re-evangelization” of countries and peoples historically Christian but who have faltered or weakened in respect to the faith.  Of all regions in the Western World one might point to as an example, California would seem to be in the top running.  Hollywood and its television, movie, and media industries, exert a powerful influence not only on American but on world culture.  The billion-dollar pornography industry—it is well-known—cultivates its poisonous seed-bed in the San Fernando Valley, the “City of Angels.”  Violence seems to be a perennial Achilles’ heel of the state, from the rough-and-tumble cowboy and saloon days (which ended not too long ago—up until the 1940s, my hometown of Monterey was still quite a rough spot: read Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat or Cannery Row to get an idea), to the modern street gangs which have so troubled her cities and even public schools.  Up north the City of St. Francis has been home to an assertive homosexual culture since the 1980s, and its legal circuit has been busy in the last ten years bullying the California and American court systems into legalizing same-sex unions, culminating in a significant victory in the Supreme Court just last week.

It may not be coincidental that we celebrate today, in the wake of last week’s happenings, the feast of the patron of California, Blessed Junipero Serra.  As all native Californians recall from state history in 4th grade, Father Serra initiated the founding of the chain of missions that dot our coast.  Serra is a known figure for most Californians, evoking generally kindly images of a generous friar in a brown habit, whose name adorns various streets, highways and schools throughout the state, and whose missions retain a certain rugged mystique evoking California’s Spanish and Native American past.  These are all good things.

Christians, however, can look to Serra for far greater and deeper inspiration.  He was, above all, a Champion of the Gospel with an indomitable zeal for souls, and perseverance in carrying out the Lord’s Great Commission.  Born in Petra, Mallorca, off the Eastern coast of Spain in 1713, he became a Franciscan at the age of 17.  Due to a particularly sharp intellect, he rose quickly through his philosophical and theological studies, becoming “lector” of philosophy before ordination, and eventually a Doctor of Sacred Theology at the age of 29.

Though an admired and respected teacher, he was a more revered preacher, able to stir crowds to tears and joy with his fiery sermons, and often dramatic penitential practices.1

From the early days of his Franciscan vocation, he felt a strong desire to offer himself to the missionary efforts of Spain in the New World.  This “dream” of his was delayed for a number years then finally granted by his superiors.  He arrived at the Mexican Port of Vera Cruz in 1749 and proceeded to walk 200 miles to Mexico City, a journey in which his leg became infected from insect bites, crippling him enough to render walking difficult the rest of his life.  After teaching at the College of San Fernando in Mexico City, and then some initial mission work among the Pame Indians of the Sierra Gorda mountains, Serra eventually got himself assigned to missionize the then untouched land of Alta (modern-day) California.

His contingent disembarked in San Diego Bay and founded Mission San Diego de Alcala on July 1st, 1769 (his now feast day).  California acquired its first martyr at this mission on November 5, 1775, as Padre Luis Jaime was killed in an Indian attack.  Serra was not present at the mission at the time, but on hearing of his compadre’s death, exclaimed, “Thanks be to God; now that the terrain has been watered by blood, the conversion of the San Diego Indians will take place.”2

He also set a standard for treatment of the native population of California in response to this incident.  Instead of seeking retribution, Serra demanded (and had codified into the laws governing the mission) that Franciscans could never seek legal retribution from the natives for any violence perpetrated.  Instead, it should be forgiven and their spiritual conversion and nourishment peacefully sought.

San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo (“Carmel Mission”) was founded one year after San Diego, in 1770.  When Serra’s ship arrived on the shores of Monterey Bay, the crew made a remarkable discovery.  The Spanish conquistador Sebastián Vizcaíno had been the first European to explore these shores in 1602.  A priest in Vizcaíno’s retinue had offered mass under an oak tree just up from the shore, and planted a cross to commemorate the event, the first mass said in Alta California.  To the amazement of Serra’s men, the cross was still standing in 1770, 168 years later.  Not only this, but the native population had venerated it with abalone shells and other decorative arrangements.  Serra dutifully said mass on the spot to commemorate the original landing, and in hopes of future missionary success.

And success did come.  Serra’s efforts in California were by any scale heroic, and the fruits quite remarkable.  He traversed thousands of miles by foot during the course of his life in spite of his leg injury, founding nine missions; he was well-known as a keen administrator and forceful leader (often intervening on behalf of the native populations against the Spanish military presence, with whom he frequently came into conflict for mistreating the Indians); was a gentle and generous pastor of souls; confirmed over 5,000 natives in the missions by special permission of the bishop in Mexico City; and oversaw a mission system which baptized and converted even more to the Christian faith.3

I have been told that to this day at Mission San Antonio, Native Americans gather to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony, many of whom are descended from the original converts.

It is, then, with fervor and joy that we should celebrate the feast of Blessed Junipero Serra, at a time when California’s Catholic and Christian identity is in a rather bad way.  Countless of its cities are named after saints.  We need saints like them to arise even now.  California has always had a reputation for being  a rough-and-tumble place, as beautiful in its natural diversity as it tends to be lawless in its behavior.  Such, indeed, makes up a good part of the state’s lure and lore.  We can, then, seek Blessed Junipero Serra’s intercession even today for the renewal of the Christian faith in California and the West.  For nothing is ultimately more alluring than the beauty and goodness of God’s Son.  Serra’s penitential spirit, zeal for souls, and shrewd practical wisdom, are all needed if the faith he once planted in California over two centuries ago is to come alive again.  It may just do so if we take up the mission of the New Evangelization, inspired and under the patronage of the so-called Apostle of California.


Serra was known to, during sermons, beat his chest with a rock or hold a flame to his hand to stir repentance in his hearers. Though these practices may seem odd or repellant to many today, they were not uncommon in the Spanish piety of the time, a reflection of which one can glimpse even now in the modern day “Peniténtes” of Colorado and New Mexico.


Serra was appropriating here the famous phrase of Tertullian, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”


As an interesting sidenote, there is even evidence that Serra, whose missionary efforts historically coincided with the American Revolution on the opposite American coast, sent out orders in the 1770s for all the missions to pray for the victory of George Washington over the British.  Serra’s interests in this were in part nationalistic, since Spain was at war with England. It is nevertheless an intriguing historical fact that Franciscan prayers, masses, and penance were being offered for the victory of the country which would one day span the North American continent along this latitude.

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

The Living Soul of Reform

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We live in exciting times. They are times of great change and great drama; of great controversy and great polarization; of great trial and great suffering. And they demand a vigorous response. We live in an era of cultural decay coming in the wake of the great upheavals of the 20th century, the most recent of which was the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Traditional forms of social cohesion like religious commitment, love of country, and familial stability, have been in decline for some years now. Crises have rocked the Catholic Church seemingly uninterruptedly Crepuscular Rays in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City  - Uploaded by Jraytramfor the last 40 years—whether confusion and dissolution in liturgical discipline, near-catastrophic failures in catechesis, a dearth of religious and priestly vocations, or (more recently) immoral and scandalous behavior of clergy. The question arises, “What do we do?” To begin, I propose a way of rethinking our use and understanding of a particular word. This word is summoned by diverse and sundry individuals and groups to defend changes in the Church, whether great or small, good or bad, wise or foolish. And the word is...“reform.” But first, a few words about using words.[1]

Sometimes when a word begins to be used in a variety of contexts, and by different people with differing intentions, it gradually loses its original specificity and can act as a kind of bully club, delivering a punchy and often emotionally-charged swipe at the expense of clarity and reasoned engagement. Such, I suppose, is the fate of words like “liberal” and “conservative” in popular discourse, or “open-minded” and “fundamentalist” in popular religious discourse. The words indeed mean something, but that meaning has gone through the wash so many times, and been worn again and soiled by so many different people, that they are often hurled forth irresponsibly, casting, as it were, a dirty and undignified garment on the adversary in the place of reasoned and patient engagement. Thus, in one fell swoop, a proponent of same-sex unions can brand his opponents “bigots” and the defender of traditional marriage has of a sudden been verbally clothed in a white suit with a pointy-hat, bigotry ready at hand. Or, in a similarly fellish swoop, a Catholic who believes the Magisterium ought to be adhered to in all matters of faith and doctrine can be called, with a tinge of visceral disdain, “narrow” or “rigid,” after which jaws clench, voices hush, and the argument has apparently been ended.

The word “reform” has not quite the same emotional baggage as those just mentioned, but ever since the Vatican Council II, it has been at least as bandied about by diverse and sundry groups, dressed up in one ideological agenda or another. On one side of the spectrum it is used to justify sweeping liturgical changes or to dismantle the concept of “hierarchical structures” or to advance women’s ordination. On the other side it is used as a dirty word in the midst of a wholesale critique of everything that has happened since Vatican II, sometimes even rejecting the Council itself and longing for a return to the perceived-to-be-pristine 1950s. And yet, the Vatican Council II itself spoke of the need for “reform” in the Church: “Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she is always in need insofar as she is an institution of men here on earth.” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). The Council is careful in its phrasing. In her human aspects, the Church has many deficiencies, and we should not be afraid to recognize them and “reform” them. But in her essence the Church, united to Christ her Head, is perfect, an eternal font of creative energy, holiness, and life flowing through her.  This distinction is vital for any notion of “reform.” 

In common speech today the term “reform” drums up associations with political and social movements that seek to recraft social structures or advance political agendas. It is often bound up with a notion of democratic participatory decision-making and grassroots “movements” that seek to challenge existing structures. This is not what the Church means by “reform,” and to project this meaning onto ecclesial realities can lead to grave errors. The reason is that the Catholic Church is not merely a human or social or political institution. These realities are an inevitable part of the way she is structured here on earth, but they do not constitute her core, her heart, her “soul,” as it were. Properly speaking, the “Church” is not so much a structure, as a living organism with its own inner vital principles all afire with life and energy, principles that need to be respected and properly developed. It is more like a living and breathing human being than a machine. In this case that “being” is nothing less than the Mystical Body of Christ, the second Person of the Trinity in unity with his pilgrim people on earth.

Avery Dulles—in an article more detailed and theologically nuanced than I can be here—has admirably laid out the principles for “true and false” types of reform, principles that should be presupposed for any thinking about what “reform” is.[2] He points out that the Second Vatican Council used the word “reform” very sparingly, more often opting for the terms “renewal” (renovatio) and “purification” (purificatio). These seem more adequate terms since they point not so much to molding and shaping and bashing a thing into order from without, as to an encouraging-from-within, a support and nourishment that catalyzes the inner-forces of a thing so it can grow and develop properly.[3] 

Dulles’ distinction is a very Thomistic one. All living things have their own proper laws placed within them. A flower will only grow in a healthy way through a combination of nutrients in the soil, an amenable external environment, sufficient light from the sun, and water. A flower cannot be slashed at and bent about from the outside in order to conform with an idea that we have of what it should be. We cannot make a rose into a violet by painting it and cutting and pasting its petals this way and that, any more than we can feed a turtle steroids and turn it into a crocodile, or work very hard to train our pet cat to beat a cheetah in a race. What we can do is feed and nourish the rose, the violet, the turtle, or the cat, so that each grows and develops into the thing that it—and only it—is supposed to be.[4] 

If things like cats and turtles and flowers have these inner-principles, these “forms,” that need to be respected if we are to enjoy their company or their beauty, the Church has an inner-constitution which is infinitely more alive, vital, creative, and deserving of respect. This inner-principle of the Church is all afire with the divinity and the creative energy of God, flowing from an eternal source that will never cease. This “energy” is nothing less than the Holy Spirit Himself, often spoken of as the “soul” of the Body of Christ, that is, the Church.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict have continually called for a “new evangelization” to spark an age of renewal and yes, even “reform” in the Church. But this reform can never be achieved through a clumsy application of political and social models, or a purely secularized morality where truth is relative, irresponsible or even perverse behavior is condoned, and the only social rule is that one should never “offend” another. But neither will the new evangelization happen by simply retreating into a previous era as if the last 50 years never happened.

What the Body of Christ needs today is reinvigoration. It needs—or rather Christ now urgently calls—religious and lay people, priests and bishops, the whole Body of Christ, to a fearless and audacious confidence in the goodness of God and the power of the gospel to convert the world. We need, in a word, to become holy, to avail ourselves of the living waters flowing eternally from the Temple of God and the Heart of Christ pierced on the Cross. This can be the only true source of authentic renewal. How do we go about this? Ultimately, the responsibility devolves on each individual Catholic. But in a special way it devolves on: (1) religious to be faithful to their vows and the charisms of their founders; (2) clergy to order and lead and inspire their flocks with true knowledge and firm faith in Christ and his Church; (3) bishops to sound the call and be “examples for the flock” (1 Pet 5.3).

But getting more practical, Dulles gives a number of criteria to distinguish signs of true and false reform. True reform will: (1) not be an abandoning but a “return to the founding principles of Catholicism”; (2) respect the Church’s spiritual and devotional heritage, including Marian piety, the cult of saints, high regard for monastic life and religious vows, penitential practices, and eucharistic worship: (3) be committed to the “fullness of Catholic doctrine” as authoritatively proposed by the Magisterium; (4) respect the “divinely given structures of the Church, including the differences in states of life and vocations”; (5) sustain unity and communion, avoiding schism and factionalism; (6) be marked by a spirit of patient perseverance, not feverish demand for sweeping change; (7) not yield to our fallen nature’s tendency to prideful self-assertion; and (8) guard against reforms too closely associated with fads and ephemeral ideologies in the secular sphere.

Dulles sketches out in practical terms what he quotes one of the 20th century’s theological giants as affirming in more concise terms. Henri de Lubac said that he did “not believe that structural reforms...are ever the main part of a program that must aim at the only true renewal, spiritual renewal.” John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and—indeed—the Lord himself calls with intense urgency every Catholic to take up this call to the spiritual renewal and vigorous revitalization of the Church’s life. Such a renewal will come—can only come—from respecting and drawing off of the Church's interior vitality imbued and poured out by the Holy Spirit. God alone gives the growth, of course, but we are messengers and ambassadors of his work on earth, and he urgently, very urgently, exhorts us to the task.

[1] The inspiration and much of the substance of this article I draw from the late Avery Cardinal Dulles’ excellent article, “True and False Reform,” First Things Aug/Sep 2003. (Read it here.)

[2] see ibid.

[3] We do not have time to go into it here, but Dulles names a number of areas the Council pointed to for authentic renewal: biblical and patristic studies; liturgy; kerygmatic (i.e.preaching) theology; catechesis; lay apostolates; ecumenism; social teaching.

[4] I avoid the technical terminology here, but in Thomistic terms, this “inner-principle” is called the “form,” and the elements of change and particularity—all that goes into its color, shape, change through time—are its “matter.”