OCEANSIDE — From the sidelines, Father Eric O'Brien watches in anonymity as the effort to win sainthood for Junipero Serra--a cause he championed nearly 50 years ago--approaches a decisive moment.
Serra, known as "the Apostle of California," founded the first nine of California's 22 Catholic missions between 1769 and 1784, including Mission San Diego de Alcala.
O'Brien, one of Serra's unsung servants, said earlier this week that he does not know whether his health will permit him to be in Monterey on Sept. 17, for Pope John Paul II's celebration of a Mass for Serra's beatification--the second of three steps to sainthood.
Nearing 75, O'Brien suffers the effects of circulatory problems, which sometimes make speech and concentration difficult.
"I have had injuries and other infirmities," said O'Brien, who walks slowly and speaks haltingly. "Frankly," he said, "I've lost my memory."
But enough memory and wit remain for him to recall parts of his special relationship to Serra, who died at the Carmel Mission in 1784.
The son of a Pomona carpenter, O'Brien served as Serra's vice postulator--the Franciscan order's chief promoter for an individual sainthood candidate--in the 1940s and 1950s, and his eyes sparkle as he remembers his years tracing Serra's footsteps on two continents.
"I had been interested in him since I was in high school," O'Brien said.
For the last 10 years, O'Brien has served as associate pastor of Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. The mission was founded in 1798 by Serra's successor as head of the mission system, Father Fermin Lasuen.
Before coming to Mission San Luis Rey, O'Brien preached at various Franciscan retreats around California.
On the wall behind his desk chair are two Serra mementos: a small tapestry picturing the missionary and his missions, woven by the women of the parish; and a certificate declaring O'Brien an adopted son of Petra, Majorca, Serra's birthplace, dated Oct. 31, 1946.
O'Brien said he can still recall the day the certificate was presented.
"I was young and brassy then," he said.
Church officials credit three Franciscan priests with bringing the Serra cause as far as it has come: Father Noel Francis Moholy, Serra's vice postulator for the last 30 years; the late Father Maynard Joseph Geiger, author of the definitive, two-volume biography of Serra, and O'Brien.
"If Father Eric O'Brien hadn't put the Serra cause together as efficiently and as capably as he did, and if I didn't stick with it, unquestionably Serra wouldn't be where he is today," said Moholy, who is 70.
"He understood Serra," said Father David Temple, former regional leader of the Franciscans, who is now retired. "He made a tremendous contribution to the cause."
Like Moholy and Temple, Bishop Thaddeus Shubsda of Monterey cited the critical role played by O'Brien in the Pope's decision to declare Serra "venerable," the first of the three steps to sainthood, in May of 1985.
The second step, beatification, requires the recommendation of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which is considering the matter, and approval by the Pope.
"One of the things that made possible the declaration of venerable was that there was a Franciscan priest who spent six years of his life researching the historical documents about Father Serra, and he put them all together to present to 11 professors of history for their evaluation," Shubsda said.
"And once they agreed that it was actual history," Shubsda said, "then the theologians could look at that history and say, 'Ah, he indeed practiced the virtues to a heroic degree--historically established.' But now suppose this priest hadn't come along. We'd still be waiting for that part of the process."
When the declaration was announced, O'Brien said, he felt "gladness" about the news.
In 1965, O'Brien was the subject of a long profile, called "Saint Detective," written by novelist Irving Wallace and included in a collection of essays called "The Sunday Gentleman."
In the piece, first drafted in 1949, Wallace described O'Brien as a tall, solid, vigorous young man "who looks like a Notre Dame halfback," totally committed to his task of documenting the sanctity of Serra. His daily schedule, Wallace wrote, "would give an automaton a nervous breakdown."
For 16 years, O'Brien traveled throughout California and Mexico, to Spain, Italy, Portugal and Majorca, gathering material. In all, he logged more than 50,000 miles, on everything from an airplane to a mule, tracing each step taken by Serra throughout his life.
O'Brien, frequently traveling with Geiger, collected 10,000 documents, many of which formed the basis for Geiger's biography. The pair spent more than a month in Seville, at the Archives of the Indies, where, according to Wallace, they eventually turned up a brief physical description Serra compiled before his voyage to Mexico:
"JUNIPERO SERRA, padre, almost 36 years old, of medium height, swarthy complexion, with black hair and eyes, and a sparse growth of beard."