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The Hidden Legacy of the Missions : A Personal Tour Through Catholic California

September 13, 1987|RICHARD RODRIGUEZ | Richard Rodriguez is an associate editor at Pacific News Service in San Francisco and author of "Hunger of Memory." His new book, "Remembering Mexico," will be published by Viking early next year.

POPE JOHN PAUL II was coming to California, and it was expected that the Pope would beatify Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan priest of the 18th Century, the founder of the California missions, baptizer of Indians. The Vatican expectation had been that a beatifying gesture would please California.

This summer I decided, apart--but not entirely apart--from the shifting documentary evidence concerning the life of Father Serra, to visit the missions. I was not going looking for saints or for the villains of history. I was looking for shells. I was looking at the way California regards its historical monuments, the way memory survives.

There are 21 missions in California. I begin my pilgrimage at the airport in Orange County. The lady behind the Avis counter says my rental car is over there--"just beyond the John Wayne statue." So in fact I begin my pilgrimage beneath a monumental fiction that is not perceived as controversial--I don't think it's even perceived as comic--and I drive away.

We are accustomed to thinking of California as the West. The Protestant myth of California was constructed by people who came here from the East; they were heading toward the setting sun. Historically, California is more profoundly North. The Spanish Franciscans did not, nor did the plated conquistadores, think of California as the West. Father Junipero Serra thought of California as the northern extension of a mission system connecting Mexico with the reign of Christ, the cross plunged deep into the heart of the southern American (RR) continent and thence, over the sea, to Europe, to Spain, to Rome. The missions were satellites of Christendom. The landscape of California was continuous with the landscape of Mexico. The sky a dome over all. And one could imaginatively navigate a return to civilization by the stars.

In the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Father Junipero Serra, lector of theology, native of Petra in the province of Majorca, is recorded as "swarthy, (with) dark eyes and hair, scant beard." Father Serra didn't discover California. Nor did Serra establish the sites of what later became California's principal coastal cities and towns. Serra may be, however, the true father of California, because he imagined it whole.

In fourth-grade mythology, Serra is the great traveler of the state, staff in hand. He left a trail. In fact, the staff was a cane. Serra's foot was infected, and it pained him to walk by the time he arrived in California. So much so that his travel here was on mules or by ship.

In fact, Serra covered a greater distance than did Marco Polo. Father Serra was a driven man.

Shaped by a medieval Catholicism, Serra dreamed of one world united by a single faith. He came here to convert the pagan. Whereas the Puritans in New England regarded Indians from a distance, Spanish priests lived in the midst of the Indians. Two impulses--one individualistic, the other communal--would meet in California. The Protestant came west, the Catholic came north.

The collision of cultures is played out in every dry creek I cross and on every freeway exit sign. Anglo names suggest ownership of land--Irvine, Bakersfield--fading contracts in strongboxes, and the force of pioneer personalities. Or else they are plain and descriptive of the way the land looked--Pleasant Hill, Riverbank. Most of the Spanish names are holy names.

The central mystery of the Catholic Church is the mystery of the Incarnation--God became man, the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us. The mystery of the Incarnation is celebrated in the Eucharist with the sacramental transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The Spanish habit of sacramental conversion in California was directed as well toward the souls of Indians as to the naming of the land. The colonial ceremony of the unfurling of the flag was second, according to Spanish discipline, to the sacred duty of the planting of the cross. Time itself was incarnate, time was measured by a sacred liturgical calendar (in 1987 we still count time as distance from the event of the Incarnation); safe arrivals did not take place on a Tuesday or a Friday, but on the feast days of saints or church holy days. Thus place names became sacred names; thus the map of California mirrors the map of heaven, and California literally becomes a version of the multifoliate rose.

So many newcomers followed the Protestant trail west in the 19th Century hoping to forget, to begin again, to flee inevitability. Newcomers could be grateful that California held so few reminders of the past, and that those reminders seemed to implicate them not at all. The missions, for instance. And the holy names. Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula would become, in 200 years, L.A.

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