Seminarians make pilgrimage to California missions, build faith and fraternity
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - Once upon a Father's Day, 17 young men ranging in age from a recent high school graduate to several in their 30s or older, boarded a plane at Kansas City International airport and traveled to Ontario, Calif., for the first leg of their pilgrimage to the missions of Father Junipero Serra and his band of Franciscan brothers.
photo courtesy of the Vocation
Father Arthur Holquin, pastor of Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, chats with Bishop Robert Finn, Fathers Steve Cook and Matt Rotert of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan Vocation Office, and the seminarians as they began their pilgrimage.
The young men, seminarians who attend five different seminaries: Conception, Kenrick-Glennon in St. Louis, Mundelein in Illinois, St. Gregory the Great in Nebraska, Holy Apostles in Connecticut, and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., were accompanied by diocesan Vocations office staff Fathers Steve Cook and Matt Rotert, Marilyn Schaeffer and Keith Jiron, newly ordained Father Doug Langner and Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn. They were embarking on a three-fold pilgrimage: a journey through history, finding a connection with the Franciscan priests and brothers who founded the missions that established California, and building bonds of brotherhood and friendship between young men that would last long after graduation and ordination to the priesthood.
With more than 30 seminarians attending widely spread seminaries, fraternity among them is important, Jiron said. He recalled, "On the plane I found myself reflecting on my two sons becoming brothers. There is nothing I enjoy more than watching my boys rough-house, splash in puddles, and just hanging out. Just like my boys, our seminarians needed time together to become brothers."
Upon their arrival in California, the seminarians and their leaders crowded into three vans for the second leg of the journey: 450 miles over unfamiliar southern California highways and five missions in three fast-paced days. The seminarians and vocations office staff reminisced about their trip at a July 2 barbeque for seminarians, priests and deacons, hosted by the Knights of Columbus at St. Peter's Parish Legacy Center.
Deacon Christian Malewski said, "Three days, five missions. It was a fast-paced pilgrimage, much like being in the seminary. At first it seems like the six to eight years of college and theology will take forever. Then it's oh my God, it's (ordination) a year closer!"
The seminarians visited five of the original 21 missions (San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey de Francia, San Diego de Alcala, San Gabriel Arcangel and San Fernando Rey de Espana) founded in California.
Alta California was founded in 1769 by Blessed Father Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brothers when he established the first Catholic mission at San Diego de Alcala.
The first mission the seminarians and their leaders visited was San Juan Capistrano, founded by Father Serra in 1776. Alex Kreidler, who will begin his first year at St. Gregory the Great Seminary College this fall, was awed by the small mission chapel, which was restored in the early 1920s. The mission church had collapsed during an earthquake in 1812, and its ruins are famed for the swallows that return each spring to build their nests in the walls.
"The architecture was gorgeous, so intricate," he said. "The altar in Father Serra's chapel was over 400 years old. I was in awe." The 400-year-old gold altar is not original to the mission chapel, but was brought over from Spain during the restoration.
Andy Mattingly, who will be a sophomore at Conception Seminary College, chimed in, "Bishop Finn celebrated Mass in the old chapel where Father Serra actually said Mass. Deacon Christian preached the homily. It was something."
Andy reflected for a moment, and then said, "This pilgrimage was more than just to teach us about the history of California. It was to help us understand the fraternity of priests and seminarians. Being a seminarian is different from being in a regular college fraternity. Fraternity is very important among priests.
Deacon Malewski added, "The priesthood is lonely in many ways. A priest can only relate to other priests about the struggles they go through."
Andrew Ochs, a soon-to-be sophomore at Conception said, "Seminarians start young to build relationships with other seminarians. We hope to have these friendships our entire lives."
Jiron said the responsibility for preparation of the evening meals was divided between the three vans. Each day included Mass with homilies by newly ordained Father Langner and Deacon Malewski. Bishop Finn told the story of Gideon in his homily at the last Mass of the pilgrimage which provided encouraging words to all the pilgrims, Jiron recalled.
There was also time spent in prayer. In the evenings some of the younger seminarians took a short walk to a small stretch of quiet beach along the Pacific Ocean and tackled the waves.
Nick Roberts, a senior at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary said, "The journey was equal parts prayerful and relaxing. Both were necessary. Mission San Juan Capistrano was a nice mix of today and history. It was a great way to start the trip.
"The active faith is still there in the adobe and some of the relics of Father Serra, which are kept in the chapel where he said Mass," Nick said.
Ben Kneib, a first year Theology student at Kenrick, felt the connection between the faith of Father Serra 240 years ago and the faith of visitors to the mission today. "In the little chapel where Father Serra said Mass, you can still feel the faith, the connection," he said.
The pilgrimage also strengthened the bonds of friendship between the seminarians, Nick said. "The bond we have now is palpable," he said. "These guys are the best friends I've ever had. I feel Christ in them."
Ben added, "Seminary gives you a chance to have a unique bond with others that you won't get anywhere else. Living in community, we do everything together. We grow cohesive, people going through the same struggles, achievements and triumphs."
Although the number of seminarians from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is relatively small, Jiron said, "When we trust in God, incredible things can take place. Blessed Junipero Serra, with just a few Franciscan priests, was able to establish the spiritual and secular foundation of the State of California."
"This gives me great confidence that what God has done with those who trusted in him, he will accomplish with these future priests in western Missouri."
Father Matt Rotert, Secretary for Seminarians, said, "Blessed Father Serra (1713-1784), in addition to establishing missions that are the spiritual and secular foundation of the State of California, is also the inspiration and patron of the Serra Clubs in our diocese and throughout the world. Blessed Junipero Serra, who leaving home and fatherland, labored for the salvation of souls in Spain, Mexico and California."
The Serra Club and the Knights of Columbus of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Mission Possible were the major underwriters for the pilgrimage.
"This pilgrimage, sponsored in part by the Serrans of the diocese, was an opportunity to thank God for the work of Blessed Serra and the Serrans who promote and support vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life," said Father Rotert.
Those who are interested in exploring the rich spiritual and cultural history of the California missions may visit the website: www.californiamissions.com.