I have read many books on pilgrimage and many books on Father Junipero Serra. I am a Catholic priest myself and have served as a missionary in different places, including Canada and Ecuador. I have very much enjoyed Christian Clifford’s book on his pilgrimage to the California missions. Pilgrimage is personal journey of faith to which the pilgrim is called. Pilgrimage involves leaving our home and entering the unknown. We are transformed and changed by pilgrimage. Clifford’s shares of himself in his writings of his pilgrimage journey in hiking to the different California missions. He shares his personal story, the story of the original California missionaries, and the stories of many different people connected to the different California missions. What I like about pilgrimage is that the pilgrimage journey meets us front and center in the midst of our lived reality. Clifford brings his hopes and his prayers to his writing about his pilgrimage hike and his visits to the different California missions. His writing is very engaging and very heart-felt. The reader can imagine him as he walks along railroad tracks or up a difficult hill or as he struggles through a challenging day.
As he divides his book into the segments that he hikes from mission to mission, Clifford provides a small map of that segment, the brief history of that mission, the prayer intentions he had for that segment, and the celebratory drink he had at the end of that hike segment. I found this approach to be very interesting and engaging.
Even though our world has become more secular and even though many people do not consider themselves religious at all or don’t identity with an organized religion, pilgrimage has seen a huge surge of interest. When I grew up in Orange County, California in the 1970s and 1980s, I visited many of the missions in southern California with my parents. My mom really loved history and the missions are a big part of the history of California. California would not be what it is today without the missions being a part of that history. Yet, growing up, though people would visit individual missions, going to the missions in the context of a pilgrimage was not something I thought about. Having hiked on the pilgrimage trail of St James in Spain on five different occasions, and having pilgrimage as one of the most transformative experiences of my life, I am drawn to pilgrimage. I love reading memoirs on pilgrimage, having someone share their personal pilgrimage journey. Clifford does this through weaving his own journey with the history of the missions themselves and the present reality of the missions.
Franciscan priest Junipero Serra is seen as the spiritual father of the California missions. When Father Junipero Serra was up for canonization, there were many objections voiced from our secular world. Secular institutions such as Stanford University have stripped his name often buildings and streets. Yet, judging a saint and his actions in the lens of our modern secular world is not so clear cut. Clifford addresses this reality in his book.
I whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the California missions, in pilgrimage in general, and in reading about one pilgrim’s personal pilgrimage journey. And who knows: maybe Clifford’s journey may encourage you to go on a pilgrimage yourself.