Some years ago, one of the computer technicians assisting the parish shared that his family had been Mormon for almost 200 years. It stopped me in my tracks. For the first time, I considered just how long my own family had been Catholic. There is no way to fill in the historical gaps over the millennia involved. I can only guess that I have a long line of alternately spiritually devout and apathetic ancestors, both saints and sinners, and probably many that were both saintly and sinners. The fact remains that both family lines, three quarters Irish and one quarter Italian, are from areas that have had a consistently Catholic tenor to them. The Sicilian part of the family could have come to faith as early as the 2nd or 3rd Century. It’s hard to know as my family might also have participated in one of the many invasions of Sicily that happened later. Most of Ireland came to the faith by the 6th Century. I responded to the technician that, to the best of my knowledge, most of my family had probably been Catholic for between 1,500 and 1,700 years. Those numbers caused both of us to pause for a moment.
We all have our own history, and a greater or lesser openness to influence from ancestors, parents and peers. As far back as I know anything of my grandparents and great-grandparents, that I am the product of a short line of loving and good predecessors…and a physically abusive alcoholic grandfather. That’s the human story, isn’t it?
This July 1st, we’re celebrating the fourth year since the canonization of Junipero Serra. He was himself, a richly gifted and heroically good figure, with a shadow side. His mission system both shared the faith with, and dominated the lives of, the native peoples of California that he came to serve. His missions have influenced the architecture of our buildings and the names of our cities, counties and streets. Our visions of “old California” are colored by memories of Spanish rodeos and tri-tip barbacoa. Our farms still grow produce and wines first introduced by his confreres. We stand, sometimes awkwardly, on his shoulders.
Our past should inform our present. Serra came to a world that had not heard of the faith; we live in a world where people question faith’s utility in their lives. Like Serra, we have to find ways to proclaim the beauty and goodness of what we believe for others’ benefit. Like him, too, we will probably stumble in living out consistently all the best values of our beliefs. At our weakest moments, our own lives may get in the way of what we want the world to know of the Lord, our heart’s desire.
Our inability to do things perfectly should not get in the way of our willingness to try, even with enthusiasm, to accomplish the good we can do. God preserve us from our own worst instincts. God grant us the insight to know our world’s deepest needs and hungers, and the generosity to respond to and answer them. God forgive us when we err. God give us the courage to pick ourselves right back up and keep on trying. Lord knows, until this world’s end, that there are, perhaps, generations waiting to stand on our shoulders to accomplish their own great deeds (and errors).
On this weekend, closest to our patron’s feast, I wish you every joy!