Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Journey to the Sun: A Strange Biography of Junípero Serra

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 16, 2014 | In Reviews

Gregory Orfalea’s biography of the great missionary to California, Junípero Serra, is exceedingly strange. In the good sense of the word, it is genuinely foreign and fascinating. The author has a gift for telling an exotic story with plenty of intriguing detail, even when the evidence is relatively scant. But in the bad sense of the word, the book is strange because the author’s own prejudices make it very difficult for him to understand Serra, his time-period, and even the Catholic Church in such a way that he can really get inside the history.

This latter strangeness will leap off the page at any reader who selected the book from the Ignatius Press catalogue. Journey to the Sun was actually published by Scribner, but Ignatius not infrequently includes good books from other publishers in its catalogue, and usually they are well-chosen. A biography of this intrepid Franciscan missionary to the Indians of California during the Spanish conquest of the Americas is certainly a likely candidate. In many respects a fine new book on a rare and difficult subject, the selection might even be defensible.

But I am left wondering—seriously wondering—whether anyone at Ignatius read the book thoroughly enough to know the author simply does not share the values of Ignatius Press, and makes no bones about it. And because this problem is so unusual among Ignatius offerings, the book in this context is not only strange but very surprisingly so. [Note: On April 17th, Mark Brumley of Ignatius Press thanked for alerting their editors to the problems with the book. Ignatius has withdrawn the book from its catalogue.]

Examples of the Problem

Orfalea was apparently educated by the Jesuits at Georgetown University. I cannot say whether this was formative for him, but I can say that his worldview is decidedly Georgetownian in its characteristic heterodoxy. This means that his Catholicism seems to be formed as much by secular culture under the gloss of Modernism as by the Church herself. Predictably, he is high on the Church’s preferential option for the poor and low on the Catholic understanding of human sexuality. In other words, both his interests and his faith track neatly with our dominant secular culture as it has, especially in academia, infected and weakened the Church.

Thus Orfalea is eager to emphasize Serra’s openness to women as a harbinger of feminism, pointing toward reforms now “long overdue” such as “women priests and a married priesthood” (358). He repeatedly disparages the Church’s concern with sexual morality, even insisting that the trouble this caused in the missions was just an older example of the “useless stones…cast by people charged with Christian doctrine against things which anyone with common sense could not proclaim sinful, such as birth control or masturbation” (272).

As you might expect, the author is more hung up on sexuality than is the Church. He expresses the hope that the difficulties Serra had in promoting chastity will, by a sort of negative reflection, enable us to realign our sexual attitudes today. He suggests that Serra’s understanding that “God does not make junk” is a principle that “should apply to those whose sexual orientation was set at birth.” But as any Catholic schoolboy ought to know, we are not junk even when we experience disordered inclinations which, for reasons of objective moral value and with the assistance of God’s love and grace, we ought to learn to resist or redirect.

In the end, we get the inevitable paean to sexual license, arising from Orfalea’s consideration of Serra’s possible sanctity, based somewhat on a reference to his regular reading of Blessed Mary of Agreda’s visions:

As Pope Francis I [sic] recently said, “Who am I to judge?” Take the Church out of the bedroom. Take it to the streets of the poor and the voiceless and the suffering, as Christ did. Serra would and should have rung his bell for that. And that a woman could raise the Host as sure as he could open her book. [359]

That this tripe can be written by anyone claiming the Catholic name beggars the imagination, even according to the author’s own lights. Do we not, after all, live in an era in which nearly every social problem, from insecurity to illness to poverty, is either directly caused or severely exacerbated by epidemic sexual immorality? As Pope Paul VI famously quipped when pundits first wanted to lock the Church out of the bedroom in the 1960s, “If the Church does not have the keys to the bedroom, she does not have any keys at all.”

Historical Implications

Deficiencies of Catholic understanding in the author aside, the deeper historical problem is that Orfalea’s inability to see beyond his own cultural blinders makes it difficult for him to interpret his own story. Important cultural background to Junípero Serra’s selfless mission to California is found in such mixed Spanish and Catholic matters as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquistadors (especially Cortez), and the long-term effort at one and the same time to profit from, civilize and Christianize the New World. Orfalea can do nothing but repeat the Black Legends about the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Conquistadors; he utterly fails as an historian to get at their inherent complexity or to understand how any part of them could be justifiable, desirable or even well-motivated. He even seems unable to grasp that Serra’s motives for going to America in the first place could have arisen from a genuine vocation (cf. 71-72)—but, fortunately, he far more often takes his book’s hero at face value.

While the pure narrative of Serra’s life and work is certainly thorough and well-crafted, it is inevitably marred by a paucity of information. To make the book readable and interesting and even personal—a triple task at which the author actually succeeds quite brilliantly—Orfalea must rather frequently imagine what the Franciscan missionary was thinking or feeling. These may be educated guesses; they have a certain plausibility. But they are still invented, though not deviously so, and they affect the reader’s perceptions of Fr. Serra’s motives, trials and moods. This is especially true of the artful assessment of what the priest must have been regretting during a period of darkness we know he felt on the last day of his life (cf. 303-316). Orfalea very effectively reviews the key challenges and disappointments of the mission, but we have no idea what was really on Fr. Serra’s mind.

To interpret Shakespeare, however, I have not really come to bury Caesar. Orfalea’s book is extraordinarily well-written and remarkably picturesque. The author communicates a great deal that is helpful in understanding the challenges, complexities and even horrors of the rise and fall of the California mission system. To those who want to know more—indeed, much more—about Fr. Serra, his mission, and even the fate of the California Indians under Spanish (and later Mexican and finally American) rule, I suspect Journey to the Sun is required reading.

The subtitle, appropriately, is “Junípero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California”, and if you do decide to read it, you will definitely get a strong feel for this extraordinary and inescapably problematic eighteenth-century venture, both rooted in and opposed to many features of the Spanish Conquest. I am pretty sure you will even enjoy yourself immensely in the process. But if you choose the book on the recommendation of Ignatius Press, you might assume the author shares your values—that he is deeply formed by the Church you love. This, in significant respects, is simply not the case. Gregory Orfalea is very often culture-bound, blind to the difference between authentic Catholicism and easy mainstream values adopted with an air of piety. In the end, perhaps that explains why his book was published not by Ignatius, but by Scribner.

[Note: Again, on learning of the book’s deficiencies, Ignatius immediately withdrew the book from its catalogue.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 18, 2014 1:25 AM ET USA

    Story-telling is a powerful gift, one that was used extensively by Our Lord to help ignite the Kingdom on earth. It is sad to hear of an author that contaminates his story with that which is false and destructive.