El Camino Real — variously translated as “The Royal Road” and “The King’s Highway” or “The Way of the King” — are words found on small signs seen along the Hollywood Freeway (101), especially as one heads north. The signs appear on metal shafts on the side of the road, made to resemble shepherds’ staves, with a bell hanging within each crook.

Well, there’s supposed to be a bell hanging in the crook of each staff.  Seems that there are collectors of these bells who just can’t live without having their own to festoon a room in their homes. It takes time to replace the bells.

These signposts mark a pilgrim’s path — a camino — for those wishing to find the missions and pay homage to God at these beautiful, holy and historic places of worship.

There was a time when confessors made pilgrimage a penitential condition of confession for the absolution of particularly heinous sins. The pilgrim roads to Canterbury, England, and Compostella, Spain, were famed throughout Christendom, as much as traveling to the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem or to Rome to pass through the Holy Doors of the four patriarchal churches during a Holy Year.  

Here, in California, starting from Mission San Diego de Alcalá in the south, trekking northward to Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonora, the string of 21 missions beckon Catholics to go on pilgrimage and learn more about the history of the Catholic Church in California.

These missions were the dream of a Franciscan priest, Junípero Serra. Born in 1713 and ordained in 1737, he gave up a relatively easy life teaching theology at the university in Mallorca, Spain, voyaging to the New World in 1749 to “take the Gospel to all nations.”

It would be another 20 years before then-Father Serra — now St. Junípero Serra — began his work in California as an apostle for Christ. “Always forward; never back” was his motto and personal challenge. For 15 years he traveled by foot and by mule, despite an ulcerated leg made lame by virulent insect poison.

To facilitate such a pilgrimage for Catholics, today a new handbook — “Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to the California Missions” by author Stephen J. Binz — will be of immense importance. Its historical background of each mission, stimulating quotes from and about St. Junípero, discussion of native spirituality and mention of neighboring places of interest will render this book dog-eared in the hands of the pilgrim, history buff or even casual readers.

A resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Binz has written extensively about pilgrimages. “From my lifelong work in Catholic biblical scholarship, I have been naturally attracted to the biblical path of pilgrimage [and] other locations that honor our rich Catholic tradition and the lives of the saints,” he told Angelus News.

A writer of great depth and precision, Binz artfully describes in a few words what takes others paragraphs to say. Even to an old hand on the lives of saints such as myself, his short biography of St. Junípero is fact filled and exciting. He does not veer off track to become a pious idealizer of Old California, nor is he an iconoclast bent on presenting the Church and her missionaries as colonial ruffians, imperialist stooges sadistically exploiting the natives in the name of the Spanish crown.

“We are not afraid of the truth,” Pope Leo XIII declared when he threw open the papal archives to scholars and historians. Binz honors that statement. Even saints have faults and failings: “Through the lens of the transcendent virtues that animated their lives, I believe that … this book incorporates the best of both: biography through the lens of faith and biography formed from historical facts.”

In the late 18th century, the influence of the Spanish Empire withered. Mexican independence was won in 1821, but secularists within the government had no great love for the Catholic Church. The land grants were cast aside and mission property was parceled out to settlers and speculators. The missions were abandoned and St. Junípero’s dream of self-sustaining natives working together with the Church went into eclipse.

Binz details how, in 1852, Joseph Alemany, bishop of the sprawling Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles in the newly created state of California, successfully petitioned the federal government at Washington, D.C., for recognition of the legality of the Spanish grants and restoration of the missions to the Church.

Yet, even after reacquiring the lands, California was still mission territory with few members and little money. It took the help of private organizations, such as the California Landmark League, the Hearst Foundation and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, which were instrumental in restoring the missions. Today, all but two are functioning parishes.

One of the compelling features of “Saint Junípero Serra’s Camino” is a selection of scriptural pericopes reflecting the saint and patronage of each mission. Joined to them, Binz has chosen antiphonals and litanies, taking advantage of forms of prayer often overlooked by Catholics today.

“These prayers are my original composition, except where noted,” explained Binz. “I have chosen a combination of Scripture, litany and prayer because this devotional genre is the most traditional and helpful form of communal prayer for pilgrimage in the way of the saints. This variety of prayer types is also engaging and participatory for pilgrims traveling and praying together along the Camino. Of course, I would hope that pilgrims would also be able to participate in the Mass at some of the missions, which is the perfect form of prayer for pilgrims.” 

 If, therefore, you have not yet formed vacation plans this summer, by all means consider Binz’ advice and follow the Camino of St. Junípero Serra. Unite yourself and your family to millions of Catholics within the communion of saints, who found solace, peace and spiritual refreshment on pilgrimage 


Sean M. Wright is a member of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Santa Clarita. He presents workshops and enrichment courses on Catholic topics at parishes throughout the archdiocese.