While Santa Cruz was where I went to school, my extended family farmed in the San Joaquin Valley. Summers included many long car rides back and forth across the Pacheco Pass. While my grandparents were not particularly pious, they would occasionally stop at Mission San Juan Baptista, if only to break up the long drive.

My brothers and I loved the freedom to run in this protected garden paradise. The cloister-surrounded courtyard enchanted us with paths winding around beautiful flowers, exotic vegetation and old California artifacts. If it smacked of adventure, it also harkened back to a less secular and less frenzied time.

We ran through the old cemetery terrorizing squirrels and looked at the grave markers, seeing who could find the oldest one. The enchantments of Spanish California worked in our imaginations and my grandfather knew stories about Three Finger Jack and the Murietta Brothers. It was as if El Zorro were about to ride around the corner. Sometimes we would even have a picnic nearby. We also would make a short visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

The adobe walls of the mission told Spanish California’s story of sacrifice and prayer, of difficult struggles to establish order and prosperity amid an arid wilderness while bringing the Gospel to people very different from themselves. If we puzzled over the misunderstood intentions and unconscious motives that were part of the story, what most spoke were the vestiges of love that remained, last witnesses to the effort to do something beautiful for God. In the end, what actually motivated these priests to leave everything behind and brave all kinds of hardship at the edge of the world?

Long after the visit, my mind would imagine the friars, the Native Americans and the Spanish soldiers. I learned enough to know that there was tension between military, mendicant and Native cultures. Surely, the story of Cain and Abel, of brother against brother, was part of this. Yet, deeper than fraternal strife, there was an awareness of a time more friendly to humanity, the kind of time that one can only know when difficult differences are faced while striving toward a sacred order together as a people…

The above comes from a July 1 posting on the Archdiocese of San Francisco website by Dr. Anthony Lilles, rector of St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park.