Christian Clifford could have given up after the first day. The Knight from San Mateo Council 1346 in Belmont, California, realized on that day he was underprepared to walk the California Missions Trail — a nearly 800-mile trail from Sonoma to San Diego comprised of 21 missions, some of which were founded by St. Junípero Serra. His feet were blistered, and his strength was depleted.
“Every step hurt,” Clifford said after the first day. But the veteran and former Boy Scout soldiered on. Nearly two years after taking those first steps — 45 days of walking an average of 18-miles — Clifford completed the trail in June, one of only 47 people to do so since 2013.
“Just taking that first step allowed me to deepen my faith, deepen my relationship as a devotee to St. Junípero Serra, and also to my fellow man,” Clifford said.
The Knight is a “self-proclaimed apologist” when it comes to St. Junípero Serra, the 18th century missionary known for his service to Native Americans. Clifford has authored several books about the patron saint of California, founded the website Missions 1769 to promote education on the Hispanic Catholic missionaries, and was even present when Pope Francis canonized the missionary in 2015. Now, he teaches theology at Junípero Serra High School in San Mateo.
The recent civil unrest in California is troubling to Clifford, who feels St. Junípero Serra has unfairly become a “poster boy” over America’s tragic history with Native Americans and other minorities. Some city councils across the state have voted to remove statues of the saint, while other statues were forcibly dismantled.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson spoke about St. Junípero Serra at the 138th Supreme Convention, saying that the saint is “becoming the victim of a false history” in the “alarming anti-Catholic” protests.
“It’s sad that he is put into a situation in the modern mindset that either you love him or you hate him,” Clifford said. “I think if people took the time to read his own writings, to read from good historians, they too would see this guy as not what a few people paint him out to bel.”
Indeed, St. Junípero Serra was a “man ahead of his times” stated the California Catholic Conference of Bishops. Serra was a 35-year-old philosophy professor in Spain when he left to evangelize in the Americas. He worked in Mexico and Baja California for 20 years before he was sent north in 1769. He then founded the first nine of 21 missions in present-day California, spanning from San Diego to San Francisco, before his death in 1784.
For years, Clifford has spoken out about the saint’s true historical character, but after attending the California Missions Foundation conference where he met walkers of the 800-mile mission trail, he decided to let his feet do the talking. He started at the San Francisco Solano mission in Sonoma — the final mission founded on the trail — and journeyed down to San Diego de Alcala mission in San Diego. On some days he walked marathons, where he soaked in the views and prayed with his Knights of Columbus rosary.
“Every day I walked I had my Knights of Columbus rosary that was given to me when I became a first degree,” Clifford said. “It wasn’t just about walking, it was a pilgrimage first and foremost.”
“When we pray in the quiet, it’s so hard to push out the noise,” he continued. “I think I got to a place where a lot of people tried to get to through meditation, silent retreats and so on. That’s where God resides, in the silence.”
Even though the conditions tended to be hot and windy, Clifford was inspired to finish his journey from other pilgrims he met along the way that. He felt they embodied St. Junípero Serra’s motto, “Ever Forward. Never Back.” One pilgrim he met was a two-time cancer survivor who walked not only the California Missions Trail, but also the 800-mile trail of the Spanish missions in Baja California. Another was a Franciscan friar who, though penniless due to his vow of poverty, still walked the entire trail in one “fell swoop,” as Clifford describes. He also saw an entire group of people being baptized as he entered the San Fernando Rey de España mission in Mission Hills, which he said reminded him of “the universality of the Church’s teachings.”
He also knew he had the spiritual and financial support of his brother Knights from San Mateo Council 1346. The council prayed for Clifford throughout his journeys, and when Clifford sought to help repair the San Antonio de Padua mission — a mission founded in 1771 by St. Junípero Serra — these same Knights raised more than $2,500.
Through the 800 miles, and during the hours of prayer and meeting other pilgrims, the most important lesson Clifford learned in his travels was patience.
“You have a destination and you hope to make it,” Clifford said. “I learned that patience with my students, patience with my family and to be a more patient person and a little more understanding, and to be more Christ centered.”
He continued, “If I never decided to actively seek ‘a Church which goes forth’ I would have missed out on such experiences that have helped me to keep moving forward.”
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Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members.
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