Friday, July 6, 2012

Made in Mallorca: A Brief Visit to the Homeland of Beato Junipero Serra ofm

Earlier last month, I had the opportunity to visit Palma, Mallorc. I had the specific intention of catching the next bus out of town to the village of Petra, some 30 km. away. But both the beauty of this city (located in the Balearic Island off the coast of the Spanish mainland) and my hosts, the friars of the basilica and cloister of San Francisco, easily dissuaded me. Approaching the plaza and church in Palma’s medieval town center, one immediately encounters the bronze statue of Beato (Blessed) Junipero Serra before the entrance of the sanctuary. In Catholic circles, Father Serra (1713-84) is celebrated as the apostle of California and is credited with establishing nine of California’s twenty-one historic missions founded during the era of the Spanish Empire in the 18th and 19th c.) In fact, it was my original idea to visit his birthplace in Petra before I was happily sidetracked.

During my morning visit, I was warmly greeted and shown around by three friars--Jose Mendes Deves, Pedro Vallespir, and Brother Arturo. Father Jorge had been ordained a priest only the week before, showed me around. “The oils aren’t even dry on your hands yet,” I teased him. “I know, I know. I’m still floating and I have no idea when I will return to earth.” “Just enjoy it, Brother. Savor every single minute of these first days of your priestly ministry.”

Jorge graciously put aside his schedule of administrative duties—the friars operate a collegio on the premises, providing an education for nearly 1,000 children (both boys and girls) from ages 3 to 18. “We have a very long waiting list,” he told me. “Nearly 250 children whose parents want to enroll, but we don’t have the space.” As I looked around—classes occupy several floors that overlook the cloister’s quadrangle—I could see his point. It was the last day of school and the children, of course, were bouncing off the walls with anticipation of the approaching summer holidays.

Within the convent area(in Europe, the residences of the Franciscans are often called ‘convents’. Elsewhere, they are known as “friaries.”), we entered the sanctuary of the basilica. From its 13th century roots (started soon after the death of St. Francis), the church has undergone a number of renovations over the centuries—the most florid alterations having been made during the Baroque period. Europe’s architectural patrimony has a way of putting North American notions of ‘old’ in a more balanced perspective. This sanctuary was already ancient--nearly 500 years old-- when Fray Junipero Serra preached his famous (and last) sermon here on the feast of Beato (Blessed) Ramon Llull, on January 25, 1749.

Beato Ramon Llull (1233/35-1315) is another local friar and saint—perhaps even more revered here than Junipero Serra. Scholar, missioner, and ultimately martyr, Fray Ramon was the first late medieval intellectual to write extensively in the original and vernacular Mallorcan language (not to be confused with the later linguistic accretions of the Catalan and Castillian tongues). His remains are entombed above one of the side altars as both friars and local laypeople await his by now long overdue canonization.

Another side altar chapel, that of St. Pancras, is the site of an extraordinary event which occurred just two years ago. At that time, a major section of the chapel floor collapsed revealing a huge, cavernous subterranean area below—a mass grave containing the remains of nearly 1500 people. Friar Pedro, an historian himself, places the date at approximately 1350—the time of a huge plague which struck the city. Following excavation/ restoration efforts, the remains will be reinterred and the restored area converted into a contemporary columbarium.

In addition to school and sanctuary responsibilities, this community of nine solemnly professed friars provides outreach services for nearby parishes. Times are tough. The friars are aging; all of the Spanish provinces have been consolidated into a single entity. And the vocation situation is “fatal”, according to Fray Jose. Still, there are important signs of hope. The school continues to thrive. Youth activities—especially those recently organized in connection with World Youth Day in Madrid—have sparked renewed interest and participation. Couples and families—even in this increasingly secularized society—continue to come to the friars for the sacraments. A family tradition can often serve as an opportunity for re-evangelization and a new connection with church life. And Fray Jorge himself—already installed at a neighboring parish— observes that even small efforts at hospitality such as grief support are starting to bring an appreciative response.

Here in Mallorca, one has the sense of an ongoing historical and cultural continuum, stretching back over the past eight centuries. But the friars do not appear to be stuck in a nostalgic or retrospective mode. They are realistic about the challenges and struggles of our times (drugs, alcohol, massive unemployment, etc. are here as well). But they retain faith in the value of our Franciscan presence—showing up and being with the people, no matter what—and trusting in the power of the Spirit to do the rest.//

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