By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
St. Junípero Serra described the string of missions he established along the coast of California as a “heavenly ladder” to bring people closer to God.
Now, Father Nick Junker is inviting young men in the diocese to climb Serra’s ladder, to help them decide whether they’re willing to devote their lives to God as priests.
The “discernment pilgrimage” is the first of its kind in the diocese, says Father Junker, who is vocations director for the Diocese of Belleville.
“It’s been done before in other dioceses,” he says. “My friend Father Dan Schuster did one for the Diocese of Green Bay, and that’s how I got the idea.”
He says the Jan. 2-8 trip is designed to give college-age students the chance to be inspired by the missionary life of St. Junípero and try to envision their own lives of service.
The saint’s motto — “¡Siempre Adelante!” or “Ever Onward!” – could serve as the motto for the pilgrimage, Father Junker says, reminding the discerners to keep moving forward.
“A pilgrimage is an external journey in which the traveler is challenged to make a parallel internal journey, to ask themselves, ‘What is God’s will for my life?’” Father Junker says. “I thought it was particularly relevant to follow the work of St. Junípero Serra, who discerned God’s calling him to the New World, to bring the gospel to the Native American people.
“He carried a missionary spirit to new territories, something that we’re asking of the next generation of priests.”
The group of up to 15 men will begin their journey by flying into San Diego. From there, they’ll work their way north, visiting some of the missions St. Junípero founded, including San Diego, San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel.
“Most people drive it,” Father Junker says. “Some hike or walk, staying in and around each one, but we don’t have time for that.”
While they visit, the discerners will stay at one of two home bases – a Franciscan monastery in San Luis Rey and the Pro Sanctity Retreat Center in Fullerton.
Throughout the journey, the young men will be “experiencing these communities of faith, talking and reflecting on vocations, and thinking about how to align our lives more closely to the gospel of Jesus,” Father Junker says.
He will be joined in leading the trip by Father Stanley J. Konieczny, newly named vicar for religious for the diocese, and by a representative from Golden Frontier, an organization that helps organize religious pilgrimages.
“I don’t have much experience with pilgrimages, but Father Stan has been all over the world, so he’s my pilgrimage guru,” Father Junker says.
The trip is open to young men ages 18-29, who may be interested in the priesthood. It was timed to appeal to college students who are out of school on winter break, but Father Junker says they’re open to accepting other interested discerners, including high school seniors who have turned 18.
“We have some discerners across the diocese, four to five men who are interested,” he says. “We’re calling them probables for the pilgrimage.”
Depending on how many discerners register for the trip by the Nov. 29 deadline, he may extend the invitation to current seminarians as well.
The cost of the pilgrimage will be $700 per person. Some of the other costs of the trip will be covered by a grant from the diocese’s Catholic Service and Ministry Appeal, as well as private donations. Father Junker also hopes that parishes may help cover costs for young men who attend. “We don’t want money to be the reason that somebody doesn’t go.”
Father Junker has visited some of these missions himself, on an earlier trip with Father Ed Schaefer, pastor of St. Rose Parish in St. Rose.
“They’re so beautiful, a sort of marriage of cultures,” he says of the missions. “Spanish missions mixing the old world and the new, Spanish and Native American art and architecture.”
He says many of the missions on the trip are still functioning parishes, serving diverse populations and in varied settings.
“You have Vietnamese, people from the Philippines, obviously many who are Spanish-speaking,” Father Junker says. “Some are in urban settings, some are in the hills, on the beach.
“It’s a beautiful microcosm of the church.”
He asks that Catholics in the diocese encourage young men they know to sign up for the pilgrimage and to pray for the journey’s success.
Those interested in registering for the Jan. 2-8 trip can contact Father Junker at 618-722-5035 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A $250 deposit is due by the registration deadline of Nov. 29.