Stephen J. Binz is a man of many talents: he writes Bible studies, is a public speaker and a tour guide out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He holds graduate degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome; he also studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Binz recently published St. Junipero Serra’s Camino, a pilgrimage guide to California’s 21 missions.

Binz’s inspiration came from the canonization of the new American saint. He said, “When I discovered that Pope Francis intended to canonize St. Junípero Serra when he visited the United States in 2015, I began to research his life and missions associated with him. Since Pope Francis wanted to honor Serra as a saint because he is an outstanding example of missionary discipleship, I wanted to understand how Serra could be an inspiration and model of missionary discipleship for people today. I made a personal pilgrimage to all 21 missions in 2014, about a year before his canonization, and I led my first pilgrimage to the missions in October 2015, about a month after the canonization. We were one of the first pilgrimages to the missions and tomb of our new American saint.”

He describes his book, saying, “I wrote the book as a devotional guidebook, ideally for a person traveling in a spirit of prayer to the mission, or for a person who imaginatively visits the missions from an armchair at home. I included some of my photography and descriptions of what can be seen at each of the missions.”

Each chapter has a prayer and Scriptural reading. Binz penned most of the prayers, with a few exceptions such as the traditional Stabat Mater for Soledad, and St. Bonaventure’s prayer to the Holy Spirit for Mission San Buenaventura. He said, “My purpose in writing the books was to develop a guide for traveling the missions as a Catholic pilgrim. I offer pilgrimages to many sacred places throughout the world, and prayer together at the place is an important aspect of the pilgrimage experience. I chose Scripture and wrote litanies and prayers focusing on the patron and history of each of the 21 missions.”

Binz uses bite-size tidbits to discuss mission history. He said, “I read many biographies and letters of Serra and his associates during the mission era. There is an incredible amount of information from recent biographers and from the archives of the missions. It is a fascinating study and very inspiring for Catholics.”

Binz described Serra’s historic role, saying, “Serra is the Father of California, since he was the first European to develop California, and in that sense was one of the founding Fathers of America. California was not part of the United States until 1850, but in the 1770s, when America was being founded on the East Coast, Serra was developing the missions on the West Coast... St. Serra is our most recently-canonized American saint, and he is for us a model of what it means to be a missionary disciple. As baptized followers of Jesus, we are all called to holiness and to mission. All of us are called to be witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever we are. St. Serra shows us how to bring the gospel with zeal and joy to a new culture, just as we are called to witness wherever God has placed us.”

As a pilgrim, Binz commented, “I love the coast of California for its natural beauty. When I am bringing pilgrims along Highway 101, built over the original Camino Royal, I try to imagine what it was like to see this land in its pristine condition, when only the Native peoples lived there close to the earth and the natural world. I am inspired by the faith that led the missionaries into this land to bring the gospel to the Native peoples and to help them develop agriculture and other skills that would help them as European settlers began to arrive.”

The history of the California missions is being subject to revisionism; the state of California is considering its removal from the fourth-grade curriculum.

Binz said, “California is realizing that it needs to balance the study of European settlement with the study of the native cultures of California. While every child will probably no longer be required to build a model of one of the missions, I think it is still a good idea to choose a mission and do some sort of project about that mission. California children should certainly continue to study the mission era and the development of California that began with Serra’s missions.”

He continued, “I think there ought to be a way to honor both Indigenous Peoples and the European discoverers. Both are important for the America we live in today. There is much to learn from both. We have not honored the indigenous peoples like we should because they have much wisdom to teach us and what was done to them during the colonization of America was tragic. However, the European discoverers and certainly the missionaries should not be blamed for all that happened after them at the hands of the colonizers. St. Serra loved the Native peoples and they loved him. He protected them from abuses at the hands of the military and advocated for their rights to the Spanish government.”

Binz’s favorite mission is San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, which served as the mission headquarters. He said, “The spirit of St. Serra fills this place and I especially like to pray at the room and the bed where he died.” While Serra founded the first nine missions, the other 12 were founded by his fellow Franciscans Fr. Fermín Lasuén, Fr. Estevan Tápis, Fr. Vicente Francisco de Sarría and Fr. José Altimira. Binz commented, “Fr. Lasuén and Fr. Crespi were associates of Fr. Serra during his life and were inspired by him. They shared his Franciscan spirituality, rooted in the life of the poor saint of Assisi. Serra didn’t do anything alone. We, too, need a community of disciples to inspire us and guide us in the way of discipleship.”

He concluded, “Each of the California missions is a sacred place where we can recapture the missionary spirit of those times. As we place ourselves in the reproductions and places where the missionaries served, we can allow their spirit to influence our own Christian faith and make us more missionary in our lives as disciples of Jesus. While missionaries continue to serve in developing countries throughout the world, we are all called to be missionary disciples in our own way today… My experience is that pilgrimage is a transforming experience. Pilgrimage to California in the footsteps of St. Serra is our own American Camino. Traveling through California from San Diego to San Francisco and Sonoma is a beautiful journey and an inspiring experience. With this book in hand, I hope that many Catholics will develop their vacation into a pilgrimage that can affect their lives in a deep way, allowing St. Serra to become an inspiration and intercessor for them.”