Monday, April 8, 2013

Mission San Luis Obispo: The Smell of a Catholic Church is the Fragrance of Our Living Faith

I was in central California last week and visited four of the old Spanish missions: Missions Santa Barbara, Santa Ines, La Purisma, and San Luis Obispo.

Mission San Luis Obispo
All the Spanish California missions were closed in the 19th century, but several continue to function as Catholic parish churches.  Mission San Luis Obispo, located in the heart of a lovely coastal California town, is one of these operating Catholic parishes. 

As I walked up the steps of the San Luis Obispo church for the first time, someone opened the church's front door; and I immediately caught the familiar scent of a Catholic church--the smell of burning candles, the sweet odor of incense, and the human smell of a building in constant use.

As that familiar smell wafted over me, I felt my heart uplifted.  I knew immediately that I was entering a living Catholic church.  I knew I was entering the church of my own chosen faith and the church of my own people.  And I knew I would be welcome here, and  that all the familiar accouterments of Catholicism would be in their appointed places.

And of course I was right.  Fonts of holy water were stationed by the doors just as they should be. The altar lamp was lit, statues of Mary and Joesph flanked the tabernacle, and the stations of the cross lined the walls--all was in order.

 And my old friends the saints were present as well.  The typical saints of an 18th century Spanish church lined the walls and filled the niches of Mission San Luis Obispo: Saint Teresa of Avila, St.
Anthony of Padua, St. Jude, and many others. At a side altar to Mary, I saw a Hispanic women kneeling on the floor--crouched so low that she almost appeared to be in a fetal position.  Obviously, she was seeking Mary's intercession for some serious intention--an illness, a family problem, who knows?  And in the pews a few people--not all of them old--were patiently waiting for noon Mass.

Walking along the aisles of this old adobe church, I realized how fortunate I was to be in this lovely edifice founded as a place of worship by Franciscan friars during the Spanish empire and essentially unchanged. Here I would find the body and blood of Christ mysteriously present in the sacraments just as they were in 1772, the year this mission was founded.  Just as the fragrance of that mission church is the fragrance of Catholic churches all over the world, Catholic truths that were valid in the age of the Spanish empire remain valid today for modern Americans and all humankind.

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