VENTURA, California — When Father Tom Elewaut saw the name on his phone’s caller ID the night of June 30, the pastor of Mission San Buenaventura guessed the call had something to do with the recent controversy over whether to remove the statue of St. Junipero Serra in front of Ventura’s City Hall.
He guessed wrong.
“I’ve got some good news,” said Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez on the other end of the line. “You’re a minor basilica.”
Elewaut’s voice started to crack with emotion. He had spent the last six years researching, praying and waiting for Pope Francis to decide whether to elevate the 238-year-old parish to the rank of minor basilica.
On July 15, the feast of the mission’s namesake, St. Bonaventure, the pope’s decision became public.
At a special 7:30 a.m. Mass celebrated by Gomez, Elewaut and Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron, Mission San Buenaventura was unveiled as the first basilica in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the 88th in the United States.
“When the pope designates a basilica, it means this is holy ground, that something beautiful and important in the history of salvation happened here,” Gomez said at the Mass.
The liturgy was held outside in the mission’s garden because of restrictions on outdoor religious services mandated by California Gov. Gavin Newsom just two days earlier in light of a spike in coronavirus cases in the state.
Of the nine missions St. Junipero founded in what is today California, Mission San Buenaventura has the distinction of being his last, established on Easter, March 31, 1782. The pursuit of the mission’s elevation began in 1976.
“Today (God) has been kind enough to grant me the consolation, after many years of longing, of witnessing the founding of the Holy Mission of Our Seraphic Doctor San Buenaventura,” Elewaut said. “And the same thing can be said of this founding as the canonization of the saint: ‘Quo tardius, eo solemnius.’ (‘The more slowly, the more solemnly.’)”
In making a church a basilica, the pope declares the church to be one of his own.
There are a little more than 1,800 minor basilicas in the world; 87 are in the U.S. and six in California.
For Barron, the announcement had a special significance. Five years ago, two months after St. Junipero’s canonization, he was installed as episcopal vicar for the Santa Barbara region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in a Mass celebrated at Mission San Buenaventura.
In an interview with Angelus, the online news platform of the archdiocese, he said basilicas are a potent symbol of the church’s universality.
“It’s a way of linking churches spread all over the world to the pope,” he said, adding, “We put strength in diversity today, which is great, but we can sometimes overlook the importance of unity, what brings us all together as one community, despite our massive differences in language and culture.”
Now that Mission San Buenaventura is a basilica, it will receive a series of symbolic “upgrades” including a cone-shaped canopy, known as an “ombrellino,” that will now be placed above the church’s lectern; a bell mounted on a pole, known as the “tintinnabulum,” similar to that used during the Middle Ages to signal the pope’s approach, will now be used in parish processions; and the insignia of the Papal Cross Keys will appear in banners, signs and over the mission’s doors.
But for Elewaut the honor is less about pomp and pageantry and more about motivating his parishioners to live and share their faith in a more authentic way.
“This is going to put a greater responsibility on the parish leadership and the people of the parish to discover new ways of evangelization in the spirit of St. Junipero Serra and St. Bonaventure,” he said.
Kay is the editor-in-chief of Angelus, the online news platform of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.