Colleen Carroll Campbell

Always Forward, Never Back: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s 

A special thank you to Colleen Carroll Campbell and Simon & Schuster for letting Endow share the excerpt from Campbell's latest book!

How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s (Simon & Schuster, 2019)
By Colleen Carroll Campbell
 Chapter 7, p. 191 – 194

Last spring, eighteen years after my first visit to the Old Mission Santa Barbara, I returned with my husband and children. 

It was as gorgeous as I remembered. The birds were singing, the roses were blooming, and stunning mountain and ocean vistas competed for our admiration with newly restored stonework on the mission’s façade. Unlike most other nostalgia trips I’ve led my family on, this one lived up to its billing. 

It was one of seven missions we visited that vacation. I’d always wanted to take a trip to see all twenty-one, but with four kids in tow—including one still taking naps—I was happy to settle for a third of them. I was even happier to have found time before the trip to read up on Junípero Serra. I wanted to learn more about this intrepid little Franciscan priest who traded a prestigious post as chair of a university theology department in Spain for a harrowing overseas adventure in the American wilderness. I sensed he had something of the spark of Francis of Assisi in him, that same thirst to pursue Gospel perfection at any price. 

What I read confirmed my hunch. Junípero was an unlikely missionary: Five-foot-two, skinny, and prone to asthma, he was over the hill by the standards of his day (he sailed from Spain at age thirty-five and didn’t found his first mission until age fifty-six). Yet Junípero volunteered himself anyway. He felt his faith atrophying in academia and wanted “to revive in my soul those intense longings which I have had since my novitiate when I read the lives of the saints.” Junípero knew his loved ones would not understand, especially his aging parents, whom he’d never see again. “Tell them how badly I feel at not being able to stay longer and make them happy as I used to do,” Junípero wrote in a farewell letter to a friend, before adding: “first things must come first; and our first duty, undoubtedly, is to do the will of God.” 

Over the next few decades, that single-minded fidelity to God’s will fortified Junípero through hunger, scurvy, bad weather, dangerous terrain, violent attacks from some of the native Californians, political battles with Spanish government and military officials, and his own failing health—including a crippled left leg that he wounded shortly after arriving in the New World. It’s estimated that he walked some ten thousand miles up and down the coast preaching the Gospel, establishing missions, and administering the sacraments. A true son of Francis, Junípero packed only the essentials, sleeping on the ground during his trips with a foot-long crucifix spread across his chest. He finally died of likely heart failure at age seventy, after an exhausting three-year, six hundred-mile trek to administer the sacrament of Confirmation to thousands of new Christians at every mission from San Diego to San Francisco. 

Junípero’s canonization by Pope Francis in 2015 was controversial. Critics say his mission system was paternalistic and oppressive. Supporters say his love and sacrifices for the Native Americans whom he called “the reasonable people” made him one of their few advocates in a Spanish colonial system that too often treated them as subhuman. 

For me, the most pressing question about Junípero is why he went to California at all, and why he stayed despite such opposition. I can understand leaving comfort, prestige, and popularity when missionary fervor first strikes. But sticking with it for the rest of your life when every day is harder than the next and almost no one has your back? How did he do that? How does anyone? 

I think the answer has something to do with Junípero’s famous motto, the one we saw displayed at every mission we visited. It’s an echo of that line from Francis instructing his friars to “pass through the world like pilgrims and strangers.” Junípero’s version is simpler still: “Always forward, never back.” 

The first time I heard that motto, I thought it was about pluck and tenacity: No matter what befalls you, keep forging ahead. But the more I’ve read about Junípero’s life and reflected on the legacy of his spiritual father, Francis, the more I’ve come to believe that it’s about something deeper and more demanding. I think it’s about packing light as we move through life, leaving behind the baggage of “what if,” “why me,” and “what will they say” so we can freely seek the answer to the only question that really counts: “What is God asking of me right now?” 

So much of perfectionism is about looking in the wrong direction: at the world and its expectations, at others and their choices, at myself and my fears and flaws. It’s about looking backward at mistakes and regrets, or sideways at other paths I might have taken. It’s about looking everywhere except where my eyes actually belong: fixed on Jesus, the true perfecter of my faith. 

Not looking in the wrong direction in this life is hard; it’s like not thinking of a hot-fudge sundae while standing in line at Baskin-Robbins on last day of Lent. The only way to avoid the temptation is to look at something better, to stay in forward spiritual motion so I don’t get stuck on something less. It’s what Jesus told Peter to do when Peter was peppering Him with nosy questions about what He had in store for the other apostles. “What concern is it of yours?” Jesus answered. “You follow Me” (John 21: 22). 

Follow Me.

 Seek the city that is to come.

 Always forward, never back.

Francis knew all this. It’s the reason his breaks with the world were so dramatic and decisive, the reason he ditched his clothes as well as his coins, the reason he embraced the literal poverty that freed him to achieve the even more elusive poverty of spirit Jesus calls for in the Beatitudes. Francis knew he couldn’t trade his prosthetic life for a prophetic one without making big changes, the kind the world could see and, yes, ridicule. Francis knew the Christian life isn’t a Sunday stroll; it’s a race. And like Paul, Francis wasn’t content to go with the flow or settle for good enough. He wanted to “run so as to win” (1 Cor. 9:24). 

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an award-winning author, print and broadcast journalist and former presidential speechwriter. Her books include her critically acclaimed journalistic study, The New Faithful; her spiritual memoir, My Sisters the Saints, which won two national awards and has been published in five languages; and The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God's.