Experts on Serra's life say it's long overdue and well-deserved
Pope Francis appeared tired and leaned heavily on his staff as he made his way to the altar of the outdoor sanctuary set up beside the the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for a Mass where he canonized Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish missionary, on Wednesday evening. It was the first canonization on U.S. soil.
Over 27,000 people were in attendance for the Mass, which was almost entirely in Spanish and began with an oral history of Junipero Serra, a Franciscan who left his homeland to found missions and evangelize indigenous people along what is now the California coast.
The decision to canonize Serra originally came as a surprise because his cause did not have the customary second miracle requirement. Several saints have recently been canonized this way. At the Mass, Pope Francis said Serra “was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ ” a theme the Holy Father expanded upon in his homily.
“He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life,” said the pope. “He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters.”
The pope seemed to acknowledge the complicated history of the California missions when he added:
“Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” said Francis. “Mistreatment and wrongs that today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”
The Holy Father’s words may not appease those who have tried to stop Serra’s canonization, however. According to CNN, fifty different tribes in California have condemned it and appealed to the Vatican to suspend it.
Deborah Miranda, a literature professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and a member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation of California, who wrote a book about her ancestors’ experiences in the Spanish missions, was one of those who opposed Serra being elevated to sainthood.
“My objection and the objection of many California Indians is that he is being honored for in fact dishonoring many of our California ancestors. The missions ended up killing about 90% of the California Indians present at the time of missionization, creating all kinds of cultural and emotional baggage that we still carry to this day,” Miranda said. “It’s not a question of attacking the Catholic Church or attacking Pope Francis. It’s about making sure that the truth is heard and that injustices are not continued on into the 21st century.”
Many who accept Serra’s heroic virtue and supported his canonization, don’t deny his complicated legacy. The president of the Jesuit Conference in Washington, Rev. Timothy Kesicki, told CNN that many scholars acknowledge this.
“But I don’t think Pope Francis wants pristine saints,” Kesicki continued, “because then no one will aspire to sainthood.”
For many experts on Serra’s life, including the longtime archivist of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Msgr. Francis J. Weber, who has spent some 60 years researching the life of Serra, the canonization was long overdue. The one-time rector of the San Fernando Mission — one of the nine missions founded by Serra — Msgr. Weber believes that the saint’s reputation for holiness will overcome any persisting controversy.
“People allege that [Serra beat Indians] but there’s no documentation anywhere in any of the writings of the time that he did that,” Msgr. Weber said. “In fact he was known for just the opposite. At one time, when a Native American broke into one of the missions and killed one of the missionaries, the military wanted to put the Indian to death, but Serra intervened.”
Weber says that the controversy about Serra was started a few years ago by “people who didn’t know much history…. There’s nothing anywhere that would indicate that he did this.”
Serra was declared a saint at the very beginning of Wednesday’s Mass, which was Pope Francis’ third public event on his six-day visit to the U.S.
Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle Editor and Video Content Producer for Aleteia