LIFESTYLE

Pope Francis elevates Junipero Serra to sainthood in first canonization on U.S. soil

Pope Francis celebrates a Canonization Mass for Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis celebrates a Canonization Mass for Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

In the first canonization on U.S. soil, Pope Francis elevated to sainthood an 18th-century missionary who brought Catholicism to the American West Coast.

Francis canonized Junipero Serra during a Mass in Spanish celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington.

Serra was a Franciscan friar who marched north from Baja California with conquistadors from his native Spain, establishing nine of the 21 missions in what is now California. 

The pope announced in January that Serra would be canonized — and the decision was polarizing. Serra is revered by Catholics for his missionary work, but many Native Americans in California say he enslaved converts and contributed to the spread of disease that wiped out indigenous populations.

During a special Mass in Spanish to 25,000 people gathered outside the Basilica, Cardinal Donald Wuel said in Spanish "I thank His Holiness for making this proclamation and humbly ask he decrees the publication of the Apostolic Letter on the canonization," to which the pope replied, "So we decree."

In his homily, Francis defended Serra, characterizing him as a kind and open-hearted man who protected Native Americans from colonizers.

"He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life," Francis said. "Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people."

Many Latinos in the U.S. view the canonization of a Spanish-speaking missionary as a badly needed acknowledgment of the Hispanic history of the American church, and as an affirmation of Latinos as a core part of the U.S. Catholic future. Latinos make up about 38 percent of U.S. Catholics, but are well above the majority in several dioceses. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest U.S. diocese, is about 70 percent Latino.

Earlier in the day, Pope Francis held a prayer service at Washington's Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where he told U.S. bishops  they should avoid "harsh and divisive" language and create a church with the warmth of a "family fire."

Laying out a vision for American Catholicism far from the defensive stands on social issues, Francis urged the bishops to find ways to reach people "with the power and closeness of love" which he said "counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain."

"Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart," Francis said. "Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing."

In a welcoming reception at the White House earlier Wednesday with President Barack Obama, Francis noted that religious freedom is "one of America's most precious possessions," in a nod to the top concern for U.S.bishops seeking conscience exemptions from recognizing gay marriage. And at the cathedral service, Francis said attention should be paid to the "innocent victim of abortion." But he listed abortion as one of many issues "essential" to the church's mission, including protecting children from hunger and war, caring for the elderly and sick and protecting the environment.

"Only a church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others," Francis said, otherwisebishops will "end up being caretakers of ash."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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