Pope Francis’ Canonization of Junípero Serra Makes History in DC
The Holy Father canonized the first Hispanic saint for the U.S., in the first canonization held on U.S. soil.
WASHINGTON — More than 220 years ago, the California Indians evangelized by Father Junípero Serra declared him a saint. In a historic canonization in the nation’s capital, Pope Francis ratified that declaration, declaring him a saint for the veneration of the universal Church.
An estimated 25,000 people stood under a clear blue sky and endured the heat of the afternoon sun on Sept. 23, waiting for Pope Francis to arrive to celebrate Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and conduct the first canonization on U.S. soil. Adding to the historic nature of the event was that Pope Francis, the first pope from the Americas, was declaring the first Hispanic saint for the United States in his first Mass in the U.S.
Just as the custom is at the Vatican for canonization Masses, St. Junípero Serra’s banner was stationed high on the north end of the basilica, overlooking the east lawn, where the crowds had gathered.
The bells of the basilica pealed, and people gave cheers and shouts as Pope Francis, accompanied by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, drove among them in the popemobile just before the canonization Mass commenced. The Holy Father then met and blessed some 3,000 religious novices and seminarians gathered in the basilica church itself before vesting for the outdoor Mass.
By this time, a procession of some 300 bishops, led by the Knights of Columbus, had already taken their seats, along with an estimated 1,000 priests concelebrating.
The Pope, vested for Mass, emerged in procession from the great doors of the basilica’s east portico, where the altar had been set up. During the canonization ceremony itself, the life and works of Father Junípero Serra were recited. A litany of the saints followed, reciting the saints of North America — such as St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. André Bessette and Blessed Miguel Pro, among others.
After this recitation, Pope Francis finally accomplished the canonization, stating, “We declare and define Blessed Junípero Serra to be a saint, and we enroll him among the saints, decreeing that he is to be venerated as such by the whole Church. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Father Serra’s Legacy
The event confirmed a long road for sainthood begun by the California Indians, who awoke Father Serra’s fellow Franciscans to the realization that he was a saint, when at his funeral they declared him, “padre bendito, padre santo (the blessed father, the holy father).” The California Indians thus had been the first to venerate Father Serra as a saint upon his death on Aug. 29, 1784 — a full 221 years before Pope Francis extended that veneration to the universal Church.
The Mass itself paid homage to the California Indians and their role in making St. Junípero Serra; the first reading was conducted in the Ohlone native language. The relics of the new saint were presented by Andrew Galvan, the Native-American curator of Mission Dolores in San Francisco, wearing a cloak of feathers. Galvan has been involved in communication between California bishops and the California tribes about how to properly tell their story and that of Father Serra.
In his homily, Pope Francis held up St. Junípero Serra as a model of testifying to the “joy of the Gospel.”
“He was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis pointed out how St. Junípero left his homeland and way of life and went out to meet people, “learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life.”
“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,” he said.
The Holy Father explained that Father Serra’s true legacy is as defender and friend of native peoples, but also acknowledged that the painful history of the California Indians — alluding in part to the devastation inflicted by the Mexican and American governments in the 19th century — continues to be felt today.
“Junípero 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,” he said.
Red Star, a representative of the Chumash of the Ventura Mission, told the Register that he and seven other California Indian chiefs were in attendance at the Mass and also had the opportunity to meet personally with Pope Francis. They appreciated the acknowledgement of their people and culture throughout the Mass, saying, “I think somebody got his attention.”
“We all had some doubt about it [going in], but everybody walked out with a loving, kind, smiling heart,” Red Star said. “It was just incredible to be there.”
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register that Pope Francis “hit the nail on the head," showing how Father Serra’s own life showed that “joy comes from mission, which is giving one’s self.”
He hoped the canonization would get the truth out about the new Franciscan saint, “so people can have a more balanced understanding of his legacy.”
“They wanted to educate Indians and teach them to be self-sufficient,” he said, while giving them the faith. The effort could be seen in the writing down of the Ohlone language, the language of the Mass' first reading. However, the archbishop said this effort was never fully realized. “The mission system collapsed before they could do that.”
The Holy Father reminded the crowds, “A Christian finds joy in mission: Go out to people of every nation! A Christian experiences joy in following a command: Go forth, and proclaim the Good News! A Christian finds ever-new joy in answering a call: Go forth, and anoint!”
Michael Liliedahl, a third-year seminarian for the Archdiocese of San Francisco who traveled to Washington, D.C. with 16 other men from St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, Ca., emerged from the canonization mass deeply inspired by the testimony of faith he witnessed.
“This is the mystery we have been called to. It is a choice to give your life to bring life,"Liliedahl told the Register, as he reflected on the pope’s exhortation to share the Gospel and the enthusiastic response of seminarians and novices in the congregation.
The Holy Father’s words had an impact on Anyah Robinson, 15, a parishioner of St. Margaret of Scotland Church in Seat Pleasant, Md. She told the Register that the pope's presence and the canonization had drawn her closer to her faith.
“It meant a lot because it has an impact on us youth today,” said Robinson. She added that while she did not understand Spanish, the Pope being there was a “real inspiration” to her.
“I want to do things very differently,” she said. “So, instead of judging people, think instead of them as just another one of God’s children.”
José Niembro from Queretaro, Mexico, an area where St. Junipero Serra founded five missions between 1750 and 1758, told the Register he loves Father Serra and is “happy he is a saint.”
“He’s a very good example,” he said, for how to live out a mission-oriented life in work, family and community. “We also have to read Father Serra and his times and try to evangelize with our different technologies.”
Sister Melissa Benitez, 27, a Salesian Sister of St. John Bosco, born in Mexico and raised in California, came with six novice companions. She told the Register she grew up visiting the missions, and the canonization deeply resonated with her.
“The Holy Father imbued it with a deep sense of holiness and imparted the spirit of Father Serra,” she said. “Serra’s motto was ‘Always forward,’ and that is what he encouraged us to do.”
Father Tom Elewaut, pastor of Mission Buenaventura in Ventura, Calif., said it was “very humbling” to have concelebrated the Mass with the Pope and an honor to witness the canonization of the founder of his parish.
“It’s also challenging,” he said, “because now we have a real purpose to continue to evangelize, spread the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments for the people that come to us.”
‘Viva el Papa’
At the end of the Mass, before the Holy Father laid a rosary before a statue of the Blessed Virgin, Cardinal Wuerl thanked the Holy Father for his presence, saying it gave them “renewed inspiration to be evangelizers.”
Almost immediately, someone began shouting in the crowd, “Viva el Papa!” From left and right, people replied with a shout, “Viva!”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.