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Pope Francis canonizes, and defends, controversial Spanish missionary Junipero Serra

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Canonization Mass for Friar Junipero Serra in Washington on September 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Canonization Mass for Friar Junipero Serra in Washington on September 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Canonization Mass for Friar Junipero Serra in Washington on Sept. 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Pope Francis canonized a controversial 18th-century Spanish missionary on Wednesday (Sept. 23), the first full day of his historic visit to the U.S. — but he made scant mention of the new saint, Junipero Serra, whom he has defended for protecting Native Americans.

Nor did he refer to the fact that the Mass — in Spanish — was also a celebration by the first Latin American pope in history of the booming Latino presence in the U.S. church.

Instead, in his homily at the outdoor Mass next to the the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the Argentine pontiff exhorted the Catholic Church and its followers to look ahead, to move forward and to go out into the streets to minister to the poor, the lonely and the needy, in order to bring salvation to all and to find joy for themselves.


READ: Hola, Papa Francisco! Hispanic Catholics shape US church


“The holy and faithful people of God are not afraid of losing their way,” Francis told the crowd of 25,000 gathered under a bright, late afternoon sky. “They are afraid of becoming self-enclosed, frozen into elites, clinging to their own security. They know that self-enclosure, in all the many forms it takes, is the cause of so much apathy.

“The spirit of the world tells us to be like everyone else, to settle for what comes easy,” Francis said during the liturgy, the first Mass on this six-day visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Pope Francis is greeted inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as he arrives for a Canonization Mass for Friar Junipero Serra in Washington on September 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

Pope Francis is greeted inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as he arrives for a Canonization Mass for Friar Junipero Serra in Washington on Sept. 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

He told his listeners that the antidote to the “glum apathy” and indifference that can settle in through one’s “daily routine” is to go out and find joy through helping others.

“Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving his message, his presence,” Francis said, reprising themes of inclusion and service that have been hallmarks of his papacy. “Instead, he always embraced life as he saw it. In faces of pain, hunger, sickness and sin. In faces of wounds, of thirst, of weariness, doubt and pity.

“Far from expecting a pretty life, smartly dressed and neatly groomed, he embraced life as he found it. It made no difference whether it was dirty, unkempt, broken. Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone. Go out and in my name embrace life as it is, and not as you think it should be.”

A statue of Father Junipero Serra is seen at Mission San Juan Capistrano, in San Juan Capistrano, California on September 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

A statue of Junipero Serra is seen at Mission San Juan Capistrano, in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., on Sept. 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

The pope then cited Serra (1713-1784), a Spaniard who is called the “Columbus of California” because he brought the faith to the West Coast, as “the embodiment of a church which goes forth, a church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.”

Others strongly disagree: They say Serra was part of an imperial conquest that beat and enslaved Native Americans, raped their women and destroyed their culture by forcing them to abandon their traditional language, diet, dress and other customs and rites.


READ: Cheers, stillness fill Pope Francis’ first U.S. Mass


Add largely because of the diseases introduced by these Old World invaders, the original indigenous population of perhaps 300,000 was decimated by as much as 90 percent.

Francis, however, glided over those charges and said the Franciscan missionary “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

A nun provides shade for herself with an umbrella prior to Pope Francis holding the Canonization Mass for Friar Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on September 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

A nun shades herself with an umbrella before the Canonization Mass for Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on Sept. 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SAINT, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

“Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us,” he added, “especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”

That was the closest Francis came to acknowledging the devastation wrought by the colonizers, and was nothing like the apology he issued to indigenous peoples in Bolivia in July, when he said that “many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.”

The pope’s comments Wednesday were not enough for present-day representatives of Native American tribes and their allies, who did not want Serra honored at all.

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Click the logo for more Religion News Service coverage of the pope’s U.S. visit. 

“The church’s treatment of California Indians clearly sends the message that they believe that evangelizing is saintly behavior even if it means the destruction, domination and the stealing of land of indigenous people,” Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, said at a news conference Tuesday at a Washington ,D.C., church.

“It is as if we, the very people upon whom Serra’s historic record of evangelization was built, are no more alive to Francis than adobe bricks,” added Deborah Miranda, a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation and a professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

Norma Louise Flores, a spokeswoman for the Kizh Nation who started a Moveon.org petition, called Serra “an unworthy and ungodly saint.”

Almost forgotten in this controversy, and the pope’s focus on the church’s missionary mandate, was the fact that the Mass was an affirmation of the wave of Latino immigration that is transforming the American church.

Contributing: Adelle Banks

LM/MG END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

17 Comments

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  • Why are there always slights and swipes in articles such as these? We should be mindful that many native people used to sacrifice their own children to their gods, and in many cases, once evangelized, these horrors ended. When someone writes an article such as this, I often wonder whether that person has given back his/her own house and land to the people who at one time occupied it? Nah, not likely. The thing that stands out to me, regarding the native Indians, is the Catholic Church was having a very difficult time evangelizing Mexico back in the 1500’s for many years, then Mary appeared to Juan Diego, and within two years all of Mexico’s native population embraced the Church, becoming Catholic. So, heaven has spoken, and the natives have responded. In fact, Mary impressed an image of herself onto Juan’s tilma, which is still with us today almost 500 years later. The eyes have an upside down image within them. Inverted, as we now know today from biology. That is the glory of God

  • “The spirit of the world tells us to be like everyone else, to settle for what comes easy,” Francis said…

    Good grief. Wrong again, Pope.
    Yet he espouses the laziest philosophy…all problems are solved with a simple prayer: “Only say the word and I shall be healed.”

    The incoherence and contradictions are stunning.

  • Derived from:

    Matthew 8:8 The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”

    Based on rigorous historic testing: Not uttered by the real Jesus and therefore should not be used in the eucharistic service. Said service also violates science, reality and the historic Jesus and therefore does not belong in any Christian services which begs the question, is there anything worth saving in said religion? Not much!!

  • those awaiting the visit of the Pope to Philadelphia who comment at length the attitude of the Vatican about same-sex marriage, never say a word on the anomaly of a church who keeps honoring “saints” like Bernardino da Siena (circa 1420) that have explicitely called for the murder and the horrible torture of the sodomites burnt at the stake by thousands throughout Europe. Combaz agrees that it was a long time ago, and it was “in fashion” in the 15th century, but he asks Pope Francis to admit that some heroes and saints in the catholic world should leave the hall of fame.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swcyhc-dnMw

  • Too much news devoted to this one religious leader! The papacy is the same old story with a new rapper. It is all about power and control. Religious freedom? Really? Never was a point of concern for the Roman Church if it dominated the power elite of a country .

    Modesty? How much taxpayer money is provide for security and entertainment for this man in the US? What happen to separation of church and state? Riding around in a $20,000 car creating a security risk while millions spent on security, preparation funds and flying a charter plane -Not impressed.

    Why are so many illegal immigrants from Roman Catholic dominated countries to here? What happened in those countries over the last 500 years?

    This is really interference by a foreign leader in the domestic issues of the US.

    However, we do need to take care of vulnerable citizens and legal immigrants . All Christians are called to care for the poor, sick and be good stewards of the Earth.

  • @Observer,

    “All Christians are called to care….”

    This is the only thing you said which I disagree with. Christians are called on many things and all of them are ridiculous.

    Humans naturally care about other people in need – we are sociable as well as a social species. If people only follow what Jesus commands the result would be the stuff of nightmares; “Execute them all” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

  • @Greg,

    “sacrificed their children to the gods….and once evangelized, these horrors ended.”

    Are you out of your mind? Christianity is among the bloodiest, most gruesome religions in history! In recent years Catholic Priests, Nuns and their congregants GLEEFULLY SLAUGHTERED 800,000 of their fellow Rwandans at the direction of Jesus himself!

    “Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)
    “deem them unworthy…remove your peace.” – JESUS (Matthew 10:13)
    “Don’t throw your pearls to unholy pigs!” – JESUS (Matthew 7:6)
    “shake the dust off…testify against them.” – JESUS (MARK 6:11)
    “I shall kill her children with death!” – JESUS (Rev. 2:23)

    These pages drip with blood and hatred.
    Christianity is among the most dangerous concepts ever invented.

  • Max

    Many Christians in New Jersey are not like that. Check out Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton.

    ps If you get bored arguing with the fundies here, check out J Ratzinger “Introduction to Christianity” – it did not change my mind, but did make me realized how smart he is.

    best wishes

  • Max,

    Now for some reality in the horror of blood letting and hatred:

    The Twenty (or so) Worst Things “GOD’S CREATURES” Have Done to Each Other:

    M. White, http://necrometrics.com/warstatz.htm#u (required reading)

    The Muslim Conquest of India

    “The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. ”

    Rank …..Death Toll ..Cause …..Centuries……..(Religions/Groups involved)*

    1. 63 million Second World War 20C (Christians et al and Communists/atheists vs. Christians et al, Nazi-Pagan and “Shintoists”)

    2. 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C (Communism)

    3. 40 million Genghis Khan 13C (Shamanism or Tengriism)

    4. 27 million British India (mostly famine) 19C (Anglican)

    5. 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion)

    6. 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C ( Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion vs. a form of…

  • Continued from above:

    7. 20 million Joseph Stalin 20C (Communism)

    8. 19 million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C (Islam)

    9. 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C

    10. 16 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C (Christianity)

    11. 15 million First World War 20C (Christians vs. Christians)

    12. 15 million Conquest of the Americas 15C-19C (Christians vs. Pagans)

    13. 13 million Muslim Conquest of India 11C-18C

    14. 10 million An Lushan Revolt 8C

    15. 10 million Xin Dynasty 1C

    16. 9 million Russian Civil War 20C (Christians vs Communists)

    17. 8 million Fall of Rome 5C (Pagans vs. Christians)

    18. 8 million Congo Free State 19C-20C (Christians)

    19. 7½ million Thirty Years War 17C (Christians vs Christians)

    20. 7½ million Fall of the Yuan Dynasty 14C

  • Dr. Coelho,

    Free Will and Future are inherent to all the thinking beings in the Universe. This being the case, it is not possible to alter life with prayers. Statistically, your request might come true but it is simply the result of the variability/randomness of Nature..

    So put down your rosaries and prayer beads and stop worshiping/revering cows or bowing to Mecca five times a day. Instead work hard at your job, take care of aging parents, volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to charities and the poor and continue to follow the proper rules of any good rules of living as gracious and good human beings.

  • The religious component of most of those wars is “messianism” – it is the notion that someone with godly knowledge and power will arrive on earth to solve all human problems with some simple solutions.

    Religion tells us:
    #1. A perfect Messiah exists.
    #2. Everyone must seek it together or it won’t come.

    That second part is what drives hatred and what causes wars. The nonconformists (or non-believers) are always the first to be slaughtered.

  • Serra, under the Inquisition And Doctrine of Discovery established barbaric slave camps in California. The primary disease that wiped out Natives was syphilis; following brutal rapes by the Spanish Solides. The Pope’s rhetoric about caring for Native peoples means nothing. Pray to Serra if you worship slavery, rape and genocide of Native Peoples.

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