On Wednesday Pope Francis performed the first canonization ever to take place on US soil. The event, during a Mass Francis celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, was as controversial as it was historic. The new saint is Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish friar who founded many of the missions in California. The Franciscan friar has long been celebrated as a great evangelist for the church. He has also been accused of performing brutal forced conversions of the people native to the region and of being complicit in the violence committed against them. For some, the decision to canonize Serra seemed at odds with Pope Francis’s progressive reputation.
“I was actually shocked, totally shocked,” said Olin Tezcatlipoca, director of the Mexica Movement. The indigenous rights group has been holding regular protests in Los Angeles since the canonization was first announced in January. Tezcatlipoca has written at length about the church’s history of forced conversions and argues that the pope, by making a saint of Serra, is endorsing these actions. “By canonizing Junípero Serra, the church is canonizing colonialism, canonizing white supremacy, canonizing the genocide of our people, if you translate it from our point of view,” he said.
The Mexica Movement was not present at the canonization yesterday, lacking the funds to travel cross-country, and there was little sign of controversy in the hours leading up to the Mass. Instead, there were thousands of people waiting patiently to be let through the entry gates. There were vendors selling flags, shirts, buttons, and keychains bearing Francis’s likeness. And there was an unshakeable feeling in the air that this pope, in his choice of Serra or anything else, could do no wrong.
“I don’t know too much about it actually,” said Sister Louis Marie, a DC-based member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, as she awaited security screening at the entrance, “but I’m sure the Holy Father has seen in Junípero Serra grounds for his canonization, that he led a holy life dedicated to serving God’s people.”
Clergy members, many of whom travelled from all over the country to attend the historic mass, generally felt that peoples’ objections were misplaced. “It’s unfortunate that this controversy has broken loose,” said Nepi Willemsen, a Carmelite Friar studying at Catholic University. “Junípero Serra himself seems to have been a very down-to-earth guy, who really wanted to live with the natives and not conquer them.”
“People link him with the conquistadors,” said Father Stephan Brown, SVD, of St. Leo University in Florida. “The conquistador may have come with the sword, but he came with the cross, the love and the mercy and the compassion of God.”
Jose Morales, a youth minister for the Catholic Diocese of Forth Worth, was standing on Harewood Road, Northeast, in the minutes leading up to the mass. He and his fellow parishioners had traveled from Texas and were standing among a small crowd hoping to catch the pope driving past on his way to the Basilica. Several of the people in his group wore T-shirts with “St. Junípero Serra” printed on the back. Morales said the event was “pretty special for us Catholics and specifically the Hispanic community,” referring to the fact that the first Hispanic saint was being canonized by the first Hispanic Pope. For Morales, Serra’s methods of evangelization did not make him any less suited for the honor. “People say, ‘oh, he forced the Indians to convert to Catholicism,’” said Morales, “but a father who loves his children will do whatever it takes for them to go the right path.”
Pope Francis, who has spoken out about indigenous rights throughout his papacy, perhaps alluded to the controversy during the ceremony, saying “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatments and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt they cause in the lives of many people.”