The comment was characterized variously as an aside, almost an afterthought, an “Oh, by the way…” after Pope Francis told journalists Jan. 15 that he intended to canonize a Portuguese missionary to Sri Lanka, Joseph Vaz. The pope was on the last leg of his recent tour of Asia, flying from Sri Lanka to the Philippines.
“In September, God willing, I will canonize Junipero Serra in the United States,” said Francis.
That brief bit of news surprised and gratified many, shocked some, disturbed others. The tenacious, uncompromising, ferociously dedicated Franciscan priest from Spain has been well known throughout the Americas, and particularly in California, since his remarkable ministry in the 18th century, during which he established the California missions and converted and baptized thousands. His sainthood cause has been percolating for decades; he was finally beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
But canonization was believed by some to be something that lay in the distant future. Now, with Junipero Serra’s sainthood firmly on the front burner, Catholics, particularly California Catholics whose communities contain one of Serra’s missions, are rejoicing.
“Since the 21 missions formed the foundational seed for the establishment of the Catholic faith in California, we Catholics in the state rejoice in knowing that the great evangelizer of California will now be canonized for veneration,” said Monsignor Arthur Holquin, S.T.L., the Pastor/Rector Emeritus at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano and the Episcopal Vicar for Divine Worship for the Diocese of Orange. “In this age in which impetus has been given by recent popes for a new evangelization, Serra continues to be a wonderful model of one who was unrelenting amid the challenges of his times to carry the joy of the gospel to the indigenous people of our state.”
Serra is so identified with California that a statue of the saint-to-be stands in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., representing the state. When he is canonized, Serra will be one of two saints in Statuary Hall, said Monsignor Holquin. The other is Saint Damian of Molokai, representing Hawaii.
In his time, Serra had a highly visible local presence in what is now Orange County as the founder and first pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano. He regularly celebrated Mass in what is now called the Serra Chapel on the mission grounds. The chapel is still in use by the local faithful, who attend Mass there and recall the days when the chapel was new. Monsignor Holquin said that the mission’s parishioners, clergy, staff and neighbors were particularly invigorated by the pontiff’s in-flight words.
Serra’s entire life was motivated by his own heroic courage to share the enduring and unfailing love of Christ with others.
—Monsignor Arthur Holquin, S.T.L.
”Since the historic mother church of our diocese, Mission San Juan Capistrano, was the seventh of the nine missions that Serra himself established, we take special delight in the announcement,” he said. “It is humbling to know that the founder of the mission where I was privileged to pastor as Serra’s 34th successor, will now be canonized.”
Others are less pleased. Representatives of various indigenous peoples have objected to Serra’s beatification and canonization, saying that Serra was responsible for brutal treatment of the native populations, keeping them as virtual prisoners in the missions and suppressing their culture. Further, they say, the Spanish settlers of the time brought with them diseases from the Old World that were unknown in early California and that killed the local people in large numbers.
Monsignor Holquin does not dismiss such characterizations but says they must be viewed through the lens of history.
“I believe that there will always be some who will harbor negative feelings, judgments and perceptions toward Father Serra, judging his actions and pastoral approaches by 21st century standards,” he said. “The fact that one might be canonized a saint is not a declaration by the Church that this individual was sinless. Countless saints in the history of the Church witness to the triumph of God’s grace over human weakness, failure and sin.
“Father Serra was a man of his times, having a contemporary perspective on the indigenous people to whom he was missioned. History of that period recounts the challenges that the Franciscan fathers had to contend with in the often predatory practices of the Spanish soldiers that accompanied the padres to lay claim to the land for the Spanish government. Exploitation of the native peoples by the soldiers invariably led to what now might be considered an overly paternalistic or protective attitude of the padres regarding the neophytes or new Christians. This sometimes included corporal punishment for leaving the protected mission confines or failing to follow the carefully programmed mission schedule.
“Serra himself would refer to the neophytes as children and hence, whatever discipline that might have been used was also seen as a way of helping the individual develop and mature in character. Looked at by 21st century standards, such paternalistic behavior could easily be judged in a pejorative way. However, one should be very careful not to extrapolate from these isolated character flaws and see in them the totality of Serra’s character and persona. He was so much more than these isolated moments in his biography.”
One group that was particularly happy to hear the news from Pope Francis was the student body and faculty of JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, just a short walk from the mission founded by the school’s namesake.
“We could not be more thrilled that the patron of our school will be canonized a saint,” said Richard Meyer, JSerra’s Headmaster. “Certainly there are very few schools in the United States that have the privilege of being named after a saint whose influence had such a dramatic impact on the birth of the Catholic Church in America. In many ways, the work of Blessed Junípero Serra many years ago resembles the work that JSerra strives to do today—that of evangelizing the culture and helping our students and families grow in appreciation of the truth, beauty, and richness of the Catholic faith.”
The entire school, said Meyer, is hoping that its name will carry weight with the visitor from Rome when he arrives in Philadelphia in September.
“We’re holding out for the possibility, slight though it may be, that Pope Francis will swing by our corner of San Juan Capistrano during his visit to celebrate our weekly school Mass and hang out in the cafeteria with our students.”
In the meantime, said Monsignor Holquin, anticipation surrounding the canonization in the fall would do well to take into account Blessed Junipero Serra’s own motto: Siempre adelante—Always forward.
“Serra’s entire life was motivated by his own heroic courage to share the enduring and unfailing love of Christ with others,” said Monsignor Holquin. “Leaving his parents and family on the island of Majorca, never to see them again in this life, he valiantly went forward, never turning back on the path that the Lord opened for him. At times misunderstood by his contemporaries and those in civil authority, Serra knew that he would ultimately be answerable to the judge of heaven and earth in terms of the way he would live out his call in life. That call was always, in the words of St. Benedict, to prefer nothing to the love of Christ, and to share that love with all his heart with his sisters and brothers in this new land. That life and passion should be an obvious example to us all who bear the name Christian today.”