Francis Canonizes St. Junipero Serra

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Holy Father’s homily at the Mass canonizing Fr. Junipero Serra was, like all this pope’s homilies, a meditation on the Word of God the assembly had just heard together in the context of our daily lives. I have said before that I sometimes miss the density of a Pope Benedict sermon but, especially at Masses for the masses like today’s, there is much to be said for accessibility.

And, Pope Francis again returned to a theme he struck this morning at the White House: inclusion. He said:

Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving his message, his presence.  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.  Go out to the highways and byways, go out to tell the good news fearlessly, without prejudice, without superiority, without condescension, to all those who have lost the joy of living.  Go out to proclaim the merciful embrace of the Father.  Go out to those who are burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty, and proclaim the folly of a loving Father who wants to anoint them with the oil of hope, the oil of salvation.  Go out to proclaim the good news that error, deceitful illusions and falsehoods do not have the last word in a person’s life.  Go out with the ointment which soothes wounds and heals hearts.

On the subject of Fr. Serra, now St. Junipero Serra, the pope acknowledged that for some people, the coming of the Spaniards brought the end of their civilization, a time of great wrongs and still-present pain. But, he rightly insisted that we not lay those charges at the feet of St. Junipero. “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” he said.  “Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people. In all the “controversy” surrounding St. Junipero’s life, I have not heard a single criticism of him that was not anachronistic, placing upon his life the standards of our time and place.

The critics should remember that the Natives Americans were not decimated by the missions but by the closure of the missions. The critics should reflect upon the fact that, in the ideas of his time, St. Junipero tried to rescue the native populations from what he understood as mere paganism and to protect them, too, from the civil authorities and other Spaniards who were willing to exploit them. The critics should reflect, too, upon the fact that no one was so bad to the Native populations as the English. Last week I read a brief history of King Philip’s War in which the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England murdered their native populations. And, finally, the critics should reflect upon the horrors we moderns have perpetrated from Hiroshima to Srebrenica and wonder if we have standing to object to anything St. Junipero did.

Pope Francis, the most famous Christian in our day, is right to insist that it is never a tragedy to bring the Gospel to any people. And, he is right to hold him up to us as a model of always moving forward.

The Holy Father began his sermon by pondering what keeps us from rejoicing in the Lord. Watching him today, we see in our midst a new missionary for our time, a pope who brings joy to a world that has grown content with the essential mediocrity of stuff and indifferent to both suffering and joy. Catholics are always excited and joyful to see their pope, but I cannot recall any pope in my lifetime who so communicates both the simplicity of joy and the attractiveness of joy. By day’s end, you could tell that the stairs were becoming harder for the 78-year old pontiff, but he carried on, and the second he encountered another human face, his own face lights up. The naysayers – and you can find them easily at Fox News! – do not see it because they do not have eyes to see it. For the rest of us, as the pope said, “Adelante, siempre adelante!” 

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