California church leaders react to announcement of Serra's sainthood

Across California, church leaders greeted with joy the news that Pope Francis intends to canonize in September one of the state's most well-known figures, Blessed Junipero Serra, founder of many of the state's Catholic missions.

The pope said during a news conference Jan. 15 aboard a flight to the Philippines that he would beatify the Spanish Franciscan when he comes to the United States in September. He explained that, just as he done in canonizing St. Joseph Vaz a day earlier in Sri Lanka, he would bypass the usual requirement of a second authenticated miracle attributed to Blessed Serra's intervention, in an effort to promote and celebrate evangelization.


Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez was among those celebrating the announcement. In a statement, he said Blessed Serra "is one of my spiritual heroes and a giant figure in the evangelization of the New World."

The Franciscan friar, who served in California -- then a part of New Spain -- from 1768 through his death in Carmel in 1784, is credited with directly founding nine missions in the present-day state of California, and one in Baja California in Mexico, and with reinvigorating established missions in central Mexico. Friars under his tutelage founded many other missions across California.

Archbishop Gomez noted that Blessed Serra is associated with the origins of Los Angeles and its original name, El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. Two of the missions he founded are within the archdiocese: San Gabriel Arcangel and San Buenaventura.

"It's wonderful to think that this new saint once walked the road that is now the Hollywood Freeway and called it El Camino Real, The King's Highway," the archbishop said.

He added that he thinks the canonization will help the church's current evangelization efforts and "remind us that our state and our country and all the Americas are built on Christian foundations."

In San Francisco, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone had a video statement posted on the archdiocesan website in which he thanked Pope Francis for the decision to canonize Blessed Serra.

The archbishop noted that he grew up a short distance away from Blessed Serra's first mission in what became the state of California, San Diego de Alcala.

He said he's "hopeful that the blessings that will come from this recognition" will include that others will be encouraged to imitate the heroic virtues Blessed Serra exhibited.

Already in his mid-50s when he arrived in California, the missionary had left behind a career in Spain as a respected professor and well-known preacher to come to the New World. He spent about 20 years evangelizing in central Mexico before taking on the role as president of the Franciscans' missionary efforts on the Pacific coast.

Biographies explain that Blessed Serra was known for his ascetic lifestyle, including his insistence on walking great distances, even after sustaining a painful leg injury that plagued him for decades.

In Ventura, the news was welcomed with great joy by Father Tom Elewaut at San Buenaventura, which was founded on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1782.

"Considering that we are the ninth and last mission personally founded by Blessed Serra and one of six he personally consecrated, the joy and blessing is personal and extended," said Father Elewaut, who since 2011 has been pastor of the parish in downtown Ventura, a coastal city of 106,000 that is 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

"Today our parish mission carries on the vision of Junipero Serra as a vibrant parish with daily Mass serving more than 1,800 active parishioners," the priest said in an interview.

Father Elewaut said that the parish's eucharistic prayer at Mass already elicits the intercession of Sts. Bonaventure (Buenaventura in Spanish) and Kateri Tekakwitha, in tribute to the Chumash community, the Native Americans who settled the area before the Spanish arrived. St. Kateri, the first Native American saint, was an Algonquin-Mohawk Indian, canonized in 2012.

"Now we also ask Junipero Serra to pray that we be worthy of God's grace and call to witness the Gospel message to all people," he said.

Blessed Serra's beatification in 1988 drew criticism from some Native Americans and others who said he was responsible for extreme brutality toward California Indians.

Among those reacting to the news of the canonization, California newspapers reported mixed reactions from Native Americans, some defending the decision and others complaining.

Blessed Serra is among the best-known figures in California. Fourth-graders in the state study his work in social studies classes. The priest is portrayed in one of the state's two statues in the U.S. Capitol, intended to portray those who made significant contributions to California history. He is buried at Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, in Carmel, California.

Pope Francis gave no indication where or exactly when the canonization might take place. He is scheduled to attend the World Meeting of families in Philadelphia, which runs Sept. 22-27. Other places the pope may visit have not been officially announced, though the Vatican secretary of state said he expected the trip would include stops in New York and Washington.

Pope Francis also has been invited to several other parts of the United States and Mexico, and he has expressed interest in visiting the U.S.-Mexico border.

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4 years 2 months ago
For many of us this is a sad day. Those of us who know our history in California, steeped as it is in the encounter of our Indigenous ancestors as well as our Spanish ancestors, the role of Serra is not well looked upon. I recall writing a letter to then-Archbishop John R. Quinn, when Serra's sainthood was being discussed. I wrote expressing my shock considering the unsavory history of the mission system. Abp Quinn suggested that I express my concerns to the deacon handling this. The deacon, I will point out was not Spanish-surnamed. I must wonder if anybody explained how many Californians, many of us Mestizo -- proudly so -- feel about Serra possibly being lauded and made a saint in light of the dark history. There are certainly individuals who are actually worthy, such as Fr. Kino, and even before that Bartolome de las Casas. But the group pushing Serra's sainthood obviously was deaf and blind to the ugly history of Serra and his role in creating a corrupt mission system. As Catholics and indigenous people of California we have learned to accept the 'good, but bad and the ugly' but not without critique. We must learn from the good as well as the bad, even from the ugly. But I shake my head at this egregious act by people who are on the other side of the world. This is so wrong.
John Arthur
4 years 2 months ago
Tectonic level forces were taking place in what would eventually become California, the major clash being the collision of a highly developed pre-industrial society with a subsistence culture. Disease and exploitation exacted a terrible toll on the native population, and is a painful chapter of history. By and large, though, native americans abandoned their villages and rancherias voluntarily. Remember, too, that rarely were there more than one or two Franciscans at any given mission. The native americans, more than any european, built the missions which thrived because of their efforts. With notable exceptions, theirs was a peaceable existence. Had the mission system been allowed to work as designed it might even have helped the native population attain the skills necessary to survive the conflict. Subsequent secularization of the missions and the deprivations of the gold rush era were greater sources of devastation for the native population than the mission system. The Franciscans in Alta California and the Jesuits in Baja California were in the end unable to ameliorate this collision of cultures. Is Serra a saint? His energy and passion for the native population is admirable and awe-inspiring. In the end, though, I believe Serra's sainthood, like the remnants of the missions, is a testament to the native americans who made it possible.
Bill Mazzella
4 years 2 months ago
What a insult to a great native people who had their language, their customs and their way of life taken away from them. The colonizer becomes a saint. But where is the native saint. Maybe this is why serra was not made a saint in all this time. Someone should have given the pope more information. The means do not justify the ends. To say that we brought them culture and the gospel is to cover up the invasion that happened. The evangelization of the New World is not Christianity's finest hour.


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