When Pope Francis comes to the United States in September, he will recognize Junipero Serra, founding father of the California missions, as a saint at a mass on the campus of the Catholic University of America (my alma mater). Serra will be the first Hispanic saint for the United States of America, celebrated by the first pope from the Americas.
Serra, despite his radical commitment as a Franciscan missionary priest to Christ, would consider himself among the unworthy sinners of the Earth. Much like Pope Francis himself frequently says he does.
”The Lord wishes all people to attain for the ends for which He compassionately created us,” Serra wrote in a sermon. “He yearns that we might believe that He is the way, the truth, and the life and that we might advance towards the salvation He wills for us.”
What a contrast this message is to some religious stories in the media. Jean-Clement Jeanbart, an archbishop from Aleppo, Syria, was in New York this past week pleading for the West to end its relative ignorance and inaction in response to the persecution of Christians in his home country. In a speech at New York University, he said: “As Christian leaders in Syria are appealing for reconciliation and peace and openness, radical Muslim factions are calling for jihad and exclusion, a kind of apartheid for all non-Muslims.”
Serra’s message was one of welcome, not coercion. Still, Serra’s canonization — something Pope Francis himself prioritized — has proven controversial. A Los Angeles Times editorial recently advocated the removal of his statue from the U.S. Capitol building — what an insulting welcome this would be for such a refreshing moral leader, and what an unnecessary move, denying what might otherwise be a healing and uniting opportunity for Americans to celebrate together.
Only about a third of California’s native population lived at the missions, Msgr. Francis J. Weber, the archivist emeritus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, says, and most of the hostility to him comes from “descendants of the non-Christianized natives.” He has been accused of forcing conversions. But Weber — and the congregation in Rome that investigates cases for sainthood — says that there is no record of such a thing and “to have done so would have violated the whole notion of free will,” at the heart of Christianity.
Ruben G. Mendoza, a founding professor at California State University at Monterey Bay, for a long time believed the “myths” about Serra, but decades of work in the archives and archeology of early California and Mexico has led him to “contend that the California Indian fared far better under the mentoring and tutelage of the friars and the mission system than they did under any other system of governance in vogue in the late 18th through 20th centuries,” he tells me.
The pope’s visit in September is an opportunity to celebrate a hero at a time so in need of heroes, Msgr. Weber emphasizes. Serra is a missionary and immigrant, an American hero.
“Do not think, Christian, that the statement about the Lord being sweet and gentle is true of Him only in His glory with the blessed ones,” Serra preached, according to one translation. “It refers to the Lord in everything, with everyone, and at all times,” he said. What a contrast to the beheadings and dangerous propaganda — some of it quite effective — from ISIS. What a model of fatherhood, of true tolerance, treating all with respect. Serra, like St. Peter and so many Christian heroes, was not perfect, but men rarely are.
Contemporaries affirm he was a saint, an apostle of Jesus Christ who lived his life in radical commitment to the Gospel, a calling that brought him to leave his family and home and give his life to God in service to those whose lives might be better with his help, as an instrument of a loving and merciful God.
We need those people in our midst today. We need his example serving as contrast to some of the violence we see around the world. We must not let ideology cloud the gift of celebrating his life, which is a gift to us and our future.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.