Pope to canonize ‘evangelizer of the West’

Pope Francis announced his intention to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra (1713-84), a Franciscan friar who launched California’s mission system, when he visits the United States in September. “In September, God willing, I will canonize Junipero Serra in the United States,” Pope Francis said on his Jan. 15 in-flight interview. “He was the evangelizer of the West in the United States.”

On his flight from Manila to Rome on Jan. 19, he gave more details, saying, “I would like to go to California for the canonization (of Father Junipero Serra), but I think there is the problem of time. ... I think that I will do that canonization at (the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) in Washington. It is a national event.”

Starting at age 56, Father Serra walked up and down California on a bad leg (due to an insect bite), founding the first nine of 21 California missions and bringing the Catholic Faith to the indigenous peoples of the region. California’s historic Catholic character, including the naming of many of its prominent cities after Catholic Franciscan saints, can be traced to the influence of Father Serra and his fellow Spanish missionaries. 

California missions

Father Serra not only lived in California for 15 years, but played a key role in the establishment of the Church in the region. Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez said, “Blessed Junipero is one of my spiritual heroes and a giant figure in the evangelization of the New World.” 

Regardless of the site of the ceremony, many Californians who work and volunteer at California’s missions educating the public about Father Serra are excited. Andy Galvan, curator of Mission Dolores in San Francisco for the past 12 years and a descendant of the region’s Ohlone Indians, said, “I’m ecstatic. I must be dreaming; somebody pinch me.”

Galvan was first recruited to promote Father Serra’s cause by biographer Franciscan Father Noel Moholy (1916-98) in 1978, and he stood side-by-side with the priest in Rome to argue for Father Serra’s canonization before Pope St. John Paul II in 1987. He recalled, “Father Noel said, ‘Please, Holy Father, move forward with Father Serra’s beatification.’ The pope pointed his finger at both of us and replied, ‘You must pray, and you must insist,’ meaning we had to work through the Church bureaucracy.”

Galvan continued, “When I first heard that Serra was going to be canonized, I thought, ‘Father Noel must be dancing in heaven. He must be pulling some strings up there.’”

Msgr. Francis Weber is archivist emeritus for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and works at the Mission San Fernando. He has written multiple books on Father Serra, including “Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra” in 1987. He believes Father Serra is an excellent candidate for canonization: “I’ve always looked on (Father) Serra as a hero, someone our young people can imitate. A saint is someone who practiced virtue in a heroic way, which describes Serra. He’s a worthy successor to others who have been canonized.” Having a former California resident canonized is also a plus, he said, because “sometimes we’re inclined to think of saints as people who live in foreign lands far away from us.”

Missionary at heart

Father Serra was born in Majorca, a Spanish island possession off its east coast. As a boy, he was inspired by the heroic example of Catholic missionaries, including St. Francis Solano (1549-1610), who preached the Gospel in South America. He joined the Franciscan community at age 17 and was known for his piety and learning. Although he would have been a prime candidate for bishop in Majorca, Father Serra longed to be a missionary, and he was sent across the Atlantic to evangelize in New Spain. Msgr. Weber observed, “He was a full professor at Lullian University in Majorca, which was a prominent position at that time. He gave it all up to teach Christianity to aboriginal people.”

First working in Mexico, he crossed into the previously ignored territory of California in 1769, establishing its first mission in San Diego. According to Msgr. Weber, Father Serra had “a remarkable ability to adapt to situations. The Indians, for example, had no word for ‘trinity,’ so he had to adapt his preaching to explain who God is.”

With a missionary’s zeal, Msgr. Weber continued, “(Father) Serra brought Christianity to a people who had never heard of Our Lord, and, when possible, (taught) the Indians about him in their own language.” Quite a challenge for the Spanish missionaries, he noted, as there were 37 Indian languages in California.

Galvan said Father Serra was “a man in love with the Indians and in love with the idea of preaching the Gospel in this land.”

Contrary to the opinions of critics, Father Serra was protective of the Indians, believes Msgr. Weber, and once walked from Carmel mission in Northern California to Mexico City to secure an Indians’ bill of rights from the Spanish viceroy. “The only people in California at the time were the Spanish military and the Indians,” Msgr. Weber said. “He didn’t want the military to associate with the Indians, because he thought they were a bad influence.”

To help better explain the work of the missions to the viceroy, Msgr. Weber added, Father Serra brought an Indian boy with him as a living example of his work. 

Cause for canonization

Father Serra died at the Carmel mission and was buried under its sanctuary floor. The cause for his canonization was first introduced in 1934. Pope John Paul II declared Father Serra “venerable” in 1985.  Three years later, the pontiff accepted a miracle worked through Father Serra’s intercession and beatified him. Another miracle was needed to declare him a saint, but, to the surprise of many, Pope Francis waived the requirement due to the widespread acknowledgement that the priest had lived an exemplary life.

Bob Senkewicz, a history professor at Santa Clara University near San Jose whose new book, “Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary” (Oklahoma University Press, $39.95), is scheduled to be released in March, was among those surprised at the pope’s decision. Father Serra’s cause had “stalled,” he said, “and would have remained stalled had Pope Francis not made the decision he did.”

Senkewicz leads tours of the Santa Clara mission, which is located on the university grounds. He speculated that the Holy Father’s decision was motivated by a desire to call attention to the benevolent way in which Father Serra spread the Gospel. He explained, “In much of North America, the attitude was to push the Indians away, further and further West. (Father) Serra instead sought to integrate the native peoples into the Church.”

He said, “I believe the pope is calling attention to the need to integrate the people on the margins of society into the Church.”

Bob Spidell, who has led tours at historic Mission San Juan Capistrano in Southern California for 15 years, believes California would have been a much different place had Father Serra decided to stay in Majorca. Protestant Englishmen would have likely settled the area, he said, “because it is unlikely someone of (Father) Serra’s determination, capability, intellect and vision would have stepped up to replace him.”

After devoting 37 years of his life to stumping for sainthood for Junipero Serra, Galvan eagerly awaits his canonization ceremony. 

“It is everything for which we’ve hoped and prayed,” he said. “It’s finally been achieved. It was just a matter of waiting for God’s good time as to when the canonization would take place.”

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California. He also served as a docent for historic Mission San Juan Capistrano, the seventh California mission founded by Blessed Junipero Serra.

Father Serra's Missions
From 1769 to 1782, Blessed Junipero Serra founded nine mission churches in California. For more information on the history of these missions, visit their websites.