By Mary Rezac
WASHINGTON D.C.—Pope Francis made history Sept. 23 by performing the first-ever Canonization on U.S. soil, of St. Junipero Serra.
St. Serra, a Franciscan missionary from Spain, founded nine Catholic missions in California, most of which would go on to become the centers of major cities in the state. The House of Formation for Seminarians in the Diocese of San Bernardino is named after Serra along with a parish in the High Desert city of Phelan.
The trail-blazing life of this priest, Pope Francis said in his homily at the Mass of Canonization, celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., should be a call to all Christians to never grow complacent, and to always go out to proclaim the Gospel with joy.
“Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life,” Pope Francis reflected. “He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters.”
Bishop Gerald Barnes and Auxiliary Bishop Rutilio del Riego attended the Canonization Mass, along with many of the pilgrim Catholics from the Diocese of San Bernardino who had traveled east for the World Meeting of Families.
Among them was Father Earl Henley, M.S.C., Chaplain to the Native American Tribes of the Diocese of San Bernardino and Deacons Manny Robles and Andrew Orosco, who are also involved in ministry to Native Americans in the Diocese.
Fr. Henley said he was about “two football fields” away from Pope Francis but enjoyed the festive atmosphere of the day and ideal weather conditions.
“You’re walking with the laity and their enthusiasm for what’s happening,” he said.
Father Joachim Lechukwu, pastor of the Phelan parish that bears Serra’s name, also made the trip east for the Canonization. He was proud to be among the many priests and bishops to concelebrate the Mass. In fact, he says he waited nearly nine hours from his morning vesting to the time that the Mass began.
“Now we need to be on our way to living our lives as a community named after a saint,” Fr. Lechukwu said of what St. Serra’s canonization means to his parish.
Saint Junipero Serra was born in 1713 on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean. He left his position as a university professor to become a missionary to the New World, helping to convert to Christianity many of the indigenous community, and teaching them new technologies.
He died in 1784 at Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Carmelo in what is now the state of California. St. John Paul II beatified Father Serra in 1988.
Junipero Serra is a central figure in California history and is studied as part of many fourth grade history curricula, including all Catholic schools. On the day of the Canonization, Catholic school students watched the Mass in their classrooms or gathered together as a student body to witness the historic moment.
“He did amazing things helping Native Americans learn about God,” observed Tyler Suttles, a fifth grader at Resurrection Academy in Fontana, as she watched the Canonization Mass.
Said her classmate, Angela Del Mundo, “He’s the one who started religious things in California.”
In media interviews conducted on his plane ride back to Rome, Pope Francis indicated that the Canonization of St. Junipero Serra was perhaps the high point of his visit to the U.S.
“He celebrated the life of someone who is a missionary,” said Bishop del Riego, when asked why the Canonization was so special to the Holy Father, “and that is the direction he wants the Church to go.”
Although some have raised concerns about St. Junipero Serra’s work with Native Americans, Pope Francis joined many others who insist that Serra worked tirelessly to protect the rights and dignity of the people whom he served.
“Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people,” Pope Francis said.
Fr. Henley noted that the first reading of the Mass was offered in a Native American language as well as one of the prayers of the faithful. “That was pretty neat,” he said.
In response to opposition to Serra’s Canonization that had been expressed by some Native American Catholics in the Diocese, Fr. Henley has been working this year with small groups using Native American healing rituals.
“We have to continue this work of healing, to have these open forums” he said. “To do this life healing journey.”
—Catholic News Agency/EWTN News