The canonization of St. Junipero Serra in historical perspective

By Dwight G. Duncan
Anchor Columnist

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Pope Francis formally declared Junipero Serra to be a saint on September 23 at Washington, D.C.’s basilica, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the first pope to be called Francis chalked up at least three other significant firsts for the Catholic Church in the United States: It was the first time a saint was canonized in this country, the first time a Hispanic-American was canonized for the United States, and the first time Pope Francis ever celebrated Mass here.

Ever since Pope Alexander III in 1170 decreed that no one could be venerated as a saint in the Catholic Church without the approval of the pope, papal canonization has been a prerequisite to the public recognition of someone’s holiness. Usually, canonizations occur in Rome, for obvious reasons. And, indeed, all the previous canonizations of Americans have taken place in Rome, starting with St. Isaac Jogues and his companions in 1930, and most recently in 2012, SS. Kateri Tekakwitha , a native American from what became New York, and Marianne Cope, a nun who worked selflessly in Molokai ministering to lepers for decades after St. Damien died. 

Vatican II stressed that everyone is called to holiness, no matter who you are or where you’re from. About that time, 50 years ago, the popes began to travel in journeys around the world, notably Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II and their successors. Thus the possibility arose of canonizations occurring in places other than St. Peter’s, bringing the possibility of canonization home to local audiences. St. Junipero’s was the first to occur in the United States.

A logical choice, Junipero Serra was the Father and Apostle of California. For 15 years between 1769 and 1784, the Franciscan friar worked tirelessly to establish a string of missions from San Diego to San Francisco, instructing and baptizing thousands of Native Americans. His statue is in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall representing the state of California, as St. Damien’s represents Hawaii. He lived, died, and is buried at Mission San Carlos in Carmel that he founded.  

The second first is that St. Junipero is the first Hispanic-American to be canonized from here. Of the 13 “American” saints that have been canonized (and by American I mean either a U.S. citizen or someone born, living or working in the United States or what would become part of the United States), five were born French (the three Jesuits martyred in New York plus SS. Rose Philippine Duchesne and Theodore Guerin); three were American-born (SS. Kateri Tekakwitha, Elizabeth Anne Seton and Katharine Drexel); two were German- or Austrian-born (SS. John Neumann and Marianne Cope); one Italian (St. Frances Xavier Cabrini); one Belgian (St. Damien de Veuster); and now one Spanish-born, St. Junipero Serra. It does seem entirely appropriate that our first Hispanic American pope should canonize our first U.S. Hispanic American saint.  And that the Mass of Canonization should be celebrated principally in Spanish.

Not only does this highlight the true ethnic and cultural diversity of the Catholic Church and the universal call to holiness, but it also fills a historic gap. For it was the Spanish who first brought the Gospel to the New World, starting with the Spanish expedition led by Christopher Columbus. There were Spanish missions in Florida, for example, well before the first English-speaking Catholics landed in Maryland in 1634. And while the heroic evangelization of America by French Jesuits was honored by the official recognition of their martyrdom and raising their Native American convert Kateri Tekakwitha to the altars, their mission’s center of gravity was actually Canada, where French is still the official language of Quebec. Father Junipero’s canonization looks south to Mexico, where he spent his 15 years as a missionary prior to coming to  what is now California. Originally from the beautiful island of Mallorca, Spain, he left a prestigious university professorship to embrace a life of hardship on the frontier as a missionary to the Native Americans.  He had a great devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In deciding to canonize him, Pope Francis dispensed with the usual requirement of an additional miracle after beatification (St. John Paul II beatified Junipero Serra in 1988, after formally recognizing his heroic virtue and a miracle worked through his intercession). He similarly dispensed with the additional miracle in canonizing Pope John XXXIII last year. In Junipero’s case, I think Pope Francis chose to do this because St. Junipero exemplifies the selfless going out to the peripheries in order to spread the Gospel that Pope Francis always talks about. 

St. Junipero, for example, walked thousands of miles with a badly injured and infected leg, in the service of souls. As Pope Francis said in his homily, “He was the embodiment of a Church which goes forth, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.” 

As a canon lawyer, I think it significant that this was not what is called an equivalent canonization, which Pope Francis has indeed performed in the past, most notably in the case of St. Peter Faber, one of the first Jesuits. In the early 17th century, Pope Urban VIII decreed that public veneration of someone as a saint without Church approval would have the effect of disqualifying them from eventual beatification and canonization. This decree has been in effect ever since then, and so in order to qualify for equivalent canonization, where long-standing veneration as a saint is recognized as equivalent to canonization, one has to have died and received such veneration prior to the time of Urban VIII’s decree. But, of course, Pope Francis is not a lawyer; he’s a pastor, and so he basically does what he thinks best — and being a holy guy himself, that is usually a good thing. Canonization is generally considered an infallible act of the pope.

Hispanic Americans are an increasing portion of the Catholic Church in this country, and it is about time that one of their own was formally recognized as a saint. Also, up until now, the west coast has not been represented among our saints: all have lived and worked either in the east coast or the midwest or in Hawaii. Now the left coast is represented, too. California is not just the home of Hollywood and various fruits and nuts, it’s also the home of a saint. Indeed, it was founded by a saint. 

While a strong case could be made, for that reason, that the canonization should have taken place in California rather than in Washington, there is nonetheless something very appropriate about having it in our nation’s capital. That is where the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is headquartered, and also where the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Catholic University of America are located. Canonization there represents a strong statement to the whole Church in the United States, and not just to California or Hispanic America. In California everyone knows about Junipero Serra, who is included in the public school curriculum. Not so in the rest of the country. 

There is also now greater gender balance among American saints, though the women still outnumber the men, 7-6. Immigrants outnumber natives 10-3, and there is still not an American-born male among our saints (I’m hoping for Bishop Fulton Sheen or Capuchin Solanus Casey). There is no question that the history of the Catholic Church in this country has been one of ethnic and linguistic diversity. The Catholic hierarchy is no longer an Irish-dominated institution in this country. Witness Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who was himself born in Mexico. 

The third first is that this was Pope Francis’ first Mass celebrated in the United States — ever. He had never before visited this country, being somewhat allergic to airport bishops. The canonization was inserted into the Sacrifice of the Mass, the representation of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary for the redemption of humanity. People become saints by virtue of Christ’s love for them and their successful attempt, with His grace, to imitate Him. Canonization is the Church’s recognition that someone has successfully followed Christ to Heaven. Now that we have had our first American canonization, may there be many more!

One final thought: often, media focus on St. Junipero Serra has centered on the criticism that some Native Americans make of the entire Spanish colonization effort, which was sometimes violent and cruel. Since St. Junipero and his missions were a part of that colonial saga, there is a kind of broad-brush guilt by association. I think that careful focus on Native Americans and their treatment is fair, and something that the newly-minted saint would probably look favorably upon. Much of his story was concerned with fighting the excesses of the Spanish military and protecting the Native Americans from rape and murder and other forms of exploitation. Even saints can make mistakes, of course, and St. Junipero authorized the practice of corporal punishment. Native American activists could not devise a better platform than this canonization to be heard on their grievances. 

But in general, the popular historical narrative in the United States has not been Hispanic versus Indian. It has been Anglo versus everyone else. In that regard, I think, the Spanish approach of conversion and intermarriage with the Natives compares favorably with the dominant American narrative of exiling and exterminating Native Americans. In California, for instance, it was the Gold Rush and statehood that entailed the virtual end of Native American culture, rather than the Spanish missions. In that regard, the canonization of Junipero Serra represents a significant blow to the Black Legend of Spanish Catholicism. 

St. Junipero, pray for us!

Anchor columnist Dwight Duncan is a professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in civil and canon law.

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