Headline: America’s next saint, Junípero Serra

Most Rev. José H. Gomez is archbishop of Los Angeles. He served as auxiliary bishop of Denver 2001-2005.

America’s next saint will be the man who evangelized California and is associated with the beginnings of Los Angeles.

Pope Francis announced that he intends to canonize Blessed Junípero Serra, O.F.M., when he comes to the United States next September. This is great news, and I am grateful to our Holy Father for this gift to California and the Americas. I wish the pope was coming to Los Angeles, which Padre Serra originally called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Porciuncula (“The Town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula”). But the pope told reporters that he will likely celebrate the canonization at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., because this will be a “national event.”

Indeed, Padre Serra’s canonization will be a beautiful day in the life of our nation. It will be a day to remember that our state and our country—and all of the nations of the Americas—are born from the Christian mission and built on Christian foundations. It will also be a time to reflect on the close spiritual ties that bind Mexico, the Hispanic people and the United States.

When Padre Serra came from Spain to Mexico in December 1749, he walked nearly 300 miles to consecrate his mission at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe before coming to California. His story reminds us that in God’s plan of salvation, the Gospel was first preached in this country by Spanish missionaries from Mexico, under the sign of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the bright star of America’s first evangelization.

But the Pope’s announcement has also revived difficult and bitter memories about the treatment of Native Americans during the colonial and missionary period of California’s history. The Church has acknowledged and asked pardon for the cruelty and abuses of colonial leaders and even some missionaries. The Church has also recognized with deep regret that the colonial project disturbed and, in some cases, destroyed traditional ways of life. St. John Paul II made these points during his 1987 visit to California and the American Southwest, and again during the examination of conscience that was part of the Church’s commemoration of the millennial year 2000.

We cannot judge 18th century attitudes and behavior by 21st century standards. But the demands of Gospel love are the same in every age. And it is sad but true, as John Paul said, that in bringing the Gospel to the Americas “not all the members of the Church lived up to their Christian responsibilities.”

Some Christians, in fact, “instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal.” But this was not the case with Padre Serra. Even critical historians admit that he and his fellow missionaries were protectors and defenders of the native peoples against colonial exploitation and violence.

Padre Serra knew the writings and experience of the Dominican missionary, Bartolomé de Las Casas, in Central America. Like Las Casas, Padre Serra was bold and articulate in fighting against the civil authorities to defend the humanity and rights of indigenous peoples.

In my own study and reflection, I have come to the conclusion that Padre Serra should be remembered alongside Las Casas—as one of the pioneers of human rights and human development in the Americas. His 1773 memorandum (or Representación) to the colonial Viceroy in Mexico City is probably the first “bill of rights” published in North America. In this document, he advanced detailed practical recommendations for improving the spiritual and material wellbeing of California’s indigenous people. He criticized their cruel mistreatment at the hands of the colonial military commander and he urged that the commander be removed from office. To prevent future abuses, Padre Serra demanded that the missionaries be restored to full authority over “the training, governance, punishment and upbringing of the baptized Indians and those who will be baptized.” Such a policy, he concluded, was “in uniformity with the law of nature.”

The historical record confirms what Pope Francis believes: that Blessed Junípero Serra was a man of heroic virtue and holiness who had only one burning ambition—to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the peoples of the New World. Whatever human faults he may have had and whatever mistakes he may have made, there is no questioning that he lived a life of sacrifice and self-denial. And he died in California, having given his life out of love for the Gospel and the people he came to serve.

The canonization of Padre Serra will be an important sign in this new era of globalization and cultural encounter. In our continental mission of the new evangelization, we have much to learn from Padre Serra and the first missionaries to the Americas.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash