Pope Francis Canonizes Spanish Missionary Junipero Serra

Sep 23, 2015
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Latino Catholics now have a saint of their own thanks to Pope Francis. Junipero Serra was a missionary who brought Christianity to the native populations in what is now California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: The pope today declared Father Serra a saint with a canonization mass at the Basilica here in Washington. NPR's Tom Gjelten was there, and he joins us now from the Basilica. And Tom, describe the mass for us.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, Kelly, it was very interesting. There were several thousand people gathered outside. The mass was actually held outside the Basilica under a tent. It was a long mass. It was a very formal mass. But there were thousands of people here, and many were Hispanics. It really seemed to be a mass designed to highlight the importance of the Hispanic population to the Church. Much of the mass was conducted in Spanish. I spoke with several people of Hispanic background here who came to hear Francis, and they were - they said they were attracted to him precisely because they seem him as one of them. It was really a mass with a Hispanic tone to it.

MCEVERS: And we heard some of the music. It sounds like it was chosen to underscore that point. Let's play a bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISPANIC MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So Tom, tell us about Junipero Serra. I mean, as you say, the first - he was the first priest who worked in these Hispanic lands. What did the pope say about him?

GJELTEN: Well, the pope - and this is what the church leaders have been saying. The pope described him as a priest who was really dedicated to the native population in California - worked very hard, as you've mentioned, to convert them to Christianity. But he also went out of his way to say that he defended the native populations with whom he worked. So he gave a very positive interpretation of the Junipero story.

MCEVERS: I mean, of course, there has been some controversy about Serra.

GJELTEN: Yes, and it comes from representatives or descendents of those Indians who were converted sometimes quite forcefully, Kelly. But what was interesting is that one of the men who is a descendent of the Mission Indians was actually at this canonization mass today. And he read a piece of scripture from the "Book Of Isaiah" in his Chochenyo language. And here it is.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking in Chochenyo).

GJELTEN: So what's interesting about that, Kelly, is that even though he personally really does not like that idea of Junipero become a saint, he felt so strongly about representing his people - and he's also a devout Catholic - that he agreed to do that scripture reading at this canonization mass despite his opposition to the canonization itself.

MCEVERS: So this was the pope's first full day here in the United States. What would you say his principle message has been?

GJELTEN: His principle message throughout his, you know, various appearances today, I think, has been one of compassion and tolerance and mercy. I'd like to play just one little bit from his homily in Spanish here at the Basilica this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: So, Kelly, he is saying, "Jesus did not provide a short list of who is or who is not worthy of receiving his message, his presence. Instead, he always embraced life as he saw it." That really sums up this kind of non-judgmental tone that Francis has taken in many of his public appearances, and I think that's the theme of what he's been talking about today.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, thanks so much.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.