Pope Francis made history Wednesday 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 trail-blazing life of this priest, Pope Francis said in his homily at the Sept. 23 Mass of Canonization 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.
“He was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth’, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God,” the Pope said.
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.
The priest’s mission work often took place despite a painful ulcerated leg which is said to have been caused either by cancer or a spider bite soon after his arrival in Mexico. 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.
“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.”
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.
The saint also had a motto which inspired his life and work: “Keep moving forward!”
“Something deep within us invites us to rejoice and tells us not to settle for placebos which simply keep us comfortable,” the Holy Father said, reflecting on the words of St. Paul.
“At the same time, though, we all know the struggles of everyday life. So much seems to stand in the way of this invitation to rejoice.”
“Jesus gives the answer. He said to his disciples then and he says it to us now: Go forth! Proclaim! The joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away.”
St. Junipero Serra was the kind of person who knew this and lived it on a daily basis, Pope Francis said. He was constantly being shaken out of complacency by embracing the joy of proclaiming the Gospel to all people.
“For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting,” he said.
“He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”