On Wednesday, September 23, Pope Francis visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the campus of The Catholic University of America to celebrate the canonization Mass of St. Junípero Serra. The visit to Catholic University makes Pope Francis the third pope, after Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, to visit the university. It is the fifth time a pope has come to an American university campus.
Monsignor Walter Rossi, rector of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, told Catholic World Report that “It was truly a great honor to welcome Pope Francis to Mary’s Shrine and not only show him the beauty of this magnificent basilica, but, more importantly, for him to see the beauty and vibrancy of the faith of the Catholic faithful, religious, priests, novices and seminarians who were gathered in such great numbers to pray with him.”
Despite tremendous crowds, estimated at nearly 25,000, events went smoothly. Msgr. Rossi observed that “We could not have asked for a better day all the way around. The weather was perfect, the Mass was uplifting and the Holy Father’s homily was a challenge to all to ‘go forth’ like the first disciples and the newly canonized Saint Junípero Serra, to proclaim the Gospel, not only by our words, but, above all by our deeds.”
Catholic University had been organizing the visit since its public announcement in April, and the preparations marked campus for weeks beforehand. Barriers for traffic control rose overnight, transforming fields and pathways. In the days leading up to the Mass, observant students spotted secret service personnel scanning campus for safety issues.
The tight security on campus led to many inconveniences, including a one-day lockdown on non-residential buildings, compounded by Wi-Fi deprivation. Nevertheless, most students were enthusiastic about the papal visit. Many participated in the “Walk with Francis” campaign. Tee-shirts, posters, and foot-shaped cut-outs in the student center broadcasted support. The evening before the canonization some students prepared by attending a Mass in Caldwell Chapel, concluding with veneration of the relic of Junípero Serra.
Faculty members also recognized the significance of the papal visit. Speaking to Catholic World Report, Dr. John McCarthy, Dean of the School of Philosophy, called it “a splendid event and a privilege for the University,” adding that “It was moving to be present for the canonization of St. Junípero Serra—and a provocation to every member of our faculty that he should have been for one stage of his life a professor of philosophy.”
Regarding the event’s effects, Dr. McCarthy observed that “Nobody knows, nobody can say what will come of this visit, but I am confident that it will be inscribed in the memories of many students, and will bear fruit in their lives for years to come.”
Isabella Bogdanos, a sophomore at CUA, is confident that she will remember the occasion. Having served as a volunteer at the papal Mass, Bogdanos says that she is “still trying to process the magnitude of it all.
“Reading what Pope Francis says in the papers, or even seeing Pope Francis on TV does not do him justice. He is a man of all the people, and I think that finally became clear to me when I saw him speak live. Because when he speaks—his hand gestures, his deliverance, his shifting tones of voice—these are the things that show his passion and his love for everyone. He is not tele-prompted; he is a humbling man who—I believe—speaks from the heart. And that to me in anyone (in a friend, in a leader, in a Pope, or in a politician) is rare. Just being a part of this, even if it was only for a day, will forever be etched in my heart, and in the hearts of all who attended.”
Andrew Calis, an English graduate student, was also moved by the pope’s demeanor. “He didn’t act like a celebrity—although some members of the audience certainly treated him like one. And he genuinely smiled in his unrecorded conversations with Cardinal Wuerl. I definitely didn’t expect to be moved by the sight of the Popemobile, but I was. Despite the chaos and the crowds and the noise and the phones, when he blessed the crowd or even waved, it felt personal, like he actually saw me. I found myself waving back half-unaware.”
Calis added that he thinks the papal visit “will spark good conversations on campus about openly evangelizing. Since it’s a Catholic campus, evangelizing isn’t always on the minds of the students—at least in my case—but his call to go forward and spread the good news will hopefully apply not only on our campus but in our community as well.”
Phillip Henderson, a fellow English graduate student, was struck by Pope Francis’s focus on Junípero Serra’s joyful example. “The word [the pope] repeated again and again was ‘alegria’; the Christian is filled with joy by virtue of the news which he has received in the Gospel, and he desires to share that joy with the whole world.”
Graduate student Mary Cuff is a veteran of nine previous papal Masses, but says that this one stood out. Calling the Pope’s presence on campus “both surreal and very natural,” she observed that at all the other papal events, she went to the pope. For this event, “he was coming to me … driving past buildings that I have had classes in, along sidewalks I walk on every day, and having Mass on steps that I have sat on and thought about life. It was strange to hop on the metro and just go home afterwards.”
Having attended his canonization in her “scholastic backyard,” Cuff says that “Junípero Serra is always going to be a very special saint for me now, because I feel like he is now even more associated with ‘home’ in ways that just being an American saint doesn’t quite accomplish. It was also really incredible to have the Pope on campus for that same reason—I am used to seeing him surrounded by ancient buildings which shout their participation in the long history of our church. It was a reminder that, as new as we are here in America, we are just as much part of that continuity.”
Like her fellow students, Cuff noticed the pope’s emphasis on the need for missionary spirit. “I think a lot of us [Americans], especially those of us who go to conservative Catholic schools and who grew up in conservative Catholic communities, often forget that … there’s a lot of darkness outside that has actually never had the fullness of the truth. And like [Fr. Serra] and his followers, we have to go out and meet that outside world and invite them into the light and warmth which someone else gave to us.”
Fr. Junípero Serra, an 18th century Franciscan who evangelized California, has been praised and criticized for his founding of nine Spanish missions. Those arguing that Serra “imposed” his religious views on Native Americans are countered by others who point out that it was Native Americans themselves who first venerated Fr. Serra shortly after his death.
At the canonization Mass, the decision to read Isaias and parts of the prayers of the faithful in Native American languages signaled awareness of the debate.
But Pope Francis’s homily focused unapologetically on Fr. Serra’s missionary spirit, and the joy of the preaching of the Gospel, a joy that it is “known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away,” as St. Junípero Serra did.
According to Pope Francis, Serra “was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth’, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God. … 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. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”
Closing with Fr. Serra’s motto, “siempre adelante!” (always forward), Pope Francis challenged those listening to imitate the new saint, who “kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. … Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”
The emphasis on evangelization, like Pope Francis’s unexpected visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, is a reminder that this pope has defied easy political categorization.
Benjamin Block, a graduate student in the School of Philosophy, noted the criticisms of Fr. Serra, citing in response the collect for the new saint’s feast: “Grant by his intercession that we may so join our hearts to you in love, as to carry always and everywhere before all people the image of your Only Begotten Son.”
Block suggests that this idea of carrying the image of Jesus, this call to evangelize, is “what Pope Francis wants us to take away from his visit and the canonization Mass: a renewed sense of the joy of the Gospel and of that duty of spreading that message to all people, no matter how unpopular that message may be.
“Pope Francis reminded us in his homily that we ourselves were once lost and without hope, and yet Jesus did not restrain his Love, but reached out to save us. And so we too must do the same for all people, the little no less than the great—and in sharing the Good News, we will deepen its joy in ourselves.”
This deepening joy was made palpable during the final moments of the Mass. As the pope, priests, and prelates exited, the choir’s tones of “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” were intermittently challenged from various sides by enthusiastic cheering which—depending upon one’s position in the crowd—threatened to drown the even that powerful earthly imitation of the angels’ “loud celestial hymn.”
“What I think is going on is – he’s laying out his beliefs before us, and giving us his reasons for his beliefs. And what he wants is for us to also lay out our own beliefs, and our own reasons, in turn. And then – dialog can begin,” said Dr. Andrew Abela, Provost of CUA, about the message and visit of the Holy Father. “In our University we are trying to live this way – to reach out and to be in dialog with those of all faiths, or of none, so that we, like Francis, can share our beliefs and our reasons for them, and we would like you to share yours.”