WASHINGTON: Pope Francis on Wednesday elevated to sainthood a Franciscan friar who brought Christianity to California but left a controversial legacy among Native Americans whose culture was brutally suppressed in the process.
Celebrating his first mass on US soil, Francis canonized Junipero Serra before a sea of white-robed clergy gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Francis praised the 18th-century missionary as “the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God,” according to a translation of his homily released by the Vatican.
In 1769, the Spanish-born theologian founded in San Diego the first of a network of missions that would stretch all the way to San Francisco, giving the Roman Catholic Church a firm foothold in what was then called New Spain.
Serra died in 1784 at the age of 70 at Carmel, the headquarters of his Alta California missions, where he remains interred under the chapel floor.
He was beatified — the first step towards sainthood — by Pope John Paul II in September 1988.
The Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez has called his canonization a “gift to California and the Americas.”
But the missionary is seen by some Native Americans as having contributed to the death of tens of thousands of their forebears, through illness, brutality or malnutrition.
“We strongly oppose naming the murderer of our people and culture a saint,” Toypurina Carac, spokesman for the Kizh Gabrieleno nation in greater Los Angeles, told Agence France-Presse when the pope’s intention was first announced.
Pope John Paul II extended a historic apology to Native Americans in 1992 for the harm inflicted upon them by the Catholic Church, and Francis himself has made strong moves towards reconciliation.
While in Bolivia in July the Argentine pope also sought forgiveness for the “many, very serious crimes committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.”
During Wednesday’s mass the pope used his historic first visit to the United States to acknowledge once more the damage done to indigenous Americans in centuries past.
But he presented Serra as a figure who shielded them from harm.
“Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” the pope said. “Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us.”
More than 10,000 people signed an online petition urging Francis not to canonize Serra.
The Church’s 18th-century outposts along what is today the US West Coast have been described as “death camps” where, according to the author Elias Castillo, 62,000 Indians perished out of a native population of 300,000.