Ecclesial historians are notorious for providing answers to unasked questions. An example would be the recent canonization of Fray Junípero Serra.

After 81 years of meticulous study, research and testimony, many observers have asked what accounted for the final decision and why now?

Here’s what we know.  Just before one of his recent journeys, Pope Francis requested the Postulator General of the Causes for Saints to deliver Father Serra’s file to his office. No reason was given. Then, a few days later, while en route to Manila, the Holy Father abruptly announced that he would canonize the Mallorcan friar on his visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.

Presumptuously, this writer was tempted to conclude that his writings may have contributed to the game plan. After all, the three former cardinals of California were known to have presented Weber imprints to the popes over the years. And most recently, there is a photograph of Archbishop Jose H. Gómez presenting a Spanish edition of “The California Missions” to Pope Francis at the Vatican. 

Realistically, however, an earlier historian, and a Jesuit at that, clearly deserves the credit. The late Father Ernest Burrus had written extensively on the religious history of Peninsular California. If anyone deserves credit, it would be he.

The Jesuit scholar spelled out in great detail how the Society of Jesus founded 17 missions in Baja California from 1697 to 1767, when they were exiled from the Spanish realm by King Charles III.

And the pope could hardly have overlooked the fact that the Jesuits were replaced by Franciscans from the Apostolic College of San Fernando in Mexico City.  Their superior at that time was a humble friar from Petra de Mallorca, Junípero Serra.

The one-time archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, is known to be a history buff. Surely his knowledge about the activities of the Society of Jesus and their ministry in Peninsular California were known and discussed in the Jesuit seminaries.

There’s yet another factor. While responding to a recent questioner, the Holy Father hinted that his pontificate would not be a long one. At 79, the pontiff probably had few priorities more compelling than that of intensifying the Church’s international missionary outreach.

He was looking for someone to serve as the role model for evangelization in the 21st century.  And Fray Junípero Serra was his choice!

Since his initial announcement, Pope Francis has referred to Father Serra several times as a model practitioner of modern day evangelization.  Father Serra was and remains a role model for contemporary Catholic outreach.

Down through the centuries missionaries in all parts of the world have accomplished and done many things, none more important than implementing the dual mandate given by the Lord shortly before His ascension: “Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Fray Junípero Serra is an outstanding example of evangelization in the 21st century!  That’s the answer to the “why now” observers.


This article was originally published on Aug. 1, 2016.