Just after canonizing the first saint of Sri Lanka, St. Joseph Vaz, Pope Francis announced that he would also be canonizing the first saint of California — Junípero Serra.
“We are grateful to our Holy Father Pope Francis for this gift to California and the Americas,” said Archbishop José H. Gomez in a Jan. 15 statement. “It’s wonderful to think that this new saint once walked the road that is now the Hollywood Freeway and called it El Camino Real, ‘The King’s Highway.’”
Blessed Serra first served as a Franciscan priest and theology professor in Spain in the 1700s. However, as he learned of foreign missions in the Americas, Serra longed for something more.
The young priest joined some fellow Franciscans on mission in Mexico before being appointed to serve in Baja California. Serra was appointed head of the Baja mission and founded eight more missions — the first nine of 21 missions in the state.
Dubbed “the evangelizer of the West in the United States” by Pope Francis, Blessed Serra was most known for his zeal and determination — both physically and spiritually.
Blessed Serra’s missionary motto has been described as “Never turn back.” According to several reports, once the priest landed on Mexico’s shores with his companions, he insisted on walking the more than 200 miles to Mexico City. During the trek, he suffered an infected insect bite on his leg that would afflict him the rest of his life.
This fierce determination also led the man to baptize more than 6,000 people, and confirm another 5,000.
The priest’s reputation as a great evangelizer of his time is on par with several other saints canonized by Pope Francis, including the recent St. Joseph Vaz of Sri Lanka, France’s St. Peter Faber, Brazil’s St. Jose Anchieta, and Canada’s St. Fran√ßois de Laval and Marie of the Incarnation.
According to Gregory Orfalea, author of “Journey to the Sun: Junípero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California,” evangelization is one of several things Blessed Serra and Pope Francis have in common.
“Serra talked about how his faith seemed to have dried up in Mallorca,” Orfalea said in an email interview. “The Native Americans surely resurrected it! So evangelizing for both Pope Francis and Padre Serra was a two-way street of redemption.”
Similarly, both Pope Francis and Blessed Serra experienced success in the academic world, but prefer to be in the streets serving the poor, Orfalea said. They also come from similar backgrounds in religious orders.
“I sometimes think Francis is a Franciscan Jesuit, and Serra a Jesuit Franciscan!” Orfalea said.
Pope Francis has waived the customary requirement of a second miracle in the canonization cause of Blessed Serra. Beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988, Blessed Serra’s first miracle was the inexplicable cure of a dying nun with kidney failure in St. Louis in the 1960s.
Pope Francis announced that the canonization will take place during his visit to the United States in September.
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families on Sept. 22-27, as well as New York City and Washington, D.C., meaning the canonization will not take place in California.