ROME —  “He was one of the founding fathers of the United States,” Pope Francis said of Junípero Serra during a visit to the Pontifical North American College for Mass on May 2. Father Serra, he said, “brought the Gospel to the New World and, at the same time, defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers.”

The Holy Father will canonize Father Serra — the Spanish missionary who established in the 18th century the first nine of California’s 21 missions — when he visits the United States this September. Blessed Father Serra will be the first Hispanic saint from the Americas, canonized by the first pope from the Americas.

“What made Friar Junípero leave his home and country, his family, university chair and Franciscan community in Mallorca to go to the ends of the earth?” Pope Francis asked during his homily. “Certainly, it was the desire to proclaim the Gospel … that heartfelt impulse which seeks to share with those farthest away the gift of encountering Christ: a gift that he had first received and experienced in all its truth and beauty.”

The Holy Father said his example “excites us and challenges us,” calling us “to get involved, personally, in the mission to the whole continent, which finds its roots in the joy of the Gospel.”  

Pope Francis pointed to Father Serra’s devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, saying: “You cannot separate her from the hearts of the American people. She represents our shared roots in this land.” She “always hears and protects her American children,” he said.

Pope Francis described Serra as “a saintly example of the Church’s universality and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country.” Adding: “In this way may all Americans rediscover their own dignity, and unite themselves ever more closely to Christ and his Church.”

That theme of the Americas as one, under the protection of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was in no small part the focus of John Paul II’s 1999 encyclical Ecclesia in America. During a morning conference focused on Father Serra at the college, Guzmán Carriquiry, secretary of the Pontifical Commission on Latin America, pointed to Blessed Serra as one who can break down barriers between Anglo and Hispanic Americans as well as North and South America.

The backdrop for Pope Francis’s visit to the college was his upcoming apostolic journey to the United States. During two days of events — including a press conference sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a morning conference at the college sponsored by the Commission and supported by the Knights of Columbus — experts, pastors and other Catholic leaders sought to better inform the conversation — and media coverage — about Serra.

For many outside of California, it served as an introduction to one of the holy men of American history.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran an editorial applauding efforts in the California statehouse to remove and replace the statue of Father Serra in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Asked about this at a Vatican press conference announcing the details of the Serra day April 20, Carriquiry warned against “burying into oblivion or ideology the extraordinary contribution of the Hispanic Catholic missionary who has origins, not only in the United States, but in California.”

Addressing Serra critics, he asked: “Do you want to eliminate, moreover, this Hispanic saint from the capitol of Washington, at the precise time when the first Hispanic pope in history proposes to canonize him at Washington’s National Shrine?”

Doing so to “the only Hispanic who is present in the pool of notable persons of the country … at the precise time when the first Hispanic pope in history” canonizes him just miles from the capitol building “would not be an extraordinarily nice welcome from a country that proposes multicultural tolerance,” Carriquiry said.

During his May 2 remarks, Carriquiry accused some of Father Serra’s critics — those who would lump him with “genocidal persecutors”  — of “calumny.” Contrary to this caricature, Father Junípero Serra “poured out his life like a libation” for those he found.

It was not only Vatican officials and prominent Catholic bishops and leaders working to set the record straight about Serra. At the April 30 press conference just across from St. Peter’s Basilica, Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz, authors of “Junípero Serra: California, Indians and the Transformation of a Missionary”; Ruben Mendoza, an archeologist and one of the founding faculty members of California State University, Monterey Bay; and Msgr. Francis Weber, archivist emeritus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, frankly addressed a mix of media present from mainstream secular outlets as well as Catholic ones.

During his remarks, Mendoza, who is of both Yaqui Indian and Mexican American heritage, cautioned that we’re not entitled to our own facts when it comes to Father Serra’s legacy. He said so as one who was raised on some of the leading myths about Father Serra — and whose conversion about the Franciscan was a result of years of research.

Some of those myths include the contention that he was involved in or allowed for forced baptisms. While Father Serra himself allowed for his own and the shortcomings of his brothers, a handbook for missionary friars made clear that any forced baptism would be considered null and void. His was a “taste and see” approach to evangelization, Senkewicz emphasized, pointing to his life and words.

Father Serra was a complex figure, with a sense of humor, a tenured professor who would be transformed by his work with the indigenous people here, Beebe said.

“All say he was a saint and that his actions have always been those of an apostle,” a contemporary said of him in a letter written at the time of his death.

While admitting the man wasn’t perfect — and that saints need not be — he was presented as a hero for a time when the world needs heroes by Msgr. Weber. He pointed to one incident in the life of Serra when, despite having cancer in his leg, he walked to Mexico City to insist on a “bill of rights” for Indians.

“Father Serra should be remembered as one of the great pioneers of human rights in the Americas,” Archbishop José H. Gomez said at the morning dedicated to Father Serra at the Pontifical North American College.

The day of reflection was chaired by Cardinal Mar Ouellet of Canada, president of the Pontifical Council for Latin America, and was emceed by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., where Father Serra will be canonized, and the archbishop of Majorca, where Father Serra was born, among others (including the staff and seminarians of the college), in attendance.

Archbishop Gomez described Serra as a “kind of ‘working class’ missionary — a guy who tried to get things done. His writing and thinking are practical, administrative. He was a problem-solver.”  

He added, “But at the heart of everything, what Father Serra tried to accomplish every day was his conviction that the indigenous peoples of the New World were children of God, created in his image and endowed with God-given rights that must be promoted and defended.”

Calling him a “tireless apostle,” Carriquiry echoed this, saying Father Serra defended the dignity of the Indians, calling them sons and daughters of God, and served them as such.

Real good can come from controversy over Father Serra, Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, said during his remarks. In talking about the life of Serra during his homily, Pope Francis pointed to the other holy men and women who walked the earth in the Americas who are among the cloud of witnesses “who pray before the Lord for their brothers and sisters who are still pilgrims in those lands,” including among them St. Rose of Lima, Mother Cabrini, Miguel Pro, Juan Diego, Kateri Tekakwitha and Martin de Torres.  

He prayed that “a powerful gust of holiness sweep through all the Americas.”

“Let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here and the reason for forgiving him,” Father Serra once said, after the brutal murder of a friend and fellow missionary, the first martyr of California.

That, Archbishop Gomez said, is the man Junípero Serra. That’s our challenge of mercy, a theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate, which he holds out to anyone listening continuously.

The pope’s visit to the United States later this year can be an opportunity for healing and renewal of the Gospel mission that motivated Father Serra and that all Christians are called to. That’s in no small way what the Junípero Serra days in Rome were about — setting us on a journey of holy preparation for the opportunities to come when Pope Francis comes to our home, not just our home in Rome, as he did when he visited the largely American seminarians there.

Getting to know Junípero Serra better as the saint he was could be a great gift for the Church in America — as long as we take the Holy Father’s lead here.

Kathryn Jean Lopez (@kathrynlopez) is senior fellow at the National Review Institute,editor-at-large of National Review, and a founder of Catholic Voices USA.