VATICAN CITY - The Vatican's saint-making office has officially given its thumbs up for the Reverand Junipero Serra to be declared a saint – four months after Pope Francis announced he would canonize the controversial 18th-century missionary during his upcoming visit to the United States.
Serra is hailed by the Catholic Church as a great evangelizer who established 21 missions across California. Many Native Americans, though, accuse him of forced conversions, enslaving converts and helping wipe out indigenous populations as part of the European colonization machine in the Americas.
The unusual process that Serra's sainthood case has taken indicates that Francis personally willed the canonization and that the normal vetting process by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which ended with the Vatican announcement Wednesday, was something of a formality.
In fact, the congregation didn't even approve a second miracle attributed to Serra's intervention – the normal way someone is canonized. Rather, Serra joins several new saints simply declared such by Francis in an equivalent process.
The Vatican said Wednesday that the congregation's cardinals and bishop members had arrived at an "affirmative sentence" concerning Serra's canonization and that Francis had approved their decision. Last month, a congregation official acknowledged that it would have been difficult for the members to have done otherwise given the canonization ceremony was already scheduled.
In another indication of Francis' personal involvement in the case, he celebrated a Mass last weekend in Serra's honor at the main U.S. seminary in Rome – highly unusual given that he will also celebrate the canonization Mass on Sept. 23, his first day in Washington.
The service came at the end of two days of academic conferences organized by the Vatican and the archdiocese of Los Angeles to present Serra more positively as a protector of Native Americans and to correct what church officials say is a gross mischaracterization of his work by indigenous critics.