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Vatican Affirms Plan To Make Missionary Junipero Serra A Saint

Pope Francis will canonize Junipero Serra this fall. This weekend, the pope met with rector of the Pontifical North American College James F. Checchio (left), Cardinal Marc Ouellet (right) and Joseph Edward Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Pope Francis will canonize Spanish missionary Junipero Serra during his visit to the U.S. later this year, the Vatican says, affirming a plan that has drawn criticism over Serra's role in the California mission system of the 18th century.

After announcing his decision in January, Francis didn't wait for the traditional approval of a second miracle before moving ahead with canonizing Serra, whom the pope has praised for his zeal.

"I think it has to be seen from the viewpoint of a Latin American," NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome. "A Vatican official told reporters that the canonization will give the United States its first Hispanic saint, and it will help counter what he called an 'Anglo-centric' view of history."

Sylvia adds, "But Native Americans accuse Serra of having helped wipe out their populations by spreading diseases, and they say he brutally imposed conversion."

As Jasmine Garsd reported for the Two-Way when the canonization plan was first announced in January:

"Serra, a Franciscan friar, founded the Mission of San Diego in 1769. As the Spanish army built fortresses nearby, he moved north, creating eight other missions all the way up to the San Francisco Bay.

"As the Spaniards pushed through California, so did diseases, which wiped out large numbers of the native population. Tribes were pushed to convert and to live in the missions, where they were taught to farm. Those who disobeyed were severely punished. It was not unheard of for someone to be whipped to death."

Sylvia reports, "with reference to charges that Serra used corporal punishment on Native Americans, an official of the saint-making office told reporters last month, 'It's not to be excluded, but it wasn't genocide.' "

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez recently defended Serra against his critics, suggesting that Serra's writings and other records "prove his efforts to defend the native peoples, particularly against the cruelty of the Spanish soldiers and governors," the Catholic News Service reports.

Serra died in 1784. Francis is scheduled to canonize him on Sept. 23 during the pope's visit to Washington, D.C., the Vatican says.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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