A bit late, Vatican officially approves Serra sainthood

Pope Francis is flanked by rector of the Pontifical North American College James F. Checchio (right) Cardinal Marc Ouellet (far left) and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Joseph Edward Kurtz.

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s saint-making office has officially given its thumbs up for the Rev. 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, 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 this week that the congregation’s cardinals and bishop members had arrived at an “affirmative sentence” concerning Serra’s canonization.

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.