When Catholics across the country, and the world, watched Pope Francis canonize St. Junípero Serra on American soil Sept. 23, the Franciscan community and lay faithful of the Diocese of Phoenix had their own celebration at St. Mary’s Basilica.
The local Mass, celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo N. Nevares, featured what might be expected at a canonization Mass, including a large image of the saint, painted by St. Mary’s parishioner Renee Bau, and a procession and veneration of a relic of St. Serra. Concelebrating the Mass were priests from different religious orders within the Franciscan tradition, bringing together the “Franciscan family.”
“What a joy to be gathered to celebrate our newest saint, St. Junípero Serra!” said Bishop Nevares. “We congratulate our brother Francisan Friars for another of a long list of Franciscans who’ve been raised to the altars of sanctity.”
St. Mary’s rector Fr. Michael Weldon, OFM, delivered the homily that shared details from St. Serra’s life and drew from it for inspiration.
“The word that best describes Junípero is zeal. It was a spirit that came from his deep prayer and dauntless will,” said Fr. Weldon in his homily. “‘Siempre adelante, nunca atras (always forward, never back),’ was his motto written to comfort his parents after he left Mallorca, never to see them again in 1749.”
Newlyweds Russell and Daisy Henning attended the Mass after being inspired by the saint when they took an unexpected detour to visit his gravesite while visiting Monterrey.
“Learning about him being a missionary to the poor made us want to learn more about him,” said Daisy. “I just found hope in the Serra effect. … it’s a positive message to families to look to the back, but move forward.”
Fr. Zygmunt Mazanowski, who is a member of a new Franciscan community being formed to serve the Native American missions in the diocese, was among the different breed of Franciscan priests concelebrating. His community serves St. John the Baptist Parish in Laveen.
“We came [to the diocese] because we felt called to minister to the Native Americans, and we received a lot of inspiration from Junípero Serra,” said Fr. Mazanowski, “especially his missionary zeal and witness to leave everything for the sake of the Gospel.”
In his homily, Fr. Weldon said that St. Serra’s canonization allows us to rethink “mission.” While St. Serra has received criticism for abuses by the mission system that he established, Fr. Weldon quoted another priest, saying the question was not about canonizing the system, but about the individual — “what kind of life did he lead?”
“That is our question, too. What kind of life will we lead? What kind of Church will we build now?” Fr. Weldon asked.
A canonization means three things, said Fr. Wedon: that the soul is in heaven, his name can be added to the Litany of Saints, and his life is available for public veneration.
“He is an icon. We can say that about Fray Junípero,” Fr. Weldon added. “His life leads us to God. The ‘Serra Effect’ is a call to dialogue about mission. … That is the goal of every follower of Jesus — heaven, name entered on the litany of saints and lead others to God. We have a West Coast intercessor to assist us in that ‘el camino real’ — that very royal journey.”