WASHINGTON — Pope Francis on Wednesday canonized Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan priest who created the first Catholic missions in California in 1769 and is credited with ushering in Catholicism in a region that today has become one of the religion's strongholds in the United States.
A crowd of more than 20,000 people -- nuns, cardinals, bishops, Catholic University of America students and lay people -- gathered Wednesday afternoon at and around the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. as the pontiff celebrated a Mass to usher in the church’s newest saint.
"For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life... we declare and define Blessed Junipero Serra to be a saint and we enroll him among the saints, decreeing that he is to be venerated as such by the whole church," Francis said in Latin before the Mass in Spanish.
The canonization is the first ever on U.S. soil, and is see as part of the pope’s outreach to Hispanic Catholics, who make up nearly 40 percent of America’s nearly 70 million Catholics. Church observers have said the canonization and the U.S. visit as a whole by the pope, a native Argentine who prefers to speak in Spanish, could boost the church’s growing Hispanic membership.
During his homily, which praised the Christian "joy in mission," the pope paraphrased Jesus in telling Catholics to "go out to people of every nation" with the gospel, alluding to Serra's work as a missionary to Native Americans."
Francis called Serra "the embodiment of 'a Church which goes forth,' a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God," and said the now-saint "sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. "
A cross containing a relic of Serra's bone was placed on the altar by a Native American during the service. Another Native American, Vincent Medina, read from Isaiah 52:7-10 in the Chochenyo language of the Chochenyo people of Northern California. And, reflecting the church’s international reach and the Francis's global appeal — as well as the diverse crowd in Washington, D.C. — prayers were said in Korean, American Sign Language, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Igbo and Creole.
Serra’s sainthood was long in the making, beginning with a push in the 1830s. Pope John Paul II beatified the priest in 1988 and the canonization, the final step to sainthood, had been highly anticipated since the the pope himself announced it in January. For Serra, the pope fast-tracked the usual process for saints, which requires the Vatican to certify two miracles attributed to them. Serra has been only credited with one: a nun who prayed to him in 1960 said she was cured of lupus.
The canonization of the Serra, who founded the first nine of what would became 21 famed Catholic missions in California as part the Spanish colonial-era conversion of Native Americans, has become one of the most controversial sainthoods in recent years because of the role activists and historians say Serra played in the death and torture of thousands of people.
Church officials have hailed the priest’s commitment to spreading the faith -- the mission system he established eventually saw the baptism, marriage or burial of an estimated 81,000 Native Americans. At the same time, historians and Native Americans have decried Serra’s role in a system that viewed the tribes of California as unequal to Europeans and led to the death of tens of thousands from murder and disease.
"I believe that Junípero Serra actually created and brought genocide to the California Indian people," said Corrina Gould, co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change and an Ohlone tribal member. "In less than 100 years, our way of life, our language, our foods -- everything -- was destroyed."
Gould, who took part in a protest at Mission Dolores in San Francisco on Wednesday, part of a series of demonstrations at California missions, called the canonization a “horrendous mistake.”
At the 3.6 acre-grounds of Catholic University next to the Basilica, where the Secret Service and Transportation Security Agency had amped up security, scans and body pat-downs ahead of the Mass, there were no protesters but instead a throng of excited and prayerful Catholics of all ages.
“We hear (the) concerns, but in canonizing Junipero Serra the church is not saying he is perfect… the church is saying he is a sinner in need of God’s grace. No one is perfect, no saint is perfect,” said the Rev. Manuel Dorantes, a Chicago-based Vatican spokesman who is tasked with Spanish-language and Latin American church issues and attended the Mass celebration.
“Knowing about the need to evangelize, he decided to leave the comfort of his cathedral in Majorca in Spain and embark to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ in this New World. It’s the main reason why he is being canonized today... Not because he was already walking around with a halo but because he felt the call to get out of himself, as the Holy Father has been calling the church to get of herself and become a missionary church.”
Pope Francis acknowledged during the Mass that the Native American community had suffered "mistreatments and wrongs" that had lasting effects.
He encouraged Catholics to pay attention to Serra's spiritual legacy.
"Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, a saying he lived his life by: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized," the pope said.
"He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting.... Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!"
HuffPost's Julian Brave NoiseCat contributed to this article.