The Vatican's saint-making office has officially given a 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. The Vatican said today that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints' cardinals and bishop members had arrived at an "affirmative sentence" concerning Serra's canonization and that Francis had approved their decision. 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.
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 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. In another indication of Francis' personal involvement, he celebrated a Mass last weekend in Serra's honor at the main US seminary in Rome—highly unusual given that he will also celebrate the canonization Mass on Sept. 23, his first day in Washington. (Read more Vatican stories.)