- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican is mounting a campaign to defend an 18th century Franciscan missionary who will be canonized by Pope Francis in the U.S. against protests from Native Americans who have compared his conversion of natives to genocide.

The Vatican is teaming up with the archdiocese of Los Angeles and the main U.S. seminary in Rome to host a daylong celebration May 2 at the North American College to honor the Rev. Junipero Serra, who introduced Christianity to much of California as he marched north with Spanish conquistadors. Francis will celebrate Mass in his honor.

For the church, Serra was a great evangelizer and a model for today’s Hispanics. Many Native Americans, though, say Serra helped wipe out native populations, enslaved converts and spread disease as he brutally imposed Christianity on them. They have staged protests in California and there is a move to remove his statue from the U.S. Capitol.

Vatican officials on Monday defended Serra’s record, saying it shows he worked in defense of Native Americans, often intervening to spare them from the more brutal colonial officials.

The Rev. Vincenzo Criscuolo, a Franciscan at the Vatican’s saint-making office, said it was important to look at Serra as “a man of his time” who, like many others at the time used corporal punishment as an educational tool.

“It is not to be excluded, but it wasn’t ‘genocide,’ it wasn’t a death penalty,” he told reporters.

Guzm├ín Carriquiry, the No. 2 of the pontifical commission for Latin America and a friend of the pope’s, denounced plans to remove Serra’s statue from Congress’ National Statuary Hall, noting that he’s the only person of Spanish descent in the collection.

“They want to remove him from the Capitol precisely when the first Hispanic pope is planning to canonize him. Let’s say that it would not be an extraordinary welcome from a country that claims to be an example of multicultural welcomes,” Carriquiry said.

Francis is due to canonize Serra on Sept. 23 at the National Shrine in Washington at the start of his U.S. trip.

Francis clearly wanted the canonization, even though the Vatican never confirmed a second miracle attributed to Serra’s intercession. Criscuolo revealed that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints hasn’t even officially approved the canonization, but that at this point “it is difficult that the cardinals and bishops might say ‘no’” given that Francis announced he would make him a saint back in January.

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Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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