Pope Francis urged Catholics not to let their hearts grow “numb” but to take joy from a life of sharing the Gospel, making his exhortation at a Wednesday canonization Mass that was the first declaration of a saint on U.S. soil and his personal first in this country.
In his homily at a Mass to declare Junipero Serra, an 18th-century missionary, as a saint, Francis encouraged his audience not to be put off by a world where people’s faces reflect “pain, hunger, sickness and sin,” but instead follow the examples of Jesus and the new saint.
What can people do, he asked, when the struggles of everyday life give rise to apathy or settling “for placebos which simply keep us comfortable,” Francis said. “Jesus gives the answer. He said to his disciples then and he says it to us now: Go forth! Proclaim!”
The Argentine-born pope, speaking throughout in his native Spanish, said: “The joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away.”
Francis is known for eschewing the trappings of office — whether refusing to stay in the papal apartment in Vatican City upon becoming pope or using a small Fiat 500 for much of his travel around Washington. His homily Wednesday cited the example of Jesus as indicating this is expected of others.
“Far from expecting a pretty life, smartly dressed and neatly groomed, [Jesus] embraced life as he found it. It made no difference whether it was dirty, unkempt, broken,” he said.
The pope closed his homily by lifting up Serra as “one of those witnesses who testified to the joy of the Gospel” in a difficult land.
“He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters,” Francis said.
“Father Serra had a motto that 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. “Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”
The Mass was fraught with Franciscan themes and symbolism. The pope took his regnant name from St. Francis of Assisi, Serra was a member of the Franciscan order of monks, and the audience of some 25,000 people was invited to sing “All Creatures of Our God and King,” a hymn that uses the words of St. Francis, as hundreds of Catholic clergy and hierarchy filed in to take their seats.
The Spanish-born Serra walked thousands of miles some 300 years ago to spread Christianity in California, where he died in 1784 at age 70. He became the first saint to be declared in the U.S. All other American saints — such as the New Yorker Elizabeth Ann Seaton and the Italian Frances Xavier Cabrini — were canonized in Europe.
“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 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The pope also defended Serra, who founded nine California missions around which grew several of the state’s major cities such as San Francisco, against charges brought by American Indian activists that he oversaw conquest and genocide.
He confirmed some 5,300 people, including many American Indians, to the Catholic faith and taught them techniques in farming and building construction.
Serra also “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people,” Francis said.
Serra was especially devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s national patron, and offered the success of his mission work to her intercession.
Before the Mass, Francis entered the basilica, America’s largest church, to majestic organ tones and cheers of “Viva Papa” and greeted the next generation of Catholic leaders.
The pontiff smiled and waved to the congregation of some 3,500 seminarians, novices and religious elders, but did not offer a message to them.
Before the pontiff’s arrival, seminarian Glen Dmytryszyn, 24, from St. John’s Seminary in Boston enjoyed the excitement of the day — and seeing the pope for the first time.
“It’s good to see the liveliness of the Catholic Church,” he said as the seminarians and novices from dozens of orders filled the shrine’s huge worship space, which is shaped like a cross.
Sister Mary Patricia Driscoll said she and novices Symphonie, 28, and Kim, 43, rose around dawn to be in line by 10:15 a.m. to get “a good seat.”
The women, who are part of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, had aisle seats and were eagerly preparing to capture a photo as Francis passed by.
It was a “real privilege” to fly in from California and Texas to attend the pope on his first visit to America, and to see the Serra canonization, said Sister Driscoll.
The pope’s message of “humility and compassion” for the poor and for everyone, for Catholics and people of all faiths, should move people to respond, she said.
Five choirs performed throughout the afternoon — the Papal Choir, Gospel Choir, Intercultural Choir, Catholic University of America Choir, and Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Choir.
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, thanked Francis near the end of Wednesday afternoon’s Mass. He called the pope’s visit “a blessing to all of us” and promised that the church would gather in worship and “seek to reflect your call to be missionary disciples.”
He noted that the vast audience that gathered to welcome Francis — with people from many races and nationalities — is “reflective of America.” When Francis responded with a big smile, the audience cheered.
The Mass was also “locally sourced.” Francis performed the ceremony on an altar designed by Catholic University of America students — Joe Taylor, Matthew Hoffman and Ariadne Cerritelli — and built by a team of carpenters led by David Cahoon of Darnestown, Maryland.
The archbishop concluded by promising that Catholics would strive to grow in joy, to share the great law of love of God and love of neighbor, and care for “our common home,” the Earth.
Francis gifted a chalice to Cardinal Wuerl, who displayed it happily to the crowd.