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Pope elevates Junipero Serra to sainthood in 1st canonization on U.S. soil

An 18th-century missionary who brought Catholicism to the American West Coast was elevated to sainthood Wednesday by Pope Francis in the first canonization on U.S. soil.

While many Hispanics welcome Junipero Serra's sainthood, many native Americans decry it

Pope Francis presides over a canonization mass for Friar Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on Wednesday. The canonization is controversial. Many Latinos in the U.S. see it as an important acknowledgment of Hispanics' role in the church, but many Native Americans says Serra was abusive to indigenous people in his missionary work. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

An 18th-century missionary who brought Catholicism to the American West Coast was elevated to sainthood Wednesday by Pope Francis in the first canonization on U.S. soil.

Francis canonized Junipero Serra during a mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. It is the largest Catholic church in North America.

Serra was a Franciscan friar who marched north from Baja California with conquistadors from his native Spain, establishing nine of the 21 missions in what is now California. The pope announced in January that Serra would be canonized.

The decision was polarizing. Serra is revered by Catholics for his missionary work, but many native Americans in California say he enslaved converts and contributed to the spread of disease that wiped out indigenous populations.

A painting of Rev. Junipero Serra sits above his grave inside the basilica at the Carmel Mission in Carmel, Calif. (David Royal/Monterey County Herald/Associated Press)

In his homily, Francis defended Serra, characterizing him as a kind and open-hearted man who protected native Americans from colonizers.

"He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life," Francis said. "Junipero 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."

Indigenous people express 'outrage'

During a visit to South America in July, Francis offered a broad apology for the sins, offences and crimes committed by the church against indigenous peoples.

Many Latinos in the U.S. view the canonization of a Spanish-speaking missionary as a badly needed acknowledgment of the Hispanic history of the American church, and as an affirmation of Latinos as a core part of the U.S. Catholic future. Latinos make up about 38 per cent of U.S. Catholics, but are well above the majority in several dioceses. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest U.S. diocese, is about 70 per cent Latino.

The pope's apology did little to quiet those who oppose the canonization. Serra's critics say he was carrying out a Vatican policy by treating indigenous people as inferior.

"We believe that this canonization is going to backfire," said Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. "This has woken up the outrage of indigenous people around the world."

Francis spoke in his native Spanish, and Latino Catholics from California were among the 25,000 people who got tickets to the outdoor mass. Before the service, the pope entered the basilica to raucous cheers and applause from more than 2,000 men and women studying to become priests and nuns.

A woman prays at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception while Pope Francis holds the canonization mass for Friar Junipero Serra in Washington on Wednesday. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Joe Moyhanan, 28, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who is studying for the priesthood at St. John's Seminary in Boston, said bearing witness to the first canonization on U.S. soil was inspiring and showed what could be accomplished during a life devoted to Christ.

"God wants all of us to be saints," Moyhanan said. "It's attainable."

As Serra was canonized, a bell tolled at the historic mission where he was buried. Dozens of faithful sitting in folding chairs watched on a giant TV screen in the mission courtyard, while native Americans opposed to his becoming a saint gathered in the cemetery to protest.

Pope calls out U.S. on climate change

Earlier Wednesday, Francis focused on the issue of climate change, calling on the United States to combat a problem that "can no longer be left to a future generation."

U.S. President Barack Obama, in turn, hailed the pontiff as a moral force who is "shaking us out of our complacency" with reminders to care for the poor and the planet.

The White House mustered all the pageantry it had to offer as the Pope arrived before an adoring crowd of thousands and a nation that seemingly cannot get enough of the humble pontiff who is rejuvenating American Catholicism while giving heartburn to some of its conservatives.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Pope Francis during a welcoming ceremony at the White House in Washington Wednesday. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Cheering crowds, with some people holding out babies for blessings, jammed a parade route along Constitution Avenue as Francis later made a leisurely loop around the streets near the White House in his open-sided Popemobile — a white Jeep — for his first direct encounter with the American public.

Speaking in a soft voice and halting English at the White House, Francis delivered a firm message against those who doubt the science of climate change, saying that the warming planet "demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition" of what awaits today's children.

It was a message sure to please the Obama White House, and liberals in general. But the Pope had something for conservatives, too, with a pointed call to protect religious liberties — "one of America's most precious possessions."

"All are called to be vigilant,' he said, "to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it."

It was a welcome message to many U.S. bishops and conservatives who have objected to the Obama administration's health care mandate and the recent Supreme Court legalization of same-sex marriage.

With flags snapping, colour guard at attention and a military band's brassy marches, Francis stepped from his modest Fiat onto the South Lawn on a crisp fall morning that felt as optimistic as his own persona. Pope and president stood on a red-carpeted platform bedecked with red, white and blue bunting, standing at attention for the national anthems of the Holy See and the United States.

After their opening remarks on the lawn, Obama and Francis pulled up two arm chairs by the fireplace in the Oval Office for a one-on-one meeting where they hoped to find common cause on issues they hold dear — and respectful disagreement where they differ sharply, on subjects such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Just before the Pope arrived, Obama had tweeted to the Holy Father: "Welcome to the White House, @Pontifex! Your messages of love, hope, and peace have inspired us all."

Onlookers along a parade route in Washington, D.C., Wednesday strain to see and photograph Pope Francis's motorcade. (Marie Claudet/CBC)

Obama, joking that his backyard is not typically so crowded, told the Pope during the welcoming ceremony that the excitement surrounding his visit was a reflection of Francis' "humility, your embrace of simplicity, the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit."

The president singled out the Pope's call for focusing on the poor and the marginalized, including refugees fleeing war and immigrants in search of a better life.

Along the parade route, bodyguards ferried several babies from behind police barricades to the Jeep for pontifical kisses. And at one point, a young girl in pigtails and tennis shoes tried to approach the popemobile. When security guards tried to shoo her back, Francis motioned her over and bestowed a papal kiss and blessing.

The Pope later in the morning was to speak to America's bishops, an address that was highly anticipated given a certain disconnect between Francis' focus on social justice and a merciful church and the culture wars that America's bishops have waged in recent years over abortion and gay rights.

Fred Hudson sells buttons and flags in Washington on Wednesday to people gathering to see Pope Francis. He arrived at 8 a.m. ET, and in about three hours made $300. Flags were $10 each and buttons were $5. (Marie Claudet/CBC)

As bishops have found themselves increasingly on the losing side in the national struggle over marriage and abortion, they have made religious freedom a rallying cry, with a largely domestic focus.

Francis' remarks that religious freedom is "one of American's most precious possessions" could well give them encouragement to keep up the fight.

Obama, sensitive to conservative attacks against his administration, made a point in his remarks of saying "we cherish religious liberty."

From the instant the white-robed and grinning Francis landed in the U.S. on Tuesday, doffed his skullcap in the breeze and clambered into his charcoal-gray Fiat, his visit has electrified wonky Washington, which can be jaded about the comings and goings of world figures.

Washington was the first stop on the Pope's six-day, three-city visit to the United States.

Kimberly Johnson, a 27-year-old medical student who lives in Washington, said she arrived outside the security gates at midnight in order to be the first one let into the sectioned-off viewing area that opened at 4 a.m.

"It's not just that he's the Pope. He's a cool Pope," Johnson said. "He's bringing the Catholic Church into the 21st century and making it a more accessible faith."

The Pope took his time getting to the White House, stopping to greet schoolchildren who had gathered outside the Vatican's nunciature. The children took selfies with the Pope, hugged him and waved Holy See flags.

Even before he arrived for his first U.S. visit, Francis was fending off conservative criticism of his economic views. He told reporters on his flight from Cuba that some people may have an inaccurate impression that he is "a little bit more left-leaning."

"I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church," he said.

From Francis' vantage point, his next stop after the White House was just as critical. The 78-year-old pontiff was meeting with America's 450-strong bishops' conference at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

Many U.S. bishops have struggled to come to terms with Francis' new social justice-minded direction of the church. Nearly all were appointed by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They prioritized drawing clearer boundaries for Catholic behavior and belief in the face of legalized abortion, advances in gay rights and the exodus of many Westerners from organized religion.

The American church spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year through its social service agencies, and for years has sought an overhaul of the immigration system to reunite families, shelter refugees and give the poor the chance at a better life. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has increasingly put its resources behind high-profile fights over abortion, contraception and gay marriage.

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      On Thursday, Francis planned to deliver the first papal address ever to Congress, speaking to Republican-majority legislators deeply at odds with Obama on issues such as gay rights, immigration, abortion and climate change. Those same issues are roiling the early months of the presidential campaign.

      Francis has been pressing his environmental message ahead of crucial climate change talks later this year in Paris, issuing a major teaching document on humanity's obligation to protect God's creation and aiming to spur world leaders to make commitments to reverse global warming. He will bring that message to the United Nations on Friday.

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