The impending canonization of Blessed Father Junípero Serra is striking for its incongruities.
Although he’s been an ubiquitous influence in California for centuries, the announcement by Pope Francis that he would canonize Blessed Serra this year has raised some eyebrows. Though Blessed Serra is widely venerated, the announcement has stirred up controversy among critics, many of them Native Americans who feel his canonization is an affront to their culture and history.
Even Fr. Serra’s canonization itself is extraordinary –one that bypasses the usual protocol, by authority of the Pope. Canonization is typically a long and arduous procedure, but can be wildly divergent. The canonization of St. Bede took 770 years, yet St. John Paul ll was canonized in only nine years.
The procedure for investigating the lives of candidates for sainthood, and the miracles attributed to them, was established by Pope Gregory IX in 1234, and has been revised over the years by subsequent popes. Traditionally, two miracles are required: one for beatification, the process by which a person is declared “blessed,” and one for canonization, the final declaration of sainthood. Father Francis Weber, archivist emeritus for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, emphasizes the stringency of the process, and the level of scrutiny given to the cases.
“Cancer cases are normally precluded, due to the high rate of later recurrence. They are looking for medical situations where there is no possible scientific explanation for the healing,” he explains, and then adds, “It’s harder, statistically speaking, to get yourself on the stamp of a nation than it is to be beatified or canonized. Serra is on the stamp of five nations!”
As Co-Vice Postulator for the Cause of the Canonization of Junipero Serra, Father Ken Laverone knows the process well. There are three commissions at the Vatican for investigating the life of a candidate for sainthood: a theological commission, a historical commission, and a medical commission.
“We gather the evidence,” he explains. “We get the medical records, interview the doctors involved the in cases, we gather the proof.” The materials are then submitted to the medical commission at the Vatican, which conducts its own examination.
“In most cases,” Father Laverone says, “there is not enough evidence to show that a miraculous cure occurred. There must be no scientific or reasonable explanation that can be found for a cure.”
There must also be evidence of a “cult of devotion” on the part of the afflicted person. They have to have been praying to that saint for a healing before the miracle occurred. “You can’t just fall off a horse, and get up and say, ‘Gee, I wasn’t hurt–Junípero Serra saved me,’” he said. “That stuff doesn’t fly. There was a case, ten or eleven years ago, but it was a weak case, and when it reached the commission in Rome, it was rejected.”
There is only one miracle that stands approved by the Congregation for the Cause of Junípero Serra. In 1960, a nun in St. Louis, Missouri, was cured of lupus by the intercession of Blessed Serra. Sister Mary Boniface Dyrda was ill with lupus when a chaplain urged her to pray to Junipero Serra. She recovered fully, and was examined by medical panels in St. Louis and Rome. Her case was considered and found valid by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Pope John Paul II proclaimed the healing miraculous, and Junípero Serra was beatified on September 25, 1988.
Blessed Junípero Serra’s canonization is less about miracles and more about personal holiness, according to Father Weber. “What did Jesus tell us to do?” he asks. “Two things. One, to preach. Two, to baptize. Junípero Serra is an outstanding example of evangelization.”
Blessed Serra isn’t the only saint for whom the two-miracle requirement has been waived. Pope Francis canonized both Pope John XXIII, feeling that the holiness of his life outweighed the need for miracles, and Joseph Vaz, the missionary to Sri Lanka who was canonized in January 2015. And in 2000, Pope John Paul II waived the miracles requirement for two Chinese martyrs and their 119 companions.
Pope Francis cites the three “key aspects” of Blessed Serra that most incline him towards canonization: Serra’s missionary zeal, his Marian devotion, and his witness of holiness. Speaking at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Pope Francis himself seems in awe of Serra’s spirit of evangelization as he lauds his “desire to proclaim the Gospel, ad gentes, that heartfelt impulse which seeks to share with those farthest away the gift of encountering Christ,” and exclaims of Serra: “Such zeal excites us! It challenges us!”