Pope Francis’ will be making history when he makes his first visit to America next month.
Francis is the Church’s first pontiff from the New World — the lands born from Spanish Christianity’s encounter with the indigenous peoples of North and South America in the age of Columbus and the missionaries who followed him.
While in the nation’s capital, Francis will canonize one of the boldest of these spiritual immigrants, Junípero Serra.
A Franciscan with an apostle’s heart and a discoverer’s spirit, Father Serra spent nearly 40 years in the mid-1700s spreading the Gospel, defending the native peoples, and laying the foundations for a vibrant civil society and Christian civilization, first in Mexico and later in California.
Francis has rightly called Serra “one of the founding fathers of the United States.”
In the standard narratives, American history starts in the 1600s with the English at Jamestown and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. But Francis knows that a century earlier missionaries from Spain and Mexico were already evangelizing the territories of what is now Florida, Texas, California, and New Mexico.
Los Angeles, where I live, was first known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Porciuncula (“The Town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula) — named by Father Serra’s associates for the little chapel where St. Francis first heard the call of Jesus.
This is the reason that history’s first Hispanic pope is giving the United States its first Hispanic saint. The Pope is hoping to inspire Americans to rediscover their nation’s Hispanic and Christian foundations — at a moment in our history when these foundations are being put to the test.
America’s founders, among them Father Serra, laid the spiritual and intellectual groundwork for a nation that remains unique in human history — conceived under God and committed to promoting human dignity, freedom and the flourishing of a diversity of peoples, races, and beliefs.
In recent years, Americans’ commitment to this vision has been shaken.
We see this in the protracted debates over immigration reform, with their undeniable racial undertones. These debates have exposed deep apprehensions about our national self-identity — caused not only by the presence of millions of undocumented Hispanics but also by the uncertainties of globalization and the country’s changing racial and ethnic profile.
Demographics may not be destiny but it is clear that America’s future — our economy, politics, education system, neighborhoods and churches — will be shaped increasingly by the cultures and contributions of Hispanics, Asians and other immigrant groups.
This reality makes the inability to fix our broken immigration system even more painful. In his address to Congress, I expect that Francis will challenge our national conscience on immigration and remind us of the growing human toll resulting from our indifference and failures of political will.
As an immigrant’s son — his father fled fascism in Italy to settle in Argentina — Francis understands that the immigrant spirit is a wellspring for economic and moral revitalization. In calling Americans to compassion and hospitality, he will also be calling us to reclaim our roots as a nation of immigrants and a refuge for the world’s downtrodden.
I expect that the Pope will also confront the aggressive secularization and “de- Christianizing” of American society and culture.
This is perhaps the most disturbing sign for our nation’s future — the increasing hostility and discrimination against Christian institutions and the vilifying of Christian beliefs by the government, the courts, the media and popular culture.
In talking to Americans, the Pope will likely invoke our nation’s Christian beginnings and urge a return to the vision of America’s founders — who believed religious faith and faith-based values were vital to democratic institutions and progress in promoting social justice and human rights.
With Junípero Serra, Pope Francis is holding up a saint who was a pioneer of the American spirit.
A man of prayer and a lover of nature, Serra preached God’s compassion, fought for the dignity of women, and may have been the first person in America to make a moral case against capital punishment. Three years before the Declaration of Independence, Father Serra had already written a bill of rights for indigenous Californians.
Serra’s canonization is more than a religious event for Catholics. For Francis it is an invitation for Americans to recover their history and identity — and to embrace the challenge of national spiritual and moral renewal.
Gomez is Archbishop of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest Catholic community, and author of “Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation” (2013).