At the festive and colorful Mass for the canonization of Junípero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan missionary who brought the good news of Jesus to much of California, Pope Francis spoke about “the joy of the Gospel.”
Speaking to the 25,000 people of many ages and ethnic backgrounds present at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and to a far bigger audience across the United States, who followed the impressive ceremony on live TV, Francis emphasized that “the joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced.” It is “something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away.”
Many times since his election, Francis has insisted that “joy” is a hallmark of the disciple of Jesus.
He affirmed that again today and said “we must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and for the world,” and “to proclaim the message of Jesus.”
He explained that the source of joy of the disciple of Jesus is “an endless desire to show mercy,” which is “the fruit of our own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.”
“A Christian finds joy in mission: Go out to people of every nation!” “Go forth and proclaim the good news!” He recalled that Jesus—yesterday and today— “sends his disciples out to all nations, to every people.” And, he noted, “Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving his message, his presence.”
The languages and cultures represented in the various parts of the Mass reflected well the church’s missionary heart. The Mass was celebrated in Spanish (with English subtitles), and prayers were offered in Korean, American Sign Language, Vietnamese, Tagalog (Philippines), Creole and Igbo (Nigeria). The first reading (Is 52:7-10), was read in Chochenyo, a Native American language, in recognition of the people that Junípero Serra dedicated his life to evangelizing.
In his first Mass in the United States, Francis said Jesus “always embraced life as he saw it. In faces of pain, hunger, sickness and sin. In faces of wounds, of thirst, of weariness, doubt and pity. Far from expecting a pretty life, smartly-dressed and neatly groomed, he embraced life as he found it. It made no difference whether it was dirty, unkempt, broken. Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone, to everyone.”
Today, he said, the followers of Jesus must “go out to the highways and byways, go out to tell the good news fearlessly, without prejudice, without superiority, without condescension, to all those who have lost the joy of living.”
As a 17-year-old in Buenos Aires, Francis had a quasi-mystical experience of God’s mercy that has marked his life and ministry. As pope, he has declared a Jubilee of Mercy starting on Dec. 8, and today he spoke again about mercy and said the disciple of Jesus is called to “Go out to proclaim the merciful embrace of the Father. Go out to those who are burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty, and proclaim the folly of a loving Father who wants to anoint them with the oil of hope, the oil of salvation. Go out to proclaim the good news that error, deceitful illusions and falsehoods do not have the last word in a person’s life. Go out with the ointment which soothes wounds and heals hearts.”
He affirmed that “mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed,” and as a result the church today “treads the dust-laden paths of history, so often traversed by conflict, injustice and violence, in order to encounter her children, our brothers and sisters.”
In going out on mission, he said, “the holy and faithful People of God are not afraid of losing their way; they are afraid of becoming self-enclosed, frozen into elites, clinging to their own security. They know that self-enclosure, in all the many forms it takes, is the cause of so much apathy…. The People of God can embrace everyone because we are the disciples of the One who knelt before his own to wash their feet.”
Pope Francis did not mention Junípero Serra until right at the end of his homily. There were reasons for this. First, he saw Serra as a link in “a chain of witnesses” that brought the good news to the people of this land. Secondly, a brief biography of this great evangelizer was read out before the pope declared him a saint in the first canonization every celebrated on American soil. And thirdly, Francis wanted to conclude by pointing to Serra as “the embodiment of ‘a church which goes forth’” to bring “the reconciling tenderness of God.” He recalled that Serra “was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met,” and “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”
Francis recalled that Serra had a motto that inspired his life and work, “a saying 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. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going forward, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life.”
The first Latin American pope concluded by praying that today, like him, “may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!” It could be said, of course, that this too is the hallmark of Francis. “Siempre adelante!”
Ashley McKinless contributed to this story.