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Pope Francis Celebrates First-Ever Mass In U.S.


The tens of thousands of people who are at the Basilica are there for the first-ever mass of canonization on U.S. soil. Pope Francis is making Junipero Serra a saint. Serra was an 18th century Spanish missionary credited with spreading Christianity in California. He's also controversial for his treatment of Native Americans. NPR's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope, and she joins us now. And Sylvia, describe the mass for this. I mean, I was there earlier, but what's the scene like now at the Basilica?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Oh, well, now it's in full force. It's - you know, it's a full formal canonization mass - lots of liturgical music, lots of white vestments, lots of Latin. It's a scene we've seen many times in places like St. Peter's Square. But as you said, this is a first - the first canonization mass in the United States with all the pomp and circumstance typical of these events.

MCEVERS: Tell us about the significance of this service. I mean, why Junipero Serra?

POGGIOLI: Well, Serra was an 18th century Spanish-born friar, Franciscan, who marched north from Mexico to California with the conquistadors, and he is seen by Pope Francis as a great evangelizer who brought Catholicism to Native Americans. And was being celebrated today as the first Hispanic saint of the United States. But many Native Americans say he mistreated their ancestors and forced them to convert and also contributed to the spread of diseases that nearly wiped them out.

Now, in July, when he visited Latin America, Francis delivered a very powerful apology for Catholic Church treatment of indigenous peoples during colonialism. He asked forgiveness for the church and for, quote, "the crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest America."

But there's another reason Serra's being made a saint. A Vatican official told me the pope - for the pope, this is an effort to highlight the role of Catholicism in the founding history of the United States which has been overshadowed by what this official called the Anglo-centric narrative of American history - the idea that it starts with the pilgrims landing in 1620 which ignores that Spanish missionary settlements already exists 50 years earlier in the United States.

MCEVERS: I mean, this mass for Serra is the end of a really busy day for the pope. He met with President Obama. He greeted crowds outside the White House. He had midday prayers with bishops. I mean, he's been talking about some pretty controversial issues - climate change, economic inequality, immigration. I mean, what was his main message today?

POGGIOLI: Well, there were several messages, and you touched on all of them. Francis more or less repeated his favorite themes, which, you know, really confounds those who want to pigeonhole him in a left or right category. At the White House, he defended this institution of the family and marriage, and he made a strong defense of religious freedom. Later, with the U.S. bishops, he also lamented - at the White House, lamented the innocent victims of abortion.

But he also praised president Obama's efforts to combat climate change. He made a reference to one of his key concerns - people who've been left on the margins of society. And he called himself a son of immigrants, a theme that he picked up again later with the bishops when he told them not to feel challenged by the diversity of the current stream of Latin-American immigration to the United States and not to fear to welcome them.

MCEVERS: And Pope Francis also addressed the papal sex abuse scandal. What did he say about that?

POGGIOLI: Well, he never used the word sex abuse. He said he was aware how the church has faced what he called a difficult time at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice and pain. And he praised what he called the bishops' generous commitment to bring healing to victims and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated. Last year, Francis created a Vatican tribunal to judge clergies accused of covering up or failing to prevent sex abuse of minors, but I'm not sure many victims will be satisfied with the pope's words today.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli who is traveling with the pope. Sylvia, thank you so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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