Junipero Serra: Pope Francis’ U.S. Saint

October 9, 2015

During his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis I canonized a Spanish Catholic Franciscan friar, Junipero Serra y Ferrer (1713–1784). With only one “miracle” to his credit (though not for the church’s lack of trying!) he became Saint Junipero Serra, but the act provoked anger from many Native Americans and his statue at one mission was vandalized.

Formerly, three so-called miracles were required, but Pope John Paul II lowered the number to two, and Francis has now waived a second miracle (as he did before to canonize Pope John XXIII) to make Serra a saint. The claim that a case is miraculous is, however, not made by positive evidence but by the opposite: by emphasizing its supposedly “medically inexplicable” nature. This constitutes what is known in logic as an argument from ignorance (i.e., ‘we don’t know why the person was cured, so it must have been a miracle’). In 2008, the medical bureau at the healing shrine in Lourdes, France, announced that it would no longer certify a “miracle,” only that an investigated case was “remarkable.” (For more on the miracles game, see my The Science of Miracles, 2013, pp. 183–196.)

Serra’s alleged miracle was certified because a St. Louis nun was reportedly healed of lupus—a chronic, usually ulcerating skin disease, of which there are various types—after praying to the friar. This led to Serra’s beatification (a step before sainthood) in 1987. However, the prayer could have been merely coincidental with a permanent remission of the disease, which could happen, for instance, if the “lupus” was actually a lupus-like syndrome caused by certain drugs (i.e., drug-induced systemic lupus erythematosis). This syndrome. (See Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 2001, pp. 1212–1213.) In any event, we can’t argue from a lack of knowledge.

In seeking a second miracle, the church considered many cases. Among them, for example, were a pregnant woman in Denver with the prognosis of a disabled baby, who prayed to Serra and subsequently had a healthy infant; a man with pancreatic cancer, who was inspired by a stained-glass-window portrait of Serra and lived six more years; and a Panamanian woman, who had 14 brain surgeries for tumors, but survived. Yet each case failed to be approved by Vatican physicians. The prognosis of the pregnant woman may have been in error or she may have been naturally healed; the man with cancer died of a heart condition before he was able to testify; and the Panamanian woman seems to have survived, not by a miracle but by medical science. (See Steve Chawkins “Junipero Serra needs just one more miracle,” online at; accessed Sept. 28, 2015).

Finally, prompted no doubt by his visit to the United States, Pope Francis decided to once again accept a single “miracle” and to canonize Serra during his stay. The response was mixed. The faithful were pleased, praising Junipero Serra for having brought Catholicism to California, establishing ten missions from San Diego to San Francisco, and baptizing thousands of Native Americans whom he viewed as heathens desperately needing the Gospel. He walked untold distances on a bad leg to establish the religious communities. Pope John Paul II stated that the friar had lived a life of “heroic virtue.”

Many Native Americans themselves, however, regard Serra not as someone to revere but to revile. They observe that the native people who actually built the missions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were required to convert and treated like slaves: forced into labor, punished by shackling and flogging, and, when they left, were tracked down and returned—sometimes dying from such European diseases as measles and chicken pox. Such was the outrage that, following canonization, Serra’s statue at Carmel Mission was vandalized and grave sites were damaged, including one headstone scrawled with “Saint of Genocide.” Some have asked the pope to reconsider the canonization, but that is unlikely to happen.

(For more, see Chawkins, op. cit.; Kate Linthicum, “Junipero Serra statue at Carmel Mission vandalized days after he was made a saint” (online at; accessed Sept. 28, 2015); and Julia Prodis Sulek and Mark Emmons, “Pope Francis announces sainthood for California Mission founder Junipero Serra, January 20, 2015 (online at; accessed Sept. 28, 2015.)