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Focus Now Shifts to Canonization of Serra

October 01, 1988|MARK I. PINSKY | Times Staff Writer

With the beatification of Father Junipero Serra by Pope John Paul II last Sunday in Rome, attention now shifts to the possibility that the "Apostle of California" will be canonized--the third and final step to sainthood.

Observers of the complex process of determining sanctity said that while the 18th-Century missionary's chances are very good, there is no way to predict how long it will take.

Proclaimeed 'Venerable' in 1985

Serra reached the first step in 1985, when the Pope proclaimed the Franciscan friar "venerable." That proclamation put the papal seal on a 50-year, biographical investigation by the church's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which determined that Serra had lived "a life of heroic virtue" while founding nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco.

In December of 1987, the congregation found that Sister Mary Boniface Dyrda, a St. Louis nun who suffered from a life-threatening case of the connective-tissue disease lupus erythematosus 25 years ago had been cured through Serra's miraculous intercession. That finding enabled Serra to be beatified, the second step, in a colorful Mass in St. Peter's Square last Sunday--a ceremony that Dyrda attended.

A second miracle, which takes place after a candidate has been beatified, is the sole additional requirement for canonization. In order to be verified, a miracle first must be documented in the locality in which it took place, with doctors and a Catholic tribunal in the diocese agreeing that the recovery was real and complete, but not explainable through natural causes or medical cures.

The material is then forwarded to the Vatican, where it must be taken up by the congregation's own medical experts, staff and members. There are many such cases under investigation, and a critical factor, observers said, is how long it takes the congregation to take up the investigation once it receives the local documentation.

Father Noel Francis Moholy, Serra's chief U.S. backer, said he has not submitted evidence of a second miracle to Rome. The San Francisco priest took with him to the beatification Mass two seriously ill Californians--a child with acquired immune deficiency syndrome and a nun with cancer--in hopes that a second miracle might take place on the spot.

"What the future holds is in the hand of God," Moholy said. To a certain degree, it is also in the hands of Pope John Paul II. Any Pope may dispense with the miracle requirement, and this pontiff has already played an active role in the sainthood process, observers said. Papal "interest" in candidates also seems to have an effect on how quickly the congregation moves.

'Who Can Outguess God?'

Msgr. Robert Sarno, who works with the congregation, was unwilling to make a prediction regarding Serra's chances for sainthood. "Who can outguess God?" Sarno asked in a telephone interview.

The Pope, who travels frequently, has made it a practice to announce beatifications of local figures during foreign visits. Moholy said that during the mid-1980s he was able to nudge the Congregation for the Causes of Saints along in its examination of Dyrda's cure by reminding them of the Pope's scheduled visit to the Carmel Mission, where Serra is buried, in September of 1987. However, the congregation's work was not completed in time to coincide with the Pope's visit to California.

Some, but not all, of the Pope's other preferences may also work in Serra's favor.

The Pope favors "candidates whose canonization would have an important pastoral effect," Sarno said. That preference would seem to favor the Majorcan-born Serra, who spent half his life in Mexico and California--a state where the Catholic Church is becoming increasingly Latino.

Future in Third World

"The future of church is in the Third World," said Kenneth L. Woodward, religion editor of Newsweek, whose book, "Making Saints," will be published next year. "People like to pray to their own saints. . . . "

If canonized, Serra would join Sister Rose Philippine Duchesne, Bishop John Neumann, Frances Xavier Cabrini and Elizabeth Ann Seton as "American" saints, although only Seton was born in this country.

Opposition to Serra's sainthood has not ended, especially among Native American scholars and activists critical of the treatment of California Indians under the mission system, which Serra founded and supervised. A protest vigil was held outside Carmel Mission last Sunday.

"The only thing we have to say is that this beatification only prolongs the issue, embitters the Indians, and the whole question of Serra will now become sharper," said Jeanette Henry of the American Indian Historical Society in San Francisco.

"The whole thing is exacerbated," Henry said, pledging to keep up the fight against sainthood along with her husband, Rupert Costo, the society's founder.

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