WASHINGTON — Pope Francis called Father Junipero Serra a defender of "the dignity of the native community," as the first pope from the Americas canonized the 18th-century missionary known as the Apostle of California on Wednesday while he celebrated his first Mass in the United States.
The ceremony to name a new Catholic saint, the first to take place on U.S. soil, came nearly 250 years after the Spanish Franciscan friar evangelized indigenous people — sometimes with harsh methods — and established the church mission system that defined the Spanish colonial era in California.
In a sermon to 25,000 people crowded outside the ornate Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the country, Francis addressed the missionary's controversial legacy by portraying him as a protector, not an oppressor, of early Californians.
Serra "sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it," the Argentine-born pope said, speaking in Spanish from an altar outside the Basilica. "Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people."
Serra's critics did not organize any protests at the canonization ceremony. Some opponents said there was no use in trying to sway the church or the immensely popular pope at this point.
Before Francis spoke, the crowd roared as the glass-topped "popemobile" weaved among them. The 78-year-old pontiff took two laps along the main thoroughfare separating the news media from assigned seats, waving as the throng rose and cheered.
Jeanne Feldhaus of Leonardtown and her sister, Anne Thomas of Fredericksburg, Va., both graduates of Loyola University of Maryland, had tickets to a grassy area toward the rear of the venue.
As the pope rode by, waving and smiling from about 25 feet away, Feldhaus said, "I didn't expect to see him so close."
Both said they admired the pope's habit of interacting with regular folks.
"He cares about people deeply, said Feldhaus, a veterinarian. "He seems to like close contact with people, especially the poor. A lot of non-Catholic people I work with are impressed with his demeanor."
Susan Reiter of Annapolis, a freshman at Catholic University, said seeing the pope at the cathedral just off its campus would be an "incredible way to start" her years at the school, where she's majoring in social work.
"I love this pope – especially now that I'm 18 and a freshman, a time when you really learn about your faith. I like that he's spreading Church teachings in such a loving way. I like the message of peace."
"The pope is here, and he's giving us a job to do," Reiter said. "He's about love – about loving and accepting everybody – and I think the campus will take that message to heart."
For all its historical implications, the canonization Mass came hours after Francis made his first formal visit to the White House and challenged Americans of all faiths to address the modern problems of global warming, illegal immigration, and the conflict over traditional families and cultural values.
"Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation," Francis told 11,000 people who gathered on the White House's South Lawn for his welcoming ceremony. "When it comes to the care of our 'common home,' we are living at a critical moment of history."
In a later meeting with U.S. bishops, Francis acknowledged " the pain of recent years" resulting from the church's sexual abuse scandal, a poignant reminder during his six-day visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia that many American Catholics have yet to forgive the church.
During his address to the bishops, Francis also cited the importance of Baltimore as he spoke of the history of the church in the nation he is now visiting for the first time.
"I do not speak to you with my voice alone, but in continuity with the words of my predecessors," he said. "From the birth of this nation, when, following the American Revolution, the first diocese was erected in Baltimore, the Church of Rome has always been close to you; you have never lacked its constant assistance and encouragement. In recent decades, three popes have visited you and left behind a remarkable legacy of teaching. Their words remain timely and have helped to inspire the long-term goals which you have set for the church in this country."
After he left the White House, people locked in dense crowds on the National Mall cried, snapped photos, and bragged with certainty that he locked eyes with them as he rolled along in his popemobile.
"He is our pope," said Miriam Villatoro, a 40-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who cleans houses, as she stood for more than hour in line to watch Francis preside at Mass and canonize Serra. "He is the one we're waiting for."
Villatoro, who brought her two sons and her husband, was especially thrilled that Francis would speak in Spanish, the native language for her and millions of other Latinos who constitute the fastest growing segment in the American church. "It's like the voice of the immigrants," she said.
Lesa Truxaw, director for worship for the Diocese of Orange, flew in from Costa Mesa. She wore a large crucifix made of gems and carried a card depicting Father Serra beside the mission he set up in San Juan Capistrano.
"We are number 7," she said proudly, alluding to the nine missions Serra founded in California after he arrived near San Diego in 1769. They were primarily designed to convert natives to the Catholic faith.
The church went on to establish 12 more from San Diego to San Francisco. Serra's name can be found on streets, schools, parks, a freeway and statues in the state.
But to many Native Americans, Serra is a symbol of the mission system's oppression.
Converted natives were kept separate from those who had not embraced Christianity, and some missions flogged and imprisoned those who tried to leave.
Critics say his legacy includes forced labor to support the missions, which were critical to Spain's ambitions in the region.
"He was a man of his times," Truxaw said. "There is controversy. I don't think we can whitewash that. I hope that, the indigenous, we can reach out to them and heal the hurt."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.