VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II beatified six people, including Father Junipero Serra, bringing a step away from sainthood the Spanish-born Franciscan priest who founded missions and baptized thousands of Indians into the Roman Catholic faith in California in the 1700s.
Speaking Sunday to some 40,000 people from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, John Paul praised the 'shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit' demonstrated by Serra, who is often referred to as the 'Apostle of California.'
Serra 'sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the momentous changes wrought by the arrival of European settlers in the New World,' the pontiff said in a sunbathed open-air ceremony. 'Relying on the divine power of the message he proclaimed, Father Serra led the native peoples to Christ,' he said.
Celebrating the beatification mass with the pope was a score of prelates from around the world, including U.S. Bishop Thaddeus A. Shubsda of Monterey, Calif.
Present at the ceremony was 6-year-old Brendan O'Rourke, the young American AIDS patient John Paul embraced during his U.S. trip in a moving visit to the Mission Dolores, a San Francisco hospice for those with the usually fatal disease.
The boy, who contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome through a blood transfusion and on whom the effects of the wasting disease were clearly visible Sunday, received Holy Communion from the hand of the Roman Catholic pontiff.
Born Nov. 24, 1713, on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, Serra went to the New World in 1749 and worked in Mexico for 20 years before establishing missions in present-day California beginning in 1769. He died Aug. 28, 1784, at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo, in Carmel, Calif., and was buried there.
In the New World, Serra first worked among the Pame Indians of the mountainous Sierra Gorda, then in 1768 was given charge of 13 established missions in Baja or Lower California. In 1769, his Franciscan Order assigned him tangelize Upper California, the present-day State of California.
For 15 years he traveled thousands of miles, often on foot despite a chronic leg ailment and asthma, to found the first nine of 20 Franciscan missions from San Diego, near the Mexican border, to Sonoma, in northern California. He baptized an estimated 6,000 Indians into the Roman Catholic faith.
In San Diego, where Serra founded his first mission, San Diego de Alcala, vandals used red paint to deface walls, crosses and a full-scale statue of Serra at a mission in Presidio Park. The vandalism was discovered Sunday.
The vandals left a number of painted messages, denouncing Serra as a 'slave-driver' and 'baby-killer.'
Native American groups have objected to Serra's beatification on grounds that he built his string of missions literally on the graves of Indians.
Serra, the groups claim, used the Indians of California as cheap labor to be exploited in the name of Christianity.
'The missionaries literally dragged our people into these places and forced them to learn Catholicism and their ways,' Mark Jones, a Hoopa Indian from Santa Rosa, Calif., said last year when John Paul visited Serra's mission at Carmel.
'All these missions were built by slave labor,' he said.
Beatification is the second of three steps toward sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Serra achieved the first step, becoming a 'venerable,' on May 9, 1984. The Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved his beatification last year.
A Vatican advisory panel in June 1987 issued a preliminary finding that a nun in St. Louis, Mo., had been cured in 1960 of lupus, a fatal disease, after praying to Serra. The finding qualified Serra for beatification.
American bishops had hoped the pontiff would beatify Serra during his visit to the Spanish missionary's Carmel grave during his September 1987 voyage to the United States. But Vatican officials said time had lacked for preparations.
John Paul also beatified Miguel Agustin Pro, a Mexican Jesuit shot to death in 1927 amid anti-Catholic repression, Spanish church worker Josefa Naval Girbes, French priest and missionary to Canada Frederic Janssoone Bollenger, and 19th-century Italian clerics Giuseppe Benedetto Dusmet and Francesco Faa di Bruno.