WASHINGTON DC —
Pope Francis celebrated his first Mass on U.S. soil late Wednesday in Washington — a majestic ceremony that opened with joyously ringing church bells, solemn chants and the first canonization in the United States.
Thousands gathered for the Mass, held outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. At its start, the pontiff conferred sainthood on Junipero Serra, a controversial 18th-century Spanish missionary who spread the word of the church in what is now California.
Serra's elevation to sainthood is a sore point for many Native Americans, who say the friar contributed to the abuse and elimination of many indigenous tribes from enslavement and disease.
Watch video of Pope Francis leaving Basilica by VOA's Arash Arabasadi
In his homily, the pope offset criticism, characterizing Serra as someone who "sought to defend the dignity of the native community" and served as an exemplar to "keep moving forward."
He also discouraged materialism, bringing up his recurrent themes of environmentalism and compassion for the vulnerable.
Pope Francis presides over a Canonization Mass for Friar Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Sept. 23, 2015.
Francis urged the faithful to seek "a meaningful life" and "not to settle for placebos which simply keep us comfortable….
"Our daily routine can often lead us to a kind of glum apathy, which gradually becomes the habits with a fatal consequence. Our hearts grow numb. We don’t want apathy to guide our lives – or do we?" Francis said. He challenged listeners to "regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility" for each other and the environment.
For part of the ceremony, the pope traded in his usual white skullcap for a white mitre. It dipped precipitously as the seated Francis lowered his head during a musical interlude in the nearly two-hour event. Large choirs and an orchestra provided a rich soundtrack to the service.
Earlier, church bells joyously sounded and thousands cheered as the pope approached the basilica and the grounds of The Catholic University of America.
People wait outside the basilica for Pope Francis to lead his first Mass in the United States, in Washington, D.C., Sept. 23, 2015. (K. Gypson / VOA)
Shouts of "Papa Francisco!" rose as the pontiff waved to the throngs from the popemobile as its motorcade wound through the Washington campus.
A large banner depicting Serra hung over an entrance to the basilica, the nation's largest Roman Catholic church. Organizers anticipated as many as 3,600 seminarians and men and women novices at the service. Scores of religious in white robes filled the front rows of the upper church.
Up to 25,000 people had been expected to attend, with several thousand tickets reserved for Hispanics from California. Latinos now account for a third of U.S. Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center. Francis, a native of Argentina, celebrated the Mass in Spanish.
In the unticketed overflow area, hundreds sat on the grass or sought shade from the sun. Groups of Spanish speakers and nuns in habits watched the ceremonial proceedings on the giant screen, keeping a respectful quiet.
Serra's sainthood on fast track
In January, the pope announced that Serra, a Franciscan friar from Spain revered by Roman Catholics for his missionary work, would become a saint. Serra introduced Christianity to much of California as he marched north with Spanish conquistadors, establishing nine of the state's 21 missions.
Francis fast-tracked Serra's canonization by eliminating the need to show proof of two miracles. Serra was beatified in 1988.
A holy card for Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who is to be canonized by Pope Francis at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Sept. 23, 2015.
"We believe that this canonization is going to backfire," Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, said Tuesday. "This has woken up the outrage of indigenous people around the world."
In California, at the historic Carmel mission where Serra died, up to 400 faithful planned to watch the Mass on a giant screen in the courtyard.
Earlier Wednesday, President Barack Obama and Pope Francis saluted each other in speeches that were frequently interrupted by applause from the 15,000 guests watching from the White House's South Lawn.
During a speech delivered in English, Francis appealed to the United States to take urgent action and help slow the pace of climate change, because the world is at "a critical moment of history."
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) sits with Pope Francis during an arrival ceremony for the pope at the White House in Washington, Sept. 23, 2015.
Obama warmly welcomed the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, agreeing that Americans and people throughout the world have "a sacred obligation to protect our planet."
The two leaders then held a private meeting in the Oval Office, speaking for about 40 minutes.
On Thursday, Francis becomes the first pope to deliver an address before a joint meeting of Congress.
He will travel later in the day to New York City, where he will celebrate Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
On Friday, he will address the United Nations General Assembly.
On Saturday morning, he'll travel to Philadelphia for this weekend’s Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.
On Sunday, he will celebrate an outdoor Mass, which is expected to draw nearly 2 million people.
Some material for this report came from AP.