Pope Francis to canonize a controversial Spanish friar

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Pope Francis to Canonize a Controversial Spanish Friar

Were the Spanish evangelists who came to America to convert Native Americans Christian saints or colonialist villains? This is the controversy Pope Francis will face during his visit to the U.S. starting Sept. 22.

The pope will be canonizing Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan friar from the 1700s. Serra is responsible for converting Native Americans in what's now California.

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But Serra's legacy is polarizing. Some see him as a proclaimer of the Gospel, while others view him as a villain who forced the teaching of the church on Native Americans.

Steven Hackel, a professor of history at UC Riverside and the author of a biography on Serra, told the Los Angeles Times: "It was an oppressive system for most Indians: Indians were told to pray a certain way, act a certain way, dress a certain way. Once baptized, native peoples could not leave the compound without permission."

Pope Francis and others in the church speak differently of Serra. In a homily in Rome last May, the pope praised Serra's "heartfelt impulse which seeks to share with those farthest away the gift of encountering Christ, a gift that he had first received and experienced in all its truth and beauty."

Click through to see 10 of Pope Francis' most provocative quotes:

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10 of Pope Francis’s Most Provocative Quotes
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Pope Francis to canonize a controversial Spanish friar

"Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God! War is not to be waged in the name of God!"

October 8, 2014, St. Peter’s Square

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests."

June 28, 2013, on a flight to Rome

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits — but no."

January 19, 2015, on a flight to Rome

(Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

"I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful ... I see the church as a field hospital after battle."

September 30, 2013, interview, America magazine

 (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

"I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation."

October 1, 2013, interview, La Repubblica newspaper

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"Men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste.’ If a computer breaks it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people end up being considered normal."

June 5, 2013, St. Peter’s Square

(Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

"Perhaps you were mad, perhaps plates flew, but please remember this: never let the sun go down without making peace! Never, never, never!"

February 14, 2014, St. Peter’s Square

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"Do you open your hearts to the memories that your grandparents pass on? Grandparents are like the wisdom of the family, they are the wisdom of a people."

October 26, 2013, St. Peter’s Square

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"True love is both loving and letting oneself be loved. It is harder to let ourselves be loved than it is to love." 

January 18, 2015, Manila, Philippines

 (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

"Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads ... to those who have quit or are indifferent."

September 30, 2013, interview, America magazine

(AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
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"There are many testimonies about his defense of indigenous women who were raped by soldiers or Spanish settlers," the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, Guzman Carriquiry, told reporters in April. "Friar Junipero was a great father and protector of the natives. He always defended the dignity of the indigenous."

Pope Francis has previously spoken out against the evils of colonialism. Apologizing during a speech he made in Bolivia, he said "grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God."

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