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Pope Francis, invoking spirit of Junipero Serra, asks faithful to 'go forth' in 1st canonization Mass in U.S.

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he arrives for the canonization Mass of Blessed Junipero Serra, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Credit: AP / Steve Helber

WASHINGTON - Pope Francis Wednesday canonized an 18th-century Spanish friar whose sainthood had been stalled for decades, holding up his missionary spirit as a guide to keeping the heart from growing "numb."

Outside the nation's biggest Catholic church, more than 25,000 people witnessed the pontiff's first Mass on U.S. soil as Junípero Serra became the first person to be canonized on U.S. soil. The Franciscan friar converted thousands of Native Americans in California before it was a state and founded nine of the 21 missions there.

"We are heirs to the bold missionary spirit of so many men and women who preferred not to be shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security . . . within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving," the man dubbed the "people's pope" said.

The throngs at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of Catholic University were the largest so far in the pope's first U.S. trip. "When he came by, tears came to my eyes," said Erika Capinguian, 19, a University of Maryland junior at the Mass. "I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I can't explain it."

About 3,000 seminarians and women entering sisterhood packed into the basilica. As he walked up the aisle, hands reached out to try to touch him. Francis heartily shook some, while his security officers brushed others aside.

A screen at least two stories high showed the ceremony live and the pope, who presided on the basilica's portico, looked out onto a sea of people.

Priests spoke in various languages. Chanting and choral music filled the air. Many at the event were Hispanics, who made it a point to attend the Argentine-born pope's Mass, conducted in Spanish. "It would be a sin not to come see him when we're just a few Metro stations away," said Patricia Mejía, 42, of Maryland, a Salvadoran native who is a government analyst.

In his homily, Francis touched on familiar themes, from helping the less fortunate to accepting immigrants.

The pope warned against being "anesthetized": "Our daily routine can often lead us to a kind of glum apathy which gradually becomes a habit, with a fatal consequence: our hearts grow numb."

He called Serra "the embodiment of 'a Church which goes forth,' a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God."

The campaign for Serra had languished for decades because critics said he was implicated in the deaths of indigenous populations. The pope -- who met privately with Native Americans after the Mass -- defended Serra but acknowledged the controversy.

"Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it," Francis said.

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