The announcement of the canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra by Pope Francis unearthed preexisting controversies surrounding the 17th century missionary.

Dating back to the 1980s, California Native American advocates such as Rupert and Jeanette Costo have accused Blessed Serra of abuse of the native Californians and even of genocide.

However, according to Gregory Orfalea, biographer and long-time student of Blessed Serra’s life, the accusations are largely misplaced and do not reflect the personal life and values of the saint.  

“I spent 12 years researching Serra’s complex story,” Orfalea wrote in an op-ed piece for the L.A. Times. “When I started, I assumed I would find an Indian tragedy that belonged on his doorstep. But I came to the conclusion that the missions were not places of unrelieved misery, and that in most things, Serra was exemplary.”

Orfalea admits that Native Americans who lived at missions were often under a form of indentured servitude, and that the floggings used as “spiritual improvement” at the missions were “reprehensible.”

Still, Orfalea argues that no saint has ever been perfect, and that Blessed Serra’s virtues far outweigh his mistakes. The priest was known for championing the rights of the native people in the lands where he came to serve, and working to improve their spiritual and material lives.

For example, nine Native Americans burned Mission San Diego to the ground and killed a close priest friend of Blessed Serra in 1775. When Blessed Serra heard of the incident, he wrote the authorities begging for the release of the Natives, who were awaiting their execution for the crimes.

“As to the killer,” Serra wrote, “let him live so that he can be saved, for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification.”

Furthermore, Orfalea said that most Native Americans at the time of Serra did not live in missions, and most died of foreign diseases transferred unintentionally by the European missionaries. Most Native American populations would actually die later, at the hands of the American government.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez reflected on the controversies surrounding Blessed Serra in his column in last week’s Tidings, concluding that Blessed Serra’s virtues and service surpass the missteps of the saint.

“We cannot judge 18th century attitudes and behavior by 21st century standards,” he wrote. “But the demands of Gospel love are the same in every age. And it is sad but true that, as John Paul II said, in bringing the Gospel to the Americas, not all the members of the Church lived up to their Christian responsibilities.”

This was not the case with Blessed Serra, Archbishop Gomez wrote.

Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Serra during his visit to the United States in September.