During the eighteenth century, the saint founded nine Catholic missions in the area that would later become California. Many of those missions would go on to become the centers of major California cities. Serra helped to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity and taught them new agricultural technologies.
Pope Francis canonized the Franciscan missionary in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 23, 2015.
Some critics have lambasted Serra as a symbol of European colonialism and said the missions engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Bl. Serra himself was abusive.
"The sad truth is that, beginning decades ago, activists started 'revising' history to make St. Junipero the focus of all the abuses committed against California's indigenous peoples," said Gomez. "But the crimes and abuses that our saint is blamed for - slanders that are spread widely today over the internet and sometimes repeated by public figures - actually happened long after his death."
At the time of Serra's arrival in California, it was voluntary to live in the missions and only 10-20% of California's native community joined Serra in these missions. St. Junipero died in 1784, but it wasn't until 1851 when California's first governor called for "a war of extermination" against the Native Americans and called in the U.S. Cavalry, according to Gomez.
"It is sadly true that corporal punishment was sometimes used in the missions, as it was practiced throughout late 18th-century society. It is also true that some natives died of diseases in the missions," he said.
Gomez said the saint understood that "the souls of indigenous Americans had been darkened with bitterness and rage at their historic mistreatment and the atrocities committed against them." He cited Serra's defense of Kumeyaay attackers who in 1775 burned down the San Diego mission and tortured and murdered a priest who was a friend of Serra.
"St. Junipero was not outraged. He was concerned for the killers' souls. He pleaded with authorities to have mercy," said Gomez. Serra urged forgiveness of the killers after "some slight punishment."
This would help teach the Christian rule "to return good for evil and to pardon our enemies," Serra wrote.
"This may be the first moral argument against the use of the death penalty in American history," said Gomez. "And St. Junipero was arguing against its imposition on an oppressed minority."
Gomez rejected online petitions which compare the saint to Adolf Hitler and the missions to concentration camps.
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"No serious historian would accept this, and we should not allow these libels to be made in public arguments about our great saint," he said. While the missions had "many flaws," he compared them to other communes and communitarian efforts of early American history.
"The missions were multicultural communities of worship and work, with their own governments and a self-sustaining economy based on agriculture and handicrafts," said Gomez. "Living and working together, Natives and Spaniards created a new, mestizo ('mixed') culture reflected in the distinctive art, architecture, music, poetry, and prayers that came out of the missions."
While society could eventually agree not to honor St. Junipero Serra or other figures in the past, said Gomez, "elected officials cannot abdicate their responsibilities by turning these decisions over to small groups of protesters, allowing them to vandalize public monuments."
"This is not how a great democracy should function," he said.