November 3rd offers a number of tantalizing stories of saints. From St. Winifred who lost her head to the evil Caradoc for the sake of chastity and who is memorialized by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ beautiful poem about the death of this English virgin; to St. Malachy, whose Irish name reads Mael Maedoc Ua Morgair. Say that three-times fast. He was so stellar a saint, apparently, that St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a biography of the man. There are also the so-called prophecies of St. Malachy about the popes to the end of the world, which were not written by him. But today we also celebrate the feast of one of the humblest of saints, St. Martin de Porres.
The story of St. Martin is dear to my heart as its beginning reminds me of my father. Martin was born in 1579 in Lima, Peru to the Spanish nobleman Don Juan de Porres and a black, former slave named Anna Velazquez. The rich, dark color of Anna prevailed on the skin of young Martin much to the chagrin of his father, who, though he recognized Martin as his son, did not really involve himself with the raising of the boy.
We’re told that from a very young age, Martin was drawn to spiritual realities. Most important to him was the stupefying love of Jesus so well displayed on the crucifix. St. Martin’s devotion to the crucifix and to the Eucharist were constant themes in his spiritual life, themes which explain why he is depicted most often with a cross in his hand.
Anna, had her son apprentice with a surgeon, which served him well as it was a chance for him to serve his neighbor. But even at the age of twelve Martin’s desire for God moved him past the surgeon to become a third-order Dominican. After three years in apprenticeship, Martin was admitted into the Holy Rosary priory in Lima and was placed in the infirmary to help care for the sick.
Once, he let in a dirty beggar into the priory and gave the man his own bed while he cared for him. The other Dominicans complained that Martin should let in such a dirty fellow. To them he replied:
Compassion, my dear Brothers, is preferable to cleanliness. Reflect that with a little soap I can easily clean my bed covers, but even with a torrent of tears I would never wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create.
This tenderness born of deep humility as well as his almost supernatural ability to meet the needs of so many who came to the door of the priory was what won him a particular distinction within the community. In 1603, Martin was allowed to become a professed lay brother. Blacks, you see, were not allowed to take on the full habit of a Dominican. St. Martin was the exception.
For those of you familiar with Latin America, you may be aware of the rampant discrimination that goes on there even today. My father’s dark skin, inherited from his mother and not his lighter-skinned father of Spanish decent, meant he was treated differently by society… by his own family in the Dominican Republic. Indeed, his lighter-skinned uncle, who was an ordained deacon, told my father in response to his interest in the priesthood that he could never be a priest as he was simply too dark.
I remember St. Martin and my father when the bishops write that among the list of intrinsic evils is the evil of racism. Of course between St. Martin and my father the response to this racism could not have been more different. My poor father was caught up in the Marxist ideology of his time. St. Martin accepted his state in life, thankful only to be serving Christ in the best way he could.
The way he served Christ is important to note for the sake of the social teaching of the Church, and it should be noted that St. Martin de Porres is a patron of social justice. I’ve been to meetings, you see, where “charity” is used as a word of derision. It is that meager stuff of the pious that does little good to remedy the “root causes” of poverty.
St. Martin de Porres, though, was and is not remembered for his protests against institutional racism or his work to organize the poor against the oppression of imperialist Spain. Rather, he cared for the sick. He established orphanages and a hospital. He distributed alms and food to the poor. He was so taken by love, in fact, that he loved dogs, cats and even the rats and mice that infested Lima. St. Martin de Porres was so in love with Christ Jesus that he was too busy feeding Jesus, clothing him, visiting him to work against the socio-economic injustices.
This is not to say that we need not bother to improve on society, make better laws, change men’s hearts. It is only to say that charity ought always be the root of justice. I, for one, dislike the two feet analogy for social justice. The tired analogy still used by some at the USCCB where one foot is charity (direct social action) and the other foot is justice (social change). All must be charity, friends… ALL OF IT. Ignoring the poor in the womb in the name of undoing the structures of socio-economic inequality is a twisting of the teaching. Ignoring the homeless and hungry on the street in favor of protesting the military-industrial complex is false.
St. Martin de Porres should also remind us of the same stuff that St. Thérèse of Lisieux does, which is that love is best lived when we are smallest. When his priory was in arrears in payments to the landlord, St. Martin suggested:
I am only a poor mulatto; I’m the property of the order: sell me.
Again, no will-to-power here. This is the little heart, the little soul of a child that is so grateful for the grace of God that he has forgotten his own worth. His soul is so taken by the glory of God’s care for him that he saw no value in being valued by mere mortals.
Yet, valued by mere mortals he was. When the holy brother died in 1639, his body was carried by noblemen and prelates to its grave. He was canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, who was himself known for his love of little souls. Of St. Martin, Blessed Pope John said:
Saint Martin, always obedient and inspired by his divine teacher, dealt with his brothers with that profound love which comes from pure faith and humility of spirit. He loved men because he honestly looked on them as God’s children and as his own brothers and sisters. Such was his humility that he loved them even more than himself, and considered them to be better and more righteous than he was.
He excused the faults of others. He forgave the bitterest injuries, convinced that he deserved much severer punishments on account of his own sins. He tried with all his might to redeem the guilty; lovingly he comforted the sick; he provided food, clothing and medicine for the poor; he helped, as best he could, farm laborers and Negroes, as well as mulattoes, who were looked upon at that time as akin to slaves: thus he deserved to be called by the name the people gave him: ‘Martin of Charity.’
Being little and this question of power is an important one on which I thought much over my break. It is best to be little and love than to be influential and forget how to be little.
Happy feast of St. Winifred. Happy feast of St. Malachy of Armagh. And happy feast of St. Martin de Porres. May they and all the little souls of God, who serve Him in quiet corners of the world without notice or noise, pray for us.