On November 3rd we celebrate the feast of St Martin de Porres. But who is this saint and why is he so popular?
When I first began working in St Martin Apostolate I did not really know very much at all about St Martin’s life. Over the years however I have become very familiar with this lovely saint. I am constantly struck by the numbers of people who say he has helped them so much. Every month in our magazine we publish accounts of favours in our Saint Martin Replies column; we are never short of people writing in with their accounts of his intercession on their behalf.
A Saint for All People
I think one of the reasons for his appeal is the fact that his life touched so many different areas of peoples’ experience. Martin did it all – from working as a barber, ringing bells, sweeping floors, cleaning toilets to healing the sick, caring for all God’s creation, animals and birds and feeding the hungry. As well as all that, he spent half the night in prayer. And indeed when all is said and done it was prayer that formed the foundation upon which Martin’s entire life was built. It was prayer that transformed him from the son of an unknown father to a beloved child of God.
The Father of the Suffering Poor
During his lifetime Martin was known to the people of Lima as ‘the father of the suffering poor’. Not only did he provide for their needs but he also represented God the father looking out for his children. Sadly Martin’s biological father Juan de Porres, a Spanish knight, offered him little protection for the first eight years of his life. Preferring to safeguard his own reputation, he effectively abandoned Anna Velasquez and theirtwo children, because not only were they unmarried but she was a freed slave of Africa, at that time considered as an inferior.
When Martin was baptised at Saint Sebastian Church in 1579, the baptismal record noted that his father was unknown. Martin came to believe that if he did not have an earthly father to watch over him, he could still rely on the love and mercy of God. As a child he could seldom pass a church without stopping for a word with this heavenly father. The pain he must have experienced at his father’s desertion he gave over to God and God fashioned from his wounded, fragile heart a testament to the triumph of forgiveness over hate; acceptance over revenge; serenity over bitterness and most of all the healing power of love.
Martin was born in a country where war and oppression raged and where conquest and greed prevailed. It has been described as a ‘social hell’. Martin’s own situation was made even more difficult because of his mixed race genealogy and his illegitimacy. He knew what it meant to be laughed at and discriminated against. It may be hard for us to believe now, but during his lifetime, the European intellectuals were still debating whether the Indians, Africans and mulattos in America were full human beings.
Saint Martin’s Devotion
In a culture where physical strength and even cruelty were prized above tenderness and mercy it was to the ‘weak and lesser’ beings that Martin devoted his life’s work. These included the widows, orphans, sick and enslaved who were in literal and metaphorical chains around him. Mixed among these would be dogs and cats that wandered the streets, not wanted or loved by anyone.
Martin is also often described as the ‘St Francis of the Americas’. Both loved God’s whole creation and could communicate with animals. In this they were a sign of what had been lost by Adam and Eve’s disobedience; a sign of the whole creation waiting for salvation. Those who knew Martin and witnessed his kindness to animals told many wonderful stories at the process for his beatification. These are not just stories to amuse children. Like the parables of Jesus, such incidents from Martin’s life are full of Gospel truths. Martin made it possible for natural enemies, a dog, cat and tiny mouse to feed from the same bowl. This is an example of the all-inclusive love of God that breaks down the barriers which separate us from one another. It is something we need more than ever in the war-torn world we are living in today.
Reach Out and Live Peacefully
If we can learn to live peacefully with all people of all races and classes, we will be following Martin’s example and furthering the kingdom of heaven on earth. Each day offers us the opportunity to reach out to others with love. We need only to look for them. Martin’s ready obedience, his spirit of prayer and penance, his acceptance of humiliating duties and embarrassing taunts can help us accept injustice with dignity. At some time, we have all endured harsh words and unkind actions.
St Martin is the patron of social justice and as such he serves as a very powerful example for us in so many areas. Ethnic, racial and religious injustice and persecution; human rights; materialism – many have more of the world’s goods than may be beneficial for their spiritual well-being while others have much less even than what they truly need for survival; the Environment which is being destroyed through pollution of the seas and destruction of our natural world. For example, many fur-bearing animals are endangered simply to make unnecessary garments for human adornment.
As we celebrate the life of St Martin, let us try to look at the world through his lens and thereby work to truly make it a better place.
By Marie – Therese Cryan