Sunday, May 21, 2017

Popular Piety II: Saints of Charity

Saintliness and devotion related to saints is about both prayer and action. Some of the most revered saints promoted charity toward the poor and marginal, “like Jesus” they might have added. Some came from humble beginnings. Saints could populate an entire blog, but here I will focus on just three.

Martin de Porres


Martin de Porres Velázquez (1579-1639) is a particularly modern saint, though he lived 400 years ago. Born in Lima, Viceroyalty of Peru, he was the illegitimate son of Don Juan de Porres, the scion of minor Spanish gentry, and Ana Velázquez, a freed slave from Panama of African and possibly part Native American descent.

Like the famous literary figure who was his contemporary, the half-Inca and half-Spanish Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Martin was born in a society in the early stages of Spanish colonization, uneasily drifting toward a mix of ethnicities spurred by the arrival of all-male conquerors who took over the Inca empire. When Martin’s sister Juana was born two years after him, the father left his family, which meant he grew up in poverty. His mother placed him with a barber who, as was common then, was also a surgeon, and he learned both trades from the man.

Martin spent long hours in prayer and felt called to religious life, but the law barred descendants of Africans or Indians from joining religious orders. So he asked the Dominicans of Holy Rosary Priory in Lima to take him as a volunteer. He did menial work in return for being allowed to wear the habit and live within the religious community. He was eventually given responsibility for distributing money to the poor, while also barbering and healing, working in the kitchen, doing laundry, and cleaning. These many tasks inspired the title of a 1961 Spanish film about him, “Fray Escoba” (Fra Broom).

After eight years, a prior dispensed with the law, and Martin took vows as a Third Order Dominican, a layman devoted to the community’s ideals. Not all Dominicans were as open-minded as the prior: Martin, who had already been ridiculed as a “half-breed,” was called names and mocked for both his illegitimacy and slave descent. (Incidentally, similar behavior by Irish-Americans has occurred in modern U.S. seminaries and monasteries toward other ethnic groups.)

Martin was assigned to the infirmary, which he ran until his death, and was known for patiently caring for the sick, whether Spanish nobles or African slaves. He founded an orphanage for abandoned children and slaves and raised dowries for poor young girls in an astoundingly short time.

In his work he became acquainted with two other local saints of the period, both TOR Dominicans, St. Juan Macías and the better known St. Rose of Lima.

A notable mystic, Martin displayed the gifts of levitation, bilocation, healing, miraculous insight and uncanny communication with animals. When an epidemic affected friars in his religious house, Martin passed through locked doors behind which they were quarantined. Disciplined for breaking community rules, he replied, “Forgive my error, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.”

Martin died at 60. He was ill with chills, fever, and tremors that were agonizing. He was canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII and named patron saint of mixed-race people, barbers, innkeepers, public health workers, and all those seeking racial harmony.

Martin is the first non-European New World saint, a contemporary of St. Mariana of Jesus de Paredes, the first canonized from Ecuador, and less than a century before St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), an Algonquin-Mohawk laywoman from what is today northern New York state, canonized in 2012.

Vincent de Paul


Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) is synonymous with service to the poor. His life included two years as a slave after capture by Barbary Pirates and spiritual direction of Queen Anne of France. His care for the plight of peasants, galley slaves, and orphans spawned orders and institutions to serve them.

Born a peasant, he was ordained a priest in 1600, shortly before the pirate episode. On his return, he was placed as a tutor and spiritual director in the home of the Gondi, a Florentine banking family. He preached to and found aid for poor tenant farmers and with an endowment from the Gondi launched the first of several “conferences of charity” to stimulate missions and assistance of the poor. His major talent, however, seems to have been inspiring others to carry on work he saw needed doing.

With St. Louise de Marillac, he helped found the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, an unusual order in which women make annual vows, remaining free to leave at each one without ecclesiastical permission. They inspired the order founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S. canonized saint. Today 18,000 Daughters serve in 94 countries, working with food aid, sanitation, shelter, health care, migrant assistance and education. Similarly, the Congregation of the Mission, a vowed society of priests and brothers was founded by Vincent de Paul and five other priests on the estates of the Gondi family in 1624.

De Paul saw that priests in France were slackers and inspired Father Jean-Jacques Olier to found the Society of the Priests of Saint-Sulpice in 1641 to educate priests and their continuing spiritual formation. Priests could join only after years of pastoral work. Among the society’s famous members are Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and the late U.S. biblical scholar Raymond Brown.

Several groups claiming inspiration by St. Vincent de Paul form a loose federation known as the Vincentian Family. The most famous is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, founded by Frédéric Ozanam in 1833 to help Parisian slum dwellers. It has some 800,000 members in 140 countries and operates through “charity conferences” based in a church, community center, school or hospital.

Vincent de Paul, canonized in 1737, is revered in the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

Don Bosco


Similar to St Vincent de Paul, St John Bosco (1815-1888), popularly known as Don Bosco, is inextricably linked with education of poor and troubled youth.

Born to humble farmhands, he got an education thanks to a priest who saw talent in the destitute youth. He was ordained at about 26. His first assignment was as chaplain of the Rifugio, a girls’ boarding school in Turin. Other duties included visiting prisoners, teaching catechism and helping out at country parishes. Visiting the prisons, Don Bosco was disturbed at the number of underage boys there.

With industrialization, poor rural families came to Turin in search of a better life and ended up in slums, their children exposed to criminals. Don Bosco once said that seeing these young boys in prison reminded him of a dream he had at 12. A large group of poor boys were playing and “blaspheming.” A man of noble, manly and imposing bearing said to him: “You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.” He decided to go beyond ordinary ministry to a new form of apostolate.

He started talking to boys in shops and the marketplace. He gathered them into prayer groups known as the Oratory, after the work of St. Philip Neri, an Italian priest noted for founding a society of secular clergy. The boys were drawn by Don Bosco’s kindness toward them. He started with 20, and in four years there were 400.

The Oratory became Don Bosco’s permanent work. He found jobs for the boys and sought housing for those who were homeless and slept under bridges or in public shelters. At first the boys stole the blankets and other supplies. In 1847, he gave shelter to a young boy and his mother in rooms he rented for them. Don Bosco and the mother, whom he called Mamma Margherita, began taking in orphans who soon numbered in the hundreds.

Much later he described his approach to drawing in boys and adult helpers as a “Preventive System of Education,” rooted in the heart: the boys were loved, and they knew it. The system included reason, religion and kindness, with a dash of music and games.

The traditionalist clergy accused him of stealing” people from their parishes. Nationalist anticlerical politicians saw the growing number of youths as recruiting ground for revolution. (The Marquis de Cavour, chief of police in Turin, is said to have seen open-air catechism instruction as overtly political and a threat to the government.)

The Salesian Congregation, the order Don Bosco founded, grew out of the assistance some of the boys he helped gave to other abandoned boys. In 1859, Bosco selected an experienced priest, 15 seminarians and one high school boy and formed the Society of St. Francis de Sales, an order of priests, seminarians and lay brothers named after a Geneva bishop revered for his gentle approach to controversy. With a noted religious figure who worked with a group of girls in a nearby hill town, he also founded an order of sisters to do for girls what the Salesian men were doing for boys, the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians. Both orders were aided by a lay support group, the Salesian Cooperators.

The orders began at a time of mass emigration from Italy to Argentina, and the first overseas Salesian mission went to that South American country in 1875. Bosco said that this mission, too, appeared to him in a dream of a vast plain, inhabited by primitive peoples. By 2000, the Salesians had some 17,000 members in 2,711 houses and were deemed the third-largest missionary organization in the world.

Don Bosco was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934.

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