Today marks the 50th anniversary of the canonization of St. Martin DePorres, Dominican friar of Lima, Peru and patron of the Dominican Province of St. Martin DePorres, Southern USA.
Blessed John XXIII spoke two years prior to the canonization of Martin DePorres saying,
“I have thought of your lands, your immense and beautiful continent, lands where saints have flourished...humble, pure and innocent...Such was Martin DePorres, long recognized as blessed, but upon whose forehead we already see shining the radiant halo of the saints... It is necessary to always speak and practice the truth, to observe the virtue of justice for all people, doing harm to no one, and, above all, to establish a world of fraternal and universal love. This is the great triumph of the gospel, the purest flower of Christian civilization and culture.”
On May 6, 1962 he canonized our Brother Martin, saying, “A springtime flower has opened in the Church.”
The historical environs of Martin’s life are rather well known as they deal with the struggles of the American continent during a time of adventurous pioneers, monstrous conquerors; natives both peaceful and savage; and heralds of the Gospel, defenders of the indefensible. Fray Antonio de Montesinos was one of the twelve original Dominicans sent to the New World, arriving in 1510 at Santo Domingo, and one of the first to denounce the ill treatment of the natives. He would be the first in a line of compassionate friars who would seek justice and salvation for the natives of America. In 1551 the friars arrived in Martin’s hometown of Lima and established the University of St. Mark—the first in all of the Americas.
Thus, at the birth of Martin DePorres the city of Lima had only been established 43 years earlier. The Gospel seed was still “fresh” in the land and Martin DePorres, the apostle of charity, would be part of a new generation of friars dedicated to the preaching of Jesus Christ in the land of South America. A child of a black Panamanian slave woman and a white affluent Spaniard, Martin suffered greatly in his childhood and throughout his life from his own father, and many others who despised his skin color and illegitimacy. Baptized in the same font as St. Rose of Lima at the church of St. Sebastian, St. Martin learned from a very early age to treasure God as his heavenly Father, as his earthly father, Juan de Porras had abandoned him, not wanting to accept a child with black skin. However, de Porras–perhaps having a change of heart–would later provide for the education of Martin and his sister Juana in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
A couple of stories will suffice:
At the age of twelve, Martin chose the trade of barber—which then included the duties of minor surgeon, doctor and pharmacist. In his years as an apprentice he would hold long vigils in his room on his knees, in tears, before the crucifix. After having begged for candle stubs from the owner of the house in which he, his sister, and his mother lived, he would be found by her pouring out his heart to his Savior. She, peering through the keyhole, would later invite her friends to do the same and watch this spectacle.
Facing bigotry even from his own Dominican brothers, in his service to the friars there are many accounts—given as cause for his beatification in the latter half of the seventeenth century—of his heroic love.
Giuliana Cavallini, in her book Martin DePorres, Apostle of Charity, tells of Martin’s great humility:
“One day Martin learned that the prior had gone out to sell several valuable objects, not having enough money to pay certain debts of the monastery and to provide for the needs of the community. The news made him thoughtful... Could not some other solution be found? “Perhaps Martin recalled having heard how St. Dominic, in order to redeem a poor woman’s brother from the slavery of the Saracens offered to go as a slave in his place...So Martin ran through the streets of Lima after the prior, who was headed for the merchants’ quarter. He overtook the prior and, still breathless, explained his idea, begging him not to sell the objects he had with him, but to sell him...and it would be a great blessing for him to find, at last, someone who would treat him as he deserved! “The prior was dumbfounded. At first he did not understand Martin. When he grasped Martin’s plan, his eyes filled with tears. “Go back to the monastery, Brother. You are not for sale.”
The prior’s simple words show his profound love for the saint. Martin seems to have exhibited a youthful innocence, docility and humility that many other saints like him have possessed.
Why is Martin DePorres a saint? It is not, I do not think, because he healed the sick, it is not because he gave ceaselessly to the poor, it is not because he cared for all God’s creatures with compassion, it is not even because of his wholesome piety or devotions, nor because he was a black man in a troubled time. For there have been many people like this and they have all inevitably disappeared into the recesses of history. What then, in my perhaps misguided opinion, do I believe made Martin DePorres a saint? In Giuliana Cavallini’s biography of Martin she quotes Father José de Villarsbia: “His ‘profound and consummate’ humility was based on his knowledge of the greatness of God.” Martin had discovered the only real secret there is, which is not really a secret at all. He was intimately aware of the reality that all things come from God and that we can do nothing to fully return this great favor. Inevitably, all saints are saints because they have so fully identified themselves with Christ that they suffer gladly, that they receive his wounds, that they offer their lives completely in the face of rejection, indifference, and misunderstanding. There is a thin line and a very subtle difference between the Gospel of Christ and the Gospel of the world. Their fruits would seem similar—heal the sick, bring about peace, love one’s neighbor, respect the Earth, and so on. But, what then, separates a Christian from the altruistic pagan or atheist? Martin knew. Martin knew that there was no comparison to the God who became man. He looked not within himself or even his brothers to discover the strength he needed to care endlessly for those in need. Instead he looked to Christ Crucified—He grew up looking to the Crucified Christ, and beginning in this humble state on his knees, it should be no wonder to us that when he left his contemplation of the wounded Son of God, he would see His face in all those whom he encountered. Martin died clutching a crucifix.
But that is not the end of the story. If it were, it would be a rather romantic story, but not by any means a Christian one. Instead, that crucifix dropped from his hands at his death, and fell to his chest. Good Friday had passed for Martin, and he was now to rejoice in the beatific vision, all the while offering his incessant help to those who called on him.