This past week’s canonization of some new saints in Rome points out the Christian command to love and witness to the kerygmatic claim that “Jesus is Lord.” Each of them models how to live a radical life of discipleship in a distinct way.
First, the Martyrs of Otranto. Our era is not the first to be complicated by “the culture wars.” In fact, though there are many obvious exceptions, we have largely made great strides in living amicably among different ideologies in our pluralistic world. There is at least a concerted effort with the mainstream strands of the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam to co-exist peaceably today, and to foster relationships with all people of good will.
It is clearly evident that Pope Francis supports this effort and wants greater openness and dialogue, especially with the burgeoning explosion of Islamic believers migrating westward and northward into Europe. Yet, he canonized the more than 800 residents of Otranto, in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s “boot,” this week, not for opposing Islam per se, but for being willing to shed their blood as martyrs (literally “witnesses”) for the name of Christ in the 1400s.
We heard about St. Stephen, the first martyr, in the Sunday readings recently. Otranto’s residents may be able to teach us also to echo Steven’s final words from that reading, “Lord do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). He was killed by inter-religious intolerance, by the way, at the order of the violent and hateful criminal who would eventually become known to us as St. Paul. Powerful to keep in mind that no one is beyond redemption.
The other two saints canonized were Latin Americans, a Colombian named Laura of St. Catherine of Siena Montoya y Upegui, and a Mexican named Maria Guadalupe Garcia Zavala, more commonly referred to as Mother Lupita. In countries racked by poverty, corruption, and drug trafficking, with which our South American pope is all too familiar, these women teach us how to care for the weakest of society, in the mold of St. Francis who instructs us to “preach the Gospel always, and use words if necessary.”
Like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and so many before and since, these women loved without liking those whom they served. Let me clarify — I do not mean to say that they necessarily secretly disliked anyone or held distasteful grudges toward them. But they emulated Christ’s broad and genuine other-centered love, which is in theological terms agapic (charitable and altruistic) and kenotic (self-emptying). You cannot like someone you barely know or have never previously met, but you can “love” them as did the Good Samaritan, who cared for the beaten Jew who hated him.
These women through their actions say not “This person is nice/kind/attractive/magnetic/likes me so therefore I should do right by them.” But rather “I love and care for you in your weakness because you are a Temple of the Holy Spirit and an image of God, my heart’s origin and deepest longing. You can be sinful and dirty and mean to me and violent and without proper authorization, and yet I care for you at the command of my Lord Jesus, the author of Life whom hatred has unsuccessfully tried to put death.” A radical vision of discipleship that can continue to challenge us and give us food for thought.
Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.