A Humble Social Justice
There are so many saints in the Church that very often several of them could be celebrated on some days. For instance, on November 3rd we could celebrate St. Winifred, who lost her head to the evil Caradoc because she would not give in to him. Despite being headless, she was raised from the dead, which freaked Caradoc right out. Then there is St. Malachy. He was so stellar a saint that St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a biography of the man. Holy Mother Church does try to keep our calendar less cluttered, however, and will usually draw our attention to one saint.
Today, we remember one of the humblest of saints: St. Martin de Porres.
Martin was born in 1579 in Lima, Peru to the Spanish nobleman Don Juan de Porres and a black, former slave named Anna Velazquez. Martin inherited his mother’s dark skin, much to the chagrin of his father. So that, Don Juan recognized Martin as his son but did not involve himself with the raising of the boy.
From a young age Martin was drawn to spiritual matters. The love of Christ crucified made his heart ache from love, which explains why he is depicted most often with a cross in his hand.
Martin’s mother Anna arranged for her son to apprentice with a surgeon so that he could make a living, and this served him well as he sought to live the Gospel by loving his neighbor. Even at the age of twelve, though, Martin’s desire for God drew him to the religious life. And after three years, Martin was admitted into the Holy Rosary priory in Lima as a Third Order Dominican, and he was placed in the infirmary to help care for the sick.
One day he let a beggar into the priory and gave the man his own bed. The other Dominicans complained that Martin 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.” Translation?
Our souls would be much dirtier than this homeless man if we failed to care for him when we could.
This tenderness in Martin’s heart of hearts, as well as his almost supernatural ability to meet the needs of those who came to the priory, won him some respect within the community. In 1603 Martin was allowed to become a professed lay brother and wear the white Dominican habit, a rarity at a time when blacks were not allowed to take on the full habit of a Dominican.
Martin spent his life caring 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. For him all was love. Everything was charity. He was reminded of it every time he stared at his crucifix. And this love he had for Jesus changed the world around him, making it a little bit more just for the poor and the forgotten.
When the holy brother Martin de Porres died in 1639, his body was carried by noblemen and bishops and monsignors and priests and all the “important people” to its grave. All the powers-that-be recognized his greatness in humility. He was canonized in 1962 by Pope St. John XXIII. Of St. Martin, the Pope said that “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. … Thus, he deserved to be called by the name the people gave him: ‘Martin of Charity.’” This is perhaps why he is the patron saint of social justice, which must start and end with charity not violence, or hatred, or intolerance, or accusation and judgment.
St. Martin de Porres, St. Martin of Charity pray for us and remind us that love is the best path of all; for he who serves Christ in quiet corners of the world with eyes fixed on the cross will always win the ultimate joy of heaven and bring justice and peace to our times.