Thursday, 3 November 2016

St Martin de Porres -- 3 November

Saint Martin was canonised by Pope John XXIII in 1962. He was born in 1579 to a Spanish father and coloured mother. It was a time of contagious holiness in Lima, Peru, two of his contemporaries being St Rose of Lima, the first canonised saint of the Americas, and St John Macias, like Martin a lay brother living in the Dominican community in the city. All three were friends, enjoying even in this life the best possible experience of friendship, one shared around the pursuit of virtue and the practice of goodness.

'Father unknown' appears on Martin's baptismal certificate. When he was eight his father did acknowledge him as his son, but when a sister came along he abandoned the family again. Martin was apprenticed to a surgeon-barber, the cutting of hair being part of the surgeon's craft at that time (hence the red and white poles that still mark the barber's shop, blood and bandages: just as well we don't think of this on the way in). At the age of 11 Martin became a servant in the Dominican priory in Lima. He carried out the quest for them, begging alms for the friars around the city. He was also infirmarian, taking care of the sick in the community.

In 1604, when Martin was 24, the Dominicans dropped the stipulation that 'no black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order'. So he could join the Dominicans and not just work for them. You will find here an account of recent research on Martin's status within the Order.

It is strange that it took the Order so long to arrive at this decision. In the middle of the previous century, in a famous debate held in Valladolid, Dominican theologians and missionaries argued against the opinion of a Jesuit theologian, Sepulveda, who believed that the natives of the Americas were 'natural slaves'. The order rightly takes pride in Tomas de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas who led the movement in support of the full human rights of the natives. In the process de Vitoria became one of the founding fathers of international law in its modern meaning. And yet it took another fifty years for the order to which they all belonged to admit black people to profession.

Martin de Porres stands out in the turmoil and injustices of his time and place when most of its 'important people' are long forgotten. The power of the gospel directed his life entirely and he became known, in his lifetime, as 'the father of charity'. He gave practical help and support, medicines and food, shelter and counsel, to anybody and everybody who needed it. He is a patron of social justice and of race relations and is honoured, like St Francis, for his care of creation. The animals too came to Martin's door confident of a Christian welcome, as a lay brother of my acquaintance said of the ducks who decided to rear their young in the priory garden at Tallaght.

One of the readings chosen for Saint Martin's feast in the Dominican lectionary is Galatians 3:26-28; 4:6-7, which says that in Christ there is no longer slave or free, all call on God as Abba, Father, and all are acknowledged by this Father, heirs to the inheritance He has stored up for them. One of the gospel readings recommended is Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan. We have heard it many times and know its teaching: which of the three proved neighbour to the man who had fallen among thieves? We all know what neighbourliness involves, we need no more sermons or homilies about it. It is just a matter of imitating Saint Martin and doing what charity asks of us

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