By Sister Ruth Bolarte
As a native of Peru, I grew up listening to many stories regarding the life of St. Martin de Porres. The African-American Catholic community gathered Nov. 8 to celebrate their heritage and Martin! It was a privilege to proclaim the second reading in Martin’s native language. This liturgical celebration moved me to remember and share some insights on “Martin of Charity” – the name the people had given him. Throughout his life charity was above all – even more important than obedience.
Martin’s life was characterized by humility, works of charity and compassion for all. “Compassion, my dear Brothers, is preferable to cleanliness. 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.” This was the saint’s reply to his brothers when admonished for bringing a dirty sick beggar and putting him on his bed to care for him.
At his canonization, Pope John XXIII remarked: “He excused the faults of others. He forgave the bitterest injuries…on account of his own sins…lovingly he comforted the sick; he provided food, clothing and medicine for the poor; he helped, as best he could, farm laborers and Negroes, as well as mulattoes, who were looked upon at that time as akin to slaves.”
In Martin’s time, society and the Church debated the status of the African slaves and those born of mixed racial parentage. Yes, it was a time of discrimination and prejudice. Lima, Peru, was a society where injustice flourished and the weak and poor were oppressed. Nowadays, some of these conditions have not been overcome either here or throughout the world. Martin experienced these injustices and responded with love rather than bitterness. Because he is one of the “little ones” of society, Martin has been named patron of social justice and race relations. He is also the patron saint of African-Americans, barbers and hairdressers.
I learned about Martin’s virtues through humorous stories that are part of Peruvian literature. One my mother used to bring peace when we children quarreled was about the mouse, the cat and the dog. Showing us the image of Martin and the three animals, she would say, “Couldn’t we eat in peace from one plate?”
All over the place, we see people struggling with one another over ethnic, racial and religious differences. Martin saw each person as a child of God and served each the same, from the beggar to the highest Church or society leader.
Martin is a model for us in his obedience, patience, charity, humility, fervor in prayer and gentleness. Let’s strive to look through Martin’s eyes, and we will find ways to advocate for the oppressed, to care for the earth, to share our gifts, to live in harmony, forgive those who offend, to fight prejudice, to love as Jesus loves us -sharing from one plate!
Sister Ruth Bolarte, I.H.M., is the director of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization in Philadelphia.