Wednesday, November 4, 2009


In a week that has already seen a celebration of all the saints and a commemoration of all who have died, these last 2 days are a remarkable coming together of saints from radically different backgrounds who sought our Lord following different paths: they both found “Him whom my heart desires” (Song of Songs 3:1, 4). I am referring to St. Martin de Porres and St. Charles Borromeo.

They were approximate contemporaries, both born in the 16th century. Martin actually was born about 5 years before Charles died. They both in fact died of fever. This is about all one can say about their respective lives that even vaguely overlapped.

Martin, born in Peru (illegitimately) of a Spanish father and black mother, was virtually disowned by his father because of his mixed-race background. Charles, on the other hand, was born into a noble family in the north of Italy. While Martin’s devotion made him (if you like) the “Jackie Robinson of the Dominicans”—he caused them to break down their color barrier—Charles was a nephew of Pope Pius IV.

Martin’s great gifts included the ability to beg (a charism that was particularly appropriate for a member of a mendicant, or begging, Order), and the ability to tend the sick with great love and tenderness and skill. He even anticipated the SPCA by establishing shelters for stray dogs and cats. There was no task so menial that Martin would not embrace it and make it “prayerful work.”

Charles was a leading figure in the institutional reform of the Church. His was the guiding voice in the concluding sessions of the Council of Trent, and while Archbishop of Milan he pressed for all the reforms the Council mandated, that the Church so desperately needed, and which were opposed by many who stood to lose personal gain as a result. One of the ways favors were passed down was called nepotism, loosely used to refer to special privileges given to family and close friends (think of the ‘patronage system’ of the old days in the Chicago of Mayor Daley, aka “Richard I”). In this case (perhaps the only time in history), a literal nephew’s being favored worked to the advantage of the Church. “Uncle” Pope Paul IV created his nephew a Cardinal while he was only 22—3 years before he was ordained a priest!

Humble service and ministry; noble service and drive for reform. One in the New World; one in the Old World. Martin was sometimes known as the “Saint of the Broom” for his willingness to engage in lowly tasks, yet the title could also, in a way, have been a good one for Charles, as he tried to sweep away the Church abuses which had led to the 16th century Reformation.

Both heard a call and answered. And this week, back to back, they are celebrated as brothers in the Communion of Saints.

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