Learning from a Humble Social Justice Saint

Today we continue our regular series called “Learning from the Saints.” Our guide is expert Bert Ghezzi, a dear friend of mine and the author of numerous books including Voices of the SaintsSaints at Heartand Discover Christ: Developing a Personal Relationship with Jesus.

His more recent books are The Heart of Catholicism and Prayers to the Holy Spirit. You can learn more about Bert and his work at BertGhezzi.com.

Today, Bert profiles St. Martin de Porres, the seventeenth-century patron of social justice and the poor.

MartinSt. Martin de Porres was a mulatto, the black son of a Spanish conquistador and a freed slave woman from Panama. In 1594, he entered the Dominican monastery at Lima, Peru, and became a professed brother in 1603. Martin was trained as a physician, but he also possessed gifts of healing. So he turned the monastery into a dispensary, a ramshackle prototype of a modern clinic.

Hundreds of Lima’s poor came to him for help. With medicine or miracles, he healed the sick. At the monastery door he fed several hundred people every day. He collected money and distributed it among the needy. Once he provided dowries for twenty-seven poor young women who could not have married without his aid. And his most significant act of social justice was funding, designing, building and staffing an orphanage and school for the street children of the city.

Martin always tried to stay little, hidden in the background. For example, he attempted to conceal his healing gift by using some herb or poultice as a decoy when he ministered to the sick. But despite his efforts he became well-known for his healing.

An amusing story is told of Felician de Vega, who was passing through Lima to take up his office as archbishop of Mexico. He was suffering from fever and an immobilizing pain in his chest. So he sent for Brother Martin, the famous healer. The superior ordered Martin to go to the archbishop immediately, giving him no time to gather his medical paraphernalia. This time Martin wouldn’t be able to hide. When he arrived, the archbishop ordered him to extend his hand:

“But what would a prelate like Your Excellency want with the hand of a poor mulatto?” asked Martin, hoping to keep his cover.
“Didn’t the Father Provincial tell you to do whatever I said?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Then put your hand on my chest.”
As soon as the saint touched the archbishop the pain went away. Martin tried to remove his hand. “Isn’t that enough, my lord?”
“Leave your hand right where it is,” said the archbishop, and he held the saint’s had firmly against his rib cage. Miraculously, the fever and all traces of the illness disappeared.
Embarrassed at his exposure, Martin returned to the monastery. He disciplined himself by grabbing a broom to sweep in dark corners of the building and by cleaning latrines.
“Brother Martin,” a priest asked him, “wouldn’t you be better off in the palace of the archbishop of Mexico?”
Martin answered with a paraphrase of Psalm 84: “‘I have chosen to be a slave in the house of my God.’ Father, I think one moment spent in doing what I am doing right now is more important than many days spent in the house of the Lord Archbishop.”

Such humility and charity were the hallmarks of St. Martin’s life. For half a century he was the servant of all in the monastery and the city. He died in 1659.

St. Martin de Porres was both a contemplative and an activist, setting us an example of balancing prayer and social action. Martin devoted most of his day serving others. Much of the night he sacrificed sleep to worship the Lord before a crucifix. Few of us are called to duplicate the saint exactly. But all of us should imitate him by building both prayer and social action into our busy lives. And in our own small ways, keeping them in balance as St. Martin did.

(Image Credit: St. Martin Marianists)

Read more from Bert at his website www.BertGhezzi.com, or check out his many books on Amazon.