No-Fault Martyrdom?

I am been thinking about Pope Francis’ canonization of the 800 martyrs of Otranto, Italy on Sunday, the 800+ people killed when they refused to convert when confronted by an Ottoman Turkish invader. I am not a historian of this material by any means, so for the moment, Wikipedia may be allowed to set the scene: “Antonio Primaldo and his companion martyrs, also known as the Martyrs of Otranto, were 813 inhabitants of the Salentine city of Otranto in southern Italy who were killed on August 14, 1480. The mass execution is often explained as taking place after the Otrantins refused to convert to Islam when the city fell to an Ottoman force under Gedik Adhmed Pasha. The contemporary Turkish historian Ibn Khemal indeed justified the slaughter on religious grounds. One modern study suggests it may have been a punitive measure, devoid of religious motivations, exacted to punish the local population for the stiff resistance they put up, which delayed the Turkish advance and enabled the king of Naples to strengthen local fortifications. Intimidation, a warning to other populations not to resist, may also have entered the invaders' calculations.” As many times in history, religion, politics, and power are entangled here.

So what is Francis to do, when it comes to a canonization he did not set in motion? As readers will know, John Paul II visited Otranto in 1980, and Benedict XVI was preparing the ground since at least 2007 for their canonization; indeed, he announced that it was to happen, at the convocation at which he announced his resignation. They had set this event in motion before Francis became pope and he received the duty of carrying it through. The Guardian has a fine piece on the canonization and the delicate balance Francis sought, between carrying out this planned event and its many delicate points, including how the pope avoided any incendiary language about Islam. 


So what did the pope say? “News.VA” gives a news report and then the entire papal homily, but this is the relevant section: “Today the Church proposes for our veneration a host of martyrs, who were called together to the supreme witness to the Gospel in 1480. About eight hundred people, [who], having survived the siege and invasion of Otranto, were beheaded near that city. They refused to renounce their faith and died confessing the risen Christ. Where did they find the strength to remain faithful? Precisely in faith, which allows us to see beyond the limits of our human eyes, beyond the boundaries of earthly life, to contemplate “the heavens opened” – as St. Stephen said – and the living Christ at the right hand of the Father. Dear friends, let us conserve the faith [that] we have received and that is our true treasure, let us renew our fidelity to the Lord, even in the midst of obstacles and misunderstandings.”

What to make of all this? As readers will know, I am very much in favor of constructive, mutually respectful interfaith relations, and am glad that by his passionate but tactful words the pope seems not to have stumbled into controversy.

Yet it is still a little odd to see how vague the pope’s words are: they “were beheaded,” and we are exhorted to keep the faith, “even in the midst of obstacles and misunderstandings.” By whom? Who was asking them to renounce their faith? Commentators over the weekend pointed to the persecution of Christians in some Middle Eastern countries, and in parts of Africa, where there are Muslim majorities. The pope makes no reference to any of this, though he does end this section of his homily with the appeal, “As we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain those many Christians who, in these times and in many parts of the world, right now, still suffer violence, and give them the courage and fidelity to respond to evil with good.”

I would add three points for further deliberation. First, these martyrs died for their faith, and this truth can stand without saying a word about the motives or insights of those who killed them. Yet there is a conversation to be had on this point, between Muslim and Christian leaders who are not afraid to confront the abuses of the past. While it does no good to count up who suffered more, who was more outrageous in the use of force in the name of religion, it is a wise further step, after this canonization, to not forget our violent past and pasts, and go over it together, lest old crimes poison today’s relations among religions.

Second, I would think that this model — honor the victims without portraying their killers as evil – might cut other ways too. So much of history is filled with instances of people suffering and dying for their faith — even in one or another cultural form, under one or another set of political exigencies — when oppressed by others: Hindus and Buddhists, Jews and Christians and Muslims, indigenous peoples everywhere, all have suffered. Yet we can hesitate to notice this universal pattern of suffering at the hands of religious people, because we do not want to get into recriminations, blame, finding the descendants of ancient oppressors guilty of their ancestors’ crimes. Francis suggests that we can mourn and honor those who suffer, even if our own faith and own religious community were the perpetrators of the violence, and that this lament and praise need not be the occasion for attack on the perpetrators of violence.

Third, I too can see the problem here: does this not leave uncriticized ancient perpetrators of evil and, even worse, create a very bad precedent for dealing with the suffering of the innocent today? It may indeed, and so the pope’s approach may not be imitated often. But the prophetic language of condemnation and the intimate language of lament – and the believer’s language that recognizes and celebrates faith shining in dark situations – are distinct discourses, and not all of them are appropriate all the time. Whatever Benedict might have said on this occasion, were he still pope, Francis has taken an interesting path, to learn what to say, and what not to say, even on the most public of occasions about the most sensitive of matters.

I will be curious what readers think about this difficult, delicate situation.


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Bill Mazzella
5 years 5 months ago
Francis clearly gave diplomatic response. The whole ares of canonization and martyrdom raises serious questions in certain times and locations. People today may be killed because they are Christians. But that does not mean that all of them accept death because they are Christian. Words going around by some writers that today we have a martyr every ten seconds or minutes are quite misleading and often incorrect. Even some canonized saints have serious flaws like Bernard of Clairvoux advocating the Crusades and Augustine permitting force to get people to convert. John Paul II seemed quite out of control in the numbers he put up.
PJ Johnston
5 years 5 months ago
Did the Vatican ever seriously investigate whether these people in fact died for their faith as opposed to being on the wrong side of an invading army, or did it just assume the truth of traditional martyrologies? A student sent me a report of the pending canonization a few weeks ago to comment on, and there are a number of factors that made the account unconvincing to me at least on first face. (Maybe if I had time to dig deeper, I would have been convinced). First of all, the Qur'an specifically disallows forced conversions, and the Prophet and the first caliphs didn't engage in them. Since the two main sources of authority in Islam are the Qur'an and the hadith and the earliest Muslims understood both as prohibiting forced conversions, there would be an anomaly that would need to be explained if there were in fact a "convert or die" ultimatum at Otranto. Perhaps it happened, but someone would have to build a case. Second, the account asks us to believe that Mehmed the Conqueror was making a policy out of forced conversions, when he is actually known to history as one of the most religiously-tolerant of all the sultans. People of the Book enjoyed very high status and relative autonomy in Mehmed's Ottoman Empire. If he were in the business of forced conversions or martyring people over their faith, his treatment of the Orthodox Church when he conquered Constantinople would have been very different indeed. Third, Mehmed's motives for expansion were secular, not religious. He was related to the Eastern Roman emperors and had himself crowned as the Eastern emperor when he conquered Constantinople, and went forward with his campaign in Italy to reunite the two halves of the empire with himself as the new Roman emperor. Fourth, all of this was occurring in the political context of the papacy trying to drum up public support for a crusade against Ottoman expansion, and this atrocity was latched upon immediately for propaganda purposes. Fifth, the Christian account of the "convert or die" ultimatum contradicts Turkish accounts of the event. Maybe there's some good evidence I'm not aware of, but it looks like political spin on a secular atrocity from Christians agitating for a crusade against the Ottomans which has been taken at face-value ever since. If you're going to canonize people on the basis of historical misunderstanding, it's better when that will bring religions closer together (for instance, canonizing the Buddha as St. Josaphat) than when it will drive them further apart.
Bill Mazzella
5 years 5 months ago
This is Francis' dilemma. He has to deal with a Curia which like power while there a pope Emeritus lurks in the background. Who may become a problem despite his denials. So he has to pick his moments while avoiding making the laggards around him a distraction. The greatest example of this is the Apostolic Constitution "Veterum Sapientia" which ordered Latin in the seminaries and everywhere. It went under the pope's name and he seemed to promote. Meanwhile many noted that it was propagated by a recalcitrant few in the Curia. It's not easy being pope.
PJ Johnston
5 years 5 months ago
I guess I don't understand why truth isn't more important than diplomacy, or if diplomacy matters so much, why internal diplomacy matters more than interfaith diplomacy. But I suspect this particular scruple is why I will never exercise political influence in any institution... It's difficult not to believe that Benedict deliberately saddled his successor with this, which is regrettable.
Roberto Blum
5 years 5 months ago
Several of the processes of canonizations under John Paul II and Benedict XVI seem to have been deeply flawed. One case is that of the Mexican Juan Diego, canonized by JPII but whose existence has never really been proved beyond doubt. Another case is the beatification of John Paul II himself, a pope that undoubtedly was charismatic and popular but some of whose actions and/or omissions were deeply unchristian and uncharitable such as the continuing protection JPII provided Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, a drug addict and sex predator that when cardinal Ratzinger became pope as Benedict XVI ordered Maciel to retire. The canonization of the 27 Mexican "cristero" martyrs was perceived to be a political ploy serving JPII's political interests especially since Miguel Agustin Pro, a Jesuit priest killed in the same period and under false accusations, was not included. These examples show to me the flawed canonization processes happening in the Vatican Curia.


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