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.