Pope Francis canonized four 19th century women religious – 2 from Palestine, and one each from Italy and France – during a festive mass in St Peter’s Square on May 17, attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and official State delegations from Jordan, Israel, Italy and France.
More than 2,000 Christians, and also some Muslims, travelled from the Middle East to Rome for this historic ceremony. They came together with Patriarchs, bishops, priests, women and men religious from Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia Egypt and Cyprus. They cheered loudest of all when Francis declared that the two Palestinian nuns are now saints to be venerated by the Catholic Church throughout the world.
The four women, whose portraits hanging on the facade of St Peter’s Basilica, had “a secret” in common Pope Francis said in his homily. He spoke after declaring them saints and venerating their relics that were placed beside the canopied altar where he concelebrated mass with 90 cardinals and 600 bishops and priests from all continents.
He explained “their secret” by recalling that Jesus “had repeated insistently to his disciples: ‘Abide in me... Abide in my love’ (John 15)”. The four women did just that, he said; “they remained throughout their lives joined to him like branches to the vine, in order to bear much fruit”. That was “their secret” and “they bore the fruit of love.”
Then, in words that seemed addressed in particular to the beleaguered Christian Churches and believers in the Middle East, Pope Francis told them that “a relationship with the risen Jesus is ‘the atmosphere’ in which Christians live and in which they find the strength to remain faithful to the Gospel, even amid obstacles and misunderstandings.”
In fact, he said “This love shines forth in the testimony of Sister Jeanne Émilie de Villeneuve” (1811-1854), a French noble woman “who consecrated her life to God and to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and the exploited, becoming for them and for all a concrete sign of the Lord’s merciful love.”
That love too was visible for all to see in the life of the Italian nun, Maria Cristina Brando (1856-1906). Francis recalled that “She was completely given over to ardent love for the Lord. From prayer and her intimate encounter with the risen Jesus present in the Eucharist, she received strength to endure suffering and to give herself – as bread which is broken - to many people who had wandered far from God and yet hungered for authentic love.”
Pope Francis said this same love “calls us to cultivate contemplative prayer”. He recalled that the young Palestinian woman from Galilee “Mariam Baouardy (1846-1878) experienced this (call) in an outstanding way” and although she was “poor and uneducated, she was able to counsel others and provide theological explanations with extreme clarity, the fruit of her constant converse with the Holy Spirit.” Indeed, “her docility to the Spirit also made her a means of encounter and fellowship with the Muslim world”, he said of the Palestinian mystic who in her short life – 32 years – lived and worked in Alexandria (Egypt), Beirut (Lebanon), Marseilles (France), Pau and Mangalore (India) and established the Carmelite convent in Bethlehem.
The Jerusalem-born Marie Alphonsine Danil Ghattas experienced this call too, the Pope said of the woman who founded the congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Rosary that today provides education across the Arab world to girls and women, and especially those that are poor. “She came to understand clearly what it means to radiate the love of God in the apostolate, and to be a witness to meekness and unity. She shows us the importance of becoming responsible for one another, of living lives of service one to another”, Francis said of the woman whose religious family now works in the Holy Land, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, some Emirates of the Persian Gulf (Abu Dhabi, Shariqah) and Rome .
Speaking in Italian, Pope Francis said these four women saints responded to the call of Jesus “to abide in God and in his love, and thus to proclaim by our words and our lives the resurrection of Jesus, to live in unity with one another and with charity towards all.”
The Jesuit pope, who is in very good health and spirits, told the 50,000 pilgrims in the square and the millions that were following the ceremony by radio or television, that “the luminous example” of these four women saints “challenges us in our lives as Christians.” They challenge us to ask ourselves: “How do I bear witness to the risen Christ? How do I abide in him? How do I remain in his love? Am I capable of “sowing” in my family, in my workplace and in my community, the seed of that unity which he has bestowed on us by giving us a share in the life of the Trinity?”
He concluded by urging all present and those following the ceremony in different countries, “to cultivate in our hearts the commitment to abide in God’s love” and “to remain united to him and among ourselves”, as these four new women saints did.
After the homily, the Pope went onto concelebrate the mass at which prayers were read in Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, and during which the Sistine choir sang.
At the end of mass, Francis extended a word of greeting to the officials delegations from Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Italy and France and prayed that through the intercession of the four new saints, "may the Lord grant a new missionary impulse to their respective countries of origin." He also expressed the hope and prayer that "inspired by their examples of mercy, charity and reconciliation, may the Christians of these lands look to the future with hope, continuing on the path of solidarity and fraternal living together."
After imparting his blessing, Francis warmly embraced the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, whom he had called “an angel of peace” on the previous day when they met in private. He also greeted the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, as well as other Patriarchs, cardinals and bishops, before driving in his open jeep among the crowd.
The Patriarchs, bishops and clergy from the Middle East will concelebrate a mass of thanksgiving for the new saints, in Arabic, in the basilica of St Mary Major’s in Rome, tomorrow morning, May 18.
Full text of Pope’s homily in English can be found here: