Dilemma over memorialising slaughtered innocents

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Posted by Richard Rawlinson 

I wonder how Pope Francis felt about his duty last Sunday. His predecessor, Pope Benedict, announced the canonisation of 800 unknown people just before dropping the bombshell of his resignation. By carrying out Benedict’s decree in St Peter’s Square last weekend, Francis instantly broke the record for the pontiff who has created the most saints. 

But is there conflict between this and Francis’s goal of greater ecumenical dialogue between faiths? The 800 new saints happen to be the townsfolk of Otranto in southern Italy who were beheaded by Ottoman soldiers in 1480, each martyred for refusing to surrender to a siege and convert to Islam.  

Their skulls currently adorn the walls around the altar of Otranto Cathedral as a memorial to their sacrifice. Benedict was in turn continuing the line of the late John Paul II who visited Otranto in 1980 for the 500th anniversary of the martyrs’ deaths. Miracles must be recognised by the Vatican in order for people to become saints, and a Poor Clare Sister, Francesca Levote, was apparently healed from a serious form of cancer after a pilgrimage to pray before the martyrs’ relics in 1980, a few months before John Paul’s visit. She died in 2012, aged 85. 

But the subject is undoubtedly sensitive. On the one hand, remembering Christian martyrs, including anonymous folk, inspires the faithful to examine their own life and how it corresponds with the Gospel call to love and forgive. The move also redresses the revisionism of liberal historians who paint the Crusaders always as aggressors rather than defenders, and whitewashes the violence of Islamists. 

However, it must be noted that it was the barbaric practice of Medieval armies of diverse nationalities and faiths to kill those captured after a siege. Is the mass canonisation stoking up old flames, or is it a poignant reminder of the awful reality of war, and the principled steadfastness and bravery of innocents caught up in it?  

We’re called to forgive but not to forget just as we seek forgiveness for our own sins without expecting them to be airbrushed to oblivion.  

This memorial happens also to be highly relevant today when Christians are increasingly persecuted brutally in part of the Middle East and Asia.


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