It is a sad fact of life that the people who do the most for us are often the people who hurt us the most. That’s the sad truth about family life that St. Martin de Porres learned in Lima, Peru, and a century later, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton learned this too.
His full name is Martín de Porres Velázquez and he lived at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Elizabeth Bayley Seton was born almost exactly two centuries later in New York. De Porres established an orphanage and children’s hospital; Seton established a school and a religious congregation. Both were known for their deep prayer lives and care for the sick and dying.
But their “Lives of the Saints” stories don’t always include a hardship they both suffered: family pain and rejection.
Broken families are as old as the family itself.
One eye-opening lesson for the many Catholics who gave the “Bible in a Year” podcast its record audience last year is how the family has always suffered deep brokenness.
Failed fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters fill the pages of the Bible from Cain and Abel to the Woman at the Well.
These stories of pain can offer comfort to families today by showing how family life misses the ideal more than it hits it, and yet somehow God’s fatherhood shines through. As St. Paul said, “I bow my knees to the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.”
St. Martin de Porres was born outside of wedlock to the Spanish nobleman Don Juan de Porras y de la Peña, and Ana Velázquez, a woman of African and Native descent who had formerly been enslaved.
Martin’s father abandoned him and his sister at a young age, leaving his mother alone with two children. After a short stint in school, he entered studies with a barber and surgeon.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s mother died when she was young, leaving her father, the surgeon Richard Bayley, alone with two children. Bayley soon married Charlotte Amelia Barclay and had five children with her before the two separated. Elizabeth’s stepmother rejected Elizabeth and her older sister, and she was raised by an uncle and aunt when her father moved to London.
The pain was still raw in 1799 when Elizabeth, now in her 20s, was preparing to attend the marriage of one of her stepsisters and confided with her friend Julia Scott, “I hope notwithstanding all difficulties I shall be present and forget the past as far as possible.”
A year earlier she had counseled Scott about dealing with her own family loss. “You meeting with your family must have been a scene of so much pain to you as well as pleasure, that I please myself with the hope that it is over — And may Heaven grant you Peace in return for all the sorrow and confusion you have passed through here.”
When Elizabeth lost her husband, she exhorted her children to look to God as their Father, and when she found a new family in the Catholic Church, she invited them in.
In the end, both St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Martin de Porres found a new family in the Church’s consecrated life.
Martin was a pious child, spending hours in prayer as a primary school student and afterwards while he was learning the barber and medical trade. He ended up entering the religious life with the Dominicans after first being employed by them as a servant.
At age 24, Martin became a Dominican lay brother. He was known for his attentiveness to prayer and service.
Martin was devoted to Eucharistic adoration — so much so that once, when he was deep in prayer, the chapel he was in caught on fire and he didn’t notice. He stayed where he was, deep in prayer, as others addressed the fire. He would later be known for levitation, bilocation, infused knowledge, miraculous cures, and a St. Francis-like communication with animals. In iconography he is often shown with mice, a parrot, or a monkey.
But his skill as a surgeon made him sought after in his order. He put his skill to work to give new life to a priest who was near death from an infected leg, and healed the injured fingers of a seminarian, allowing him to continue to pursue the priesthood.
De Porres was also known for his attention to the small details of care for his community. He was called the “Saint of the broom,” and said “Everything, even sweeping, scraping vegetables, weeding a garden and waiting on the sick could be a prayer, if it were offered to God.”
Religious communities are like families connected by God’s love.
The 1994 Vatican document “Fraternal Life in Community” says a “religious community takes its origin and is built as a true family gathered together in the Lord’s name,” and adds “The Mother of the Lord will help configure religious communities to the model of ‘her’ family, the Family of Nazareth, a place which religious communities ought often to visit spiritually, because there the Gospel of communion and fraternity was lived in a wonderful way.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton took that literally, referring to her religious congregation as “the little family of St. Joseph.”
Her new family very quickly outgrew her old one.
“Six more postulants are daily waiting till we move in a larger place to receive them, and we might be a very large family ” she wrote. “Yet as Sisters of Charity we should fear nothing.”
St. Martin de Porres’ charity made him fearless. He once gave up his own bed in order to give an aged beggar, who was dressed in rags and covered with sores, a place to rest. When a brother complained, Martin said, “Compassion is preferable to cleanliness, dear brother.”
He took in sick people so often that when Lima was experiencing an epidemic, his superior demanded he stop, for fear of infecting the friars. Martin complied until he met a Native American bleeding from a dagger wound and brought him to his room while arranging transportation to take him to a hospital. The prior told him this was an act of disobedience.
“Forgive my error and please instruct me,” St. Martin said to his prior. “I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” The prior relented.
From age 34 to his death at age 59 he was placed in charge of the sick. He served nobles and slaves alike, and soon many miracles were attributed to him, including passing through locked doors to serve the suffering.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, too, was constantly at the beds of the sick and dying — starting with her own husband’s to those of family members and the Sisters of her community for years to come
“Afflictions are the steps to heaven,” St. Elizabeth Ann Seton would say.
Jesus Christ created new family relations when “stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren!’”
When St. Pope John XXIII canonized St. Martin de Porres in 1962, he said that Martin learned to turn his sufferings into love and service to the afflicted.
“Such was his humility that he loved them even more than himself and considered them to be better and more righteous than he was,” the Holy Father said. “He loved men because he honestly looked on them as God’s children and as his own brothers and sisters.”
Both St. Martin de Porres and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton saw broken families and health crises throughout their lives and responded with radical charity, gathering Catholic communities to teach and heal.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image Credit: Pope John Paul II waves after arriving at Miami International Airport at the start of his 1987 trip to the United States. (CNS photo/Joe Rimkus Jr.)
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