Acclaimed by Four Centuries: Aspects of the Canonical Cause

Timeliness of the Cause

If it is asked why the Cause of the Five Franciscan Martyrs of Georgia is being promoted now, almost four centuries after their death, several reasons for its timeliness come to mind. By raising these Servants of God to the honor of the altars, the Church would assert and reaffirm some perennial truths which the spirit of the times tends to forget but which today are needed in a special way.

Firstly, those missionaries died for their defense of the Sanctity of Christian Marriage. Today that concept is in eclipse – lamentably, even among Christians – with catastrophic consequences for the Church itself and for Western civilization. These Servants of God preached and died because they believed in the sacredness and the inviolability of a marriage which reflects the union of the Eternal Word with Humanity. Their steadfastness, even in the face of the attacks of an uncomprehending society, their willingness to sacrifice life itself rather than to sanction a compromise, has to be a powerful reminder to our neo-pagan world that the union of a man and woman has been restored by the Savior to its primal monogamy, which for all time is God's will for mankind. The ideal of a faithful Christian Marriage would be proclaimed and exalted by their canonization.

Secondly, because polygamy proceeds from the social denial .of the equality of women with men, the effort of those missionaries, at the very dawn of American history, to eradicate the practice of polygamy among their converts was intended to elevate woman to her true dignity. That women are not inferior to men is a fundamental and unquestionable principle of the social structure and civilization built on the Gospel. To have died in consequence of their maintaining and defending the Christian principle that the wife is a co-equal partner in the solemn contract of marriage, makes the example of these martyrs a particularly dramatic and inspiring way of affirming the Church's teaching that every human being, even those whom society may relegate to a lower level of importance, is the cherished creature of God.

In the third place, it is good to note that the future martyrs had left the opulence of Spain which, with the gold flowing in from newly discovered America, was then reaching the pinnacle of material grandeur. They came to the New World, not to find riches for themselves or for Spain, but on the contrary to embrace a life of hardship among and for the underprivileged native peoples. Years of voluntary privation on their part, as they had opted for the materially base standards of life common among their native flock, had prepared them for the supreme sacrifice of their lives which they were to make as the crowning expression of their missionary vocation. By raising these missionaries to sainthood and thereby recognizing their dedication to the materially and spiritually poor, the Church would once more call attention to Christianity's ideal of serving the Lord in the least of His little ones.

In addition, there is this very important consideration. Spanish-speaking peoples from many lands, whose diverse cultures in some manner and measure stem from the common source in the Iberian Peninsula, are coming to constitute a significant – and in time, perhaps the most significant – part of the Church's membership in the United States. Since the Martyrs of Georgia were Spanish-born, and since they are heroic representatives of that tradition in the early history of the United States, to honor them by canonizing their memory and their names among the heroes of our land would be a grateful tribute to what Catholic Spain contributed in a positive way to the life of our nation. Even more important, however, would be the inspiration and encouragement to the growing numbers of Hispanics among us. For these multitudes, whose fidelity to their Catholic heritage is increasingly being put to the test by the rampant materialism and hedonism of American Society, to have their own Saints and spiritual heroes would do much to solidify their adherence to their Faith.

Nor is it right to forget the need to redress historical injustice. The Catholic heritage of the South of the country is a fact of history which, at best, is largely unknown, but also too often has been deliberately played down or conventionally obfuscated by the later presence of the English-Protestant settlers. To call attention to the truth that – even on the East Coast and the Southeast, in addition to the West Coast and the Southwest – the Catholic Faith was the pioneering force long before the better-known attempts at colonization by Protestant groups, would be to redress an historical lie. The State of Florida ( and from Spanish Florida the missionaries slain in Georgia were sent to preach the Gospel) will soon be the third most populous state in the Union. With this demographic transformation, the Church in the South is strengthening herself by the creation of new dioceses and the building of more churches. To develop a sense of unity and family among the faithful of Spanish background and heritage, a singularly powerful and appealing resource would be to have as patrons some Saints who in ages past worked and died and sanctified themselves through fidelity to the Faith in the Southland.

Finally, there is this further consideration. During the early centuries of American history countless missionaries labored for the upbuilding of the Church, and many of them died violently in the discharge of their ministries. If for the lack of documentary sources it is not possible to demonstrate that all of those who gave their lives in the service and the defense of the Faith were truly martyrs in the classical understanding of the name, clearly the Five Martyrs of Georgia are outstanding examples of Servants of the Most High who by their clear and uncontestable sacrifice bore testimony to Christ's teachings. Raised to the honor of the altars, they would be representatives of the scores of missionaries who were slain and of the almost innumerable hosts of missionaries in all parts of the Americas who labored to Christianize this New World. The Catholic Church was established on this continent five centuries ago, and very shortly thereafter came to the territory which is now the United States of America. During the very first century of its life in our territory, Fray Pedro de Corpa and his Four Companions gave their lives in an effort to establish the Church, Christ's Mystical Body, on the firm basis of family life as determined by Him who is the Light of the World.

”Rule of l221," ch. 16:10-11, in The Writings of Saint Francis, trans. Ignatius Brady (Assisi: Edizioni Porziuncola, 1983) 77. Henceforth, Brady.

St. Bonaventure, Major Life of St. Francis, chap. 12: I, trans. Benen Fahy in Marion A. Habig (ed.), St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, 4lh rev. ed. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 721. Cited henceforth as Omnibus.

Ibid., chap. 3:1, pp. 646-47.

Thomas of Celano, The First Life of St. Francis, chap. JO: 29, trans. Placid Hermann in Omnibus, 247.

Ibid., chap. I 5, p. 258.

Bonaventure, Major Life, chap. 9:5, in Omnibus, 701.

St. Francis, "Letter Addressed to the Whole Order," in Brady, 121.

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The First Georgia Missions: Our Southern Catholic Heritage, Dr. Paul Thigpen and Katherine Ragan. Illustrations by Pamela Gardner, based on the retablo by Dan Nichols. This retablo is part of the parish patrimony of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia

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