We despise everything for the sake of Christ!
The Franciscan Protomartyrs, the first fruits of the Seraphic order to shed their blood for Christ, were martyred on this day in 1220 at the hands of the Sultan of Morocco. They had travelled to Morocco to preach the Gospel to the Muslims, with the blessing of St. Francis himself. They first went to Seville to evangelize but were apprehended. When they began to preach Jesus Christ to the king he was enraged, and ordered them to be beheaded, but after consultation with others he changed his mind and ordered them to be sent on to Morocco as they wished. In Marrakech they preached in the marketplace and were arrested, imprisoned for 20 days with no food or drink. When they were brought out of prison, still steadfast in the Faith, they were severely tortured and beaten. Then, still bloody and with hands bound, stripped and without shoes, they were brought before the Sultan. He presented them with women, promising to give them to the friars as wives, as well as much money, if they would embrace Islam. “Be converted to our faith and I will give you these women and much money besides. You will be held in honor in my realm.” The friars replied, “The women and your money we do not want; we despise everything for the sake of Christ.” At this, the Sultan became enraged, took up a sword, and fractured the skull of each friar in turn before finally beheading them.
After their martyrdom King Afonso ransomed their bodies, and they were brought back to Portugal on their way to Assisi. It was at the monastery of Santa Cruz, which belonged to the Augustinian Canons, that the young guest master, Friar Fernando welcomed the bodies of the Protomartyrs. His encounter with the relics of the five Franciscans lit within this Augustinian priest a zealous flame to shed his blood for Christ. He sought permission to leave the Canons Regular and enter the newly founded Friars Minor, which had begun eleven years before. Fernando had some acquaintance with the life of these mendicants, because some Franciscans had settled in Coimbra and were living in a hermitage dedicated to St. Anthony of the Desert (whose feast day is tomorrow). It was here that Fernando came when he was first moved by the martyred bodies of Friar Berard and companions, declaring, “Brother, I would gladly put on the habit of your Order if you would promise to send me as soon as possible to the land of the Saracens, that I may gain the crown of the holy martyrs.” After the permission was granted to leave the Augustinians, he joined the Franciscans at Coimbra, taking the name Anthony after the patron of the hermitage. He did travel to Morocco, but because of poor health had to board a ship back to Portugal, which was blown off course, landing in Sicily. Eventually he was assigned to a hermitage near Forli, living in a cave immersed in study and prayer. It was here that he was first recognized, seemingly by chance (when there was no one assigned to preach at an ordination of Franciscan and Dominican priests), as an incredibly skilled preacher. His Augustinian study and training combined with his simple Franciscan Gospel living made this mendicant’s preaching effective and powerful.
His first inspiration, to shed his blood in preaching the Gospel to the Muslims, was never fulfilled, but God wove that thread into a different tapestry, giving the Franciscans their first teacher, and the world an eloquent preacher, renowned for his knowledge of the scriptures and his miracles. Although the Franciscan Protomartyrs weren’t successful in converting the Muslims, in a sense they converted an Augustinian, now known to us as St. Anthony of Padua, who lit the world on fire with his prayer and preaching.
Friars Berard, Peter, Adjute, Accurs & Odo, pray for us!