There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
With race relations escalating both nationally and internationally, the temptation to prejudice and hatred seems to have freshly gripped our fallen world. Such a moment in history presents the perfect impetus for us to learn about — and call upon the intercession of — St. Martin de Porres, whom St. John XXIII canonized on May 6, 1962, just as the Civil Rights crisis was ramping up in America. I like to call such happenings “God-incidences” instead of coincidences, for the Holy Spirit sheds light not only on the sins of the world through the mind of the Church, but also on the constant remedy for those sins: love.
St. Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru in 1579, the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed slave. Abused and poverty-stricken, Martin’s status as a mixed-race child who was abandoned by his father made him the object of persecution for much of his life. Instead of becoming bitter, angry and retaliatory, Martin’s heart was softened by the swords through which it was pierced. Ultimately taking his vows as a Third Order Dominican, Martin would win notoriety for his profound humility and charity, especially towards the poor, orphaned, diseased, and marginalized.
Martin’s life powerfully incarnates for us how grace can turn our utmost sorrows into the sources of greatest love. St. Augustine said it this way: “In my deepest wound, I saw your glory and it dazzled me.”
God’s glory shined through the many miracles manifested through Martin during his lifetime, including physical healings, bilocation, and levitation. But the unseen grandeur of God’s grace — the way Martin allowed his cross to become a wellspring of love for other suffering souls — is perhaps the greatest miracle of all.
Martin’s story resonates deeply with me because I learned a few years ago that my own paternal great-grandmother, Cyrintha, was the illegitimate child of an unknown father and a black mother, perhaps also a freed slave. Somehow that family secret stayed under wraps until I was an adult, probably because racial prejudice, sadly, is often still alive and well in the Deep South.
My father told us years before he died that his grandmother “wore a veil over her face.” While he didn’t know why, I’m guessing it was to hide the social stigma of being a “mulatto.” He could remember little else about her, except that she was a kind and loving soul.
I began to wonder about my great-grandmother’s life: Who was she as a person and how much did she suffer from the scourge of racial prejudice? Did her parents love each other? Were they prevented from marrying each other due to the laws of the day prohibiting mixed-race marriages?
I started to pray about it, and wanting to know more of Cyrintha’s story, I did some research online. I learned the dates of her birth and her death, as well as the fact she is buried in the St. Louis Cemetery on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. I also found out that she was a baptized Catholic and the mother of eight children, all of whom she raised in the Catholic faith. As I learned more about my great-grandmother, I began to pray for her soul, as well as for her intercession.
Two years ago, on what would have been Cyrintha’s 145th birthday, I had a Mass said for her soul and made a pilgrimage to visit her gravesite. Standing before the grave where she is laid to rest, I read her full name, carved onto the white marble tombstone of the aboveground tomb commonly found in flood-prone New Orleans: Cyrintha Cleno Mackey Landrieu. I also saw the names of her husband and children—the family that she loved and cared for even as she wore a veil over what I imagine was a beautiful, kind face.
I said a prayer for Cyrintha’s soul and for my own, feeling deep love for and compassion for the great-grandmother I never met — a person of mixed-race with an unknown father who had apparently lived humbly and loved well. I think of her often today.
Science and genetics have increasingly proven in recent years what Divine Revelation has known to be true all along: that all human beings can trace their origins back to common ancestors, making us all related. While we may be quick to judge another person by the color of their skin, God sees the heart, and he demands no less of us. Further, we are all one in Christ Jesus, as St. Paul so eloquently wrote.
St. Martin de Porres’ life reminds us today of something else St. Paul wrote: that in the end, love is the only thing that remains (see 1 Corinthians 13:8). While our eyes may be clouded now by the limitations of our own hearts, “then we will see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will know, and yes, we will be fully known — by the love we have borne in our hearts.
St. Martin de Porres, pray for us.