(AP) — Pope Francis on Sunday gave the Catholic church new saints, including hundreds of 15th-century martyrs who were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam, as he led his first canonization ceremony Sunday before tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square.
The “Martyrs of Otranto” are 813 Italians who were slain in the southern Italian city in 1480 for defying demands by Turkish invaders to renounce Christianity.
The pope also gave Colombia its first saint: a nun, Laura of St. Catherine of Siena Montoya y Upegui, who journeyed with five other women by horseback in 1914 into the forests to be a teacher and spiritual guide to indigenous people. Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos Calderon, was among VIPs attending the ceremony.
The first pontiff from South America also canonized another Latin American woman. Maria Guadalupe Garcia Zavala, a Mexican who dedicated herself to nursing the sick, helped Catholics avoid persecution during a government crackdown of the faith in the 1920s. Also known as Mother Lupita, she hid the Guadalajara archbishop in an eye clinic for more than a year after fearful local Catholic families refused to shelter him.
The new saints were all approved for canonization in a decree read by Pope Benedict XVI on Feb. 11 during the same ceremony in which he announced he was resigning as pontiff. Benedict, the first pope to retire in 600 years, is now devoting himself to prayer and living in a monastery on the Vatican grounds.
Francis told the crowd that the martyrs are a source of inspiration, especially for “so many Christians, who, right in these times and in so many parts of the world, still suffer violence.” He prayed that they receive “the courage of loyalty and to respond to evil with good.”
The pope didn’t single out any country. But Christian churches have been attacked in Nigeria and Iraq, and Catholics in China loyal to the Vatican have been subject to harassment and sometimes jail over the last decades.
Francis, the first pope from the Jesuit order, which is known for its missionary zeal, praised the Colombian saint for “instilling hope” in the indigenous people. He said she taught them in a way that “respected their culture.” Many Catholic missionaries over the centuries have been criticized for demanding natives renounce local traditions the outsiders viewed as primitive.
He hailed the Mexican saint for renouncing a comfortable life to work with the sick and poor, even kneeling on the bare floor of the hospital before the patients to serve them with “tenderness and compassion.”
Mother Lupita’s example, said Francis, should encourage people not to “get wrapped up in themselves, their own problems, their own ideas, their own interests, but to go out and meet those who need attention, comprehension, help” and other assistance.