Magazine article The Christian Century

Heritage or Hate?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Heritage or Hate?

Article excerpt

Popes often acknowledge saints and martyrs, but rarely are the heroes of the faith present as they were at a 2013 ceremony in Otranto, Italy, one of the more controversial and unsettling canonizations of modern times. Not only were relics of the martyrs present, but the skulls of several hundred of them were on plain view, kept behind glass at the rear of the altar. That feature was startling enough. The story associated with the canonization raises its own set of troubling questions.

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire expanded mightily across southern and eastern Europe. Constantinople fell in 1453, and most of the Balkans were soon in Turkish hands. The main question facing Christian Europe was how far the crescent flags of Islam might spread and when (rather than if) Italy would be attacked. That nightmare came true in 1480, when Ottoman forces invaded the port of Otranto.

The occupation of Otranto was short-lived but brutal. Twelve thousand died in the campaign, and in a single horrific incident, the invaders killed some 800 local residents, including their bishop. The exact circumstances of the slaughter are unclear, but early accounts reported that the citizens were executed after refusing to renounce their Christian faith. Such exemplary loyalty to the faith inspired popular devotion to the victims as saints and martyrs, and these faithful were officially canonized in the 2013 ceremony.

When Christianity was chiefly based in a Europe that generally accepted that faith, stories of Christian martyrdom ran little risk of offending the descendants of the perpetrators. Roman paganism, for instance, has been extinct for many centuries. But the situation is quite different when the persecutors who inflicted that martyrdom were Muslims, who held the same faith as millions of modern Europeans--and as many as 1.5 million residents of Italy itself. More problematically, Europeans are currently struggling with the problem of integrating Muslim immigrants and seeking to resist stereotypes of Islamic fanaticism and violence.

The Otranto ceremonies could have been both divisive and provocative, and could even have provided a focus for far-right political activism. As we might expect from Pope Francis, though, the Vatican took every step to avoid any such implications. Instead of stigmatizing Islam, still less pursuing any kind of historical vendetta, Catholic leaders stressed that they were only acknowledging the heroism of faithful believers. The canonization was carried out without any grievous conflicts or recriminations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.