Having spent the past week a stone’s throw away from Templo de San Roque in the heart of Guanajuato, it seemed imperative to discover more about the saint. He definitely falls into my category of “saintly stories nuns never taught me.”
Hard for a boy born with his breast emblazoned with a red birthmark in the form of a cross to avoid his calling. Following the death of both of his wealthy parents by the time he was 20, San Roque (1295-1327) (although “San” was not what Saint Roch, or Rock, was named until more than a century later) sold his inherited worldly goods and distributed the proceeds amongst the poor in his native home of Montpelier, France. Joining the Third Order of Saint Francis (Does this mean he was married?), he headed out to Italy with an eye to visit the tombs of the apostles.
A long list is found on one of the walls of La Compania de Jesus Church in Oaxaca. A list of those waiting. Those whose lives in Mexico were so full of sacrifice Rome surely will notice and promote them on the road to sainthood.
I’m pulling for the child martyrs of Tlaxcala, the land of corn tortillas. Poor Christobalito, Antonio and Juan were, after all, children. Antonio and Juan were clubbed to death, but Christobalito’s own father, a confirmed pagan, condemned him to be beaten with clubs and then set ablaze for his faith. The trio was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990, but they hardly seem on the fast-track. They have been waiting in line a really, really, really long time. Ever since the late 1520s.
But in Oaxaca, a pair of Zapotecs stand out, although newcomers to the waiting list by comparison to the ninos above.
Back in 1700, Dominican priests in Oaxaca would commission converts to serve as “attorneys general,” assigned to police the purity and practices of those living in rural areas. Jacinto de los Angeles and Juan Bautista of San Francisco Cajonos, “the town in the clouds,” were so honored. Overhearing those worshipping the harvest god, Huitzilopochtli, talking about a clandestine evening gathering in his honor, the attorneys reported back to the Dominican friars. Intervention was planned, and Jacinto and Juan led a group to break up the idolatrous meet, seizing the men’s musical instruments.
Unfortunately for Jacinto and Juan, their Zapotec brethren did not take kindly to what they viewed as tattle-tale turncoat interference. A mob seized the two from the sheltering confines of the convent. The pair refused to recant their faith, even under torture.
They survived being thrown off Tanga Hill in the village of San Pedro, but clubs still were viewed as a popular way to deal with Christians anyway. The mob clubbed them and cut them with knives before cutting open their chests and feeding their hearts to the dogs. (I don’t make these things up. Read the Vatican’s version here.)
Whatever parts were left were gathered later by the faithful, who put them in the church of Villa Alta until 1889. The remains were moved to a chapel in the Cathedral of Oaxaca, a chapel almost always locked for their protection.
A bad thing happened to what should be set aside as their day. Jacinto and Juan attained martyrdom on September 16, but, unfortunately, 110 years later Father Hidalgo absconded with their day on the calendar. His cry for independence from Spain changed what would be their feast day to Mexican Independence Day, a celebration far overshadowing their sacrifices.
But an exhausted-looking but determined Pope John Paul II rescued them from obscurity, beatifying them in 2002 as examples “of how, without regarding one’s ancestral customs as myths, one can reach God without renouncing one’s own culture but letting oneself be enlightened by the light of Christ, which renews the religious spirit of the best popular traditions.”
While their hearts probably wouldn’t be fed to the dogs, one wonders what kind of reception church spies would receive in someplace like San Juan Chamula today. “Hey, they are sacrificing chickens in your church.” “Hey, do you know that elder over there has four wives?” They would be so expelled from town.
But, the good part of this story is how Jacinto and Juan are revered in their hometown. Their stories didn’t rise up on the Vatican radar without help. A trio of maize and chickpea farmers championed their cause at the grassroots level. According to a story by Stephen Henderson in the Los Angeles Times, they researched the story at City Hall and then chronicled the testimonies of more than 30 locals who claimed prayers to Jacinto and Juan were answered with miracles. This represents 1/10 of the entire town.
The task took decades of dedication, but it paid off. A group of Cajonos proudly accompanied the glass-encased heartless remains of Jacinto and Juan to Mexico City for the papal ceremonies taking them one step closer to sainthood. Plus, the pair was given a new feast day of their own – September 18.
The Pope-blessed glass-encased relics can still be glimpsed sitting on the altar in that side chapel in the Cathedral of Oaxaca, a destination for Zapotecan pilgrims.
The Italian hill town of Assisi might be overrun by tourists and pilgrims, but the stories of the miracles of Saint Francis manage to bubble up through the clutter. The saint’s holy cards often depict him surrounded by fluttering brown sparrows, but they fail to convey some of the richer stories.
I mean stories such as how Saint Francis threw himself naked upon a rose-bush as punishment for impure thoughts only to have the thorns miraculously fall off the bush so as not to prick him. Bet he was thankful for that one. But I understand a naked man hugging a rose-bush might not be deemed appropriate for a holy card. My favorite Saint Francis miracle was his taming of the fierce killer wolf terrifying the residents of neighboring Gubbio.
On the holy card that is part of a digital collage (“¡Qué milagro! Four bullets in the back and alive to give thanks 25 years later.”) I donated for SAY Si’s annual Small Scale art sale, I felt compelled to add a few extra birds to better illustrate the claim that birds would stop mid-chirp to listen to Saint Francis’ sermons and, of course, to add a tame-looking wolf.
But what sent me digging up this holy card was a photograph from the side chapel in the Parroquia Purisima Concepcion in Real de Catorce, a former ghost town now a mecca drawing both tourists and pilgrims, in much the same way as Assisi. The walls of the entire chapel are covered with retablos, pictures and stories often painted on sheets of tin, left in gratitude by the beneficiaries of miraculous interventions by Saint Francis, affectionately known as Panchito. One retablo that caught my attention was left by Jesus Espinosa Diaz de Leon in 2006 to express his gratitude to Sr. San Francisco de Asis for saving him from bullets fired into his back on the streets of San Luis Potosi in 1981.
The rich interior of the Parroquia in Real de Catorce reflects the origins of the town itself; the workers mining the veins of silver running through the mountains signed a commitment in 1779 to donate silver toward its construction on a weekly basis. Real was so wealthy, it not only had a palenque for cock fights but an opera house. There was such an abundance of silver, the town had its own mint coining reales. To make the town and its silver more accessible, an engineering marvel of a tunnel almost 1 1/2 miles long was carved through one of the surrounding formidable mountains in 1901.
With the silver seemingly played out, the town died. Colonial buildings began to fall into ruin, and it probably would have become a complete ghost town were it not for Panchito. Some time after the Mexican Revolution, word spread throughout the country about miraculous cures of humans and animals believed to have been granted following prayers to St. Francis of Assisi. The statue in the parish church began to attract pilgrims. Particularly on his Feast Day, October 4, they jam the tunnel and overwhelm the town to pay tribute to the patron saint of merchants, animals and ecology.
While the town has undergone a revival caused by curious travelers, there is another revival many are eyeing with distrust. New technologies now make it possible to extract more metal from the surrounding mines, and in a wonderful series of posts on Huffington Post, Tracy Barnett reveals in words and photos that the Huichols are displeased. She describes a February 6 all-night ceremony involving the sacrifice of a calf:
Soon the maraka’ate assembled and the plaintive wail of the Wixarika fiddles began to ring out in the darkness. The chants of the maraka’te rose on the wind; the ceremony had begun.
All throughout the long night these priests of ecology, as Liffman called them, sang their entreaties to the spirits that inhabit this place, an improvisation of melodies from different villages and different eras in time. They conducted their ancestral dialog with Grandfather Fire, an intermediary between the maraka’te and their deities. The sacramental peyote they had hunted in the desert the day before was working its magic.
Maybe, if the Huichols combined their dialogues with Grandfather Fire with prayers to Saint Francis of Assisi in his role as the patron saint of ecology, the potent powers would unite to spare the land from more intrusive mining.
This is an absurdly long-winded approach to suggest you take advantage of SAY Si Small Scale art sale to build your collection. More than 200 artists have contributed works to the silent auction. It will be impossible to view them all before they start disappearing off the walls during the final party on Friday, March 23. So consider going online quickly and purchasing tickets to the preview party on Thursday, March 1, or stop by SAY Si between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday or 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday until March 23. And then it will be too late.
Added on March 9, 2012: This post needed a soundtrack – Gretchen Peters’ “Saint Francis.”