November 3rd we remember St. Martin de Porres. Born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, Martin’s father was Spanish and his mother a freed black woman. He entered the Dominican order in 1603 as a brother and tended the sick poor in the neighborhood as a nurse and pharmacist. He’s often shown with a broom, surrounded by animals, because he took care of the cats and dogs and birds that came looking for something to eat, as well as the sick whom he attended to.
In his wonderful encyclical Laudato Si, devoted to preserving and enhancing the environment, Pope Francis observes that sometimes the poorest environment can be changed by individuals bringing love and care into it.
“A wholesome social life can light up a seemingly undesirable environment. At times a commendable human ecology is practised by the poor despite numerous hardships. The feeling of asphyxiation brought on by densely populated residential areas is countered if close and warm relationships develop, if communities are created, if the limitations of the environment are compensated for in the interior of each person who feels held within a network of solidarity and belonging. In this way, any place can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life.” (LS 148)
I think that’s what Martin de Porres did. He turned places that were “a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life.”
Extreme poverty, the pope continues, “can lead to incidents of brutality and to exploitation by criminal organizations. In the unstable neighbourhoods of megacities, the daily experience of overcrowding and social anonymity can create a sense of uprootedness which spawns antisocial behaviour and violence. Nonetheless, I wish to insist that love always proves more powerful. Many people in these conditions are able to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome.”
You get the impression Pope Francis speaks from his own experience in these words. He probably would say today: that’s what saints like Martin de Porres do. They bring love where it’s needed.
Wikipedia has an excellent article on Martin de Porres