I once came across a prayer card of St. Martin de Porres that referred to him as the “Glory of the black people”. This language may at first sound a bit jarring to our modern ears. Why mention the ethnicity of St. Martin at all? I don’t think the author meant harm by it. In fact, I assume it was done out of an attempt to connect the person of St. Martin with those who may hold that holy card. This seems to be something fundamental in our lives. We seek out that which is “familiar” or which bears our resemblance. God condescends to this need of ours in order to bring us to him. Through the witness of the saints, God uses those similar to us in order to manifest his glory and show forth his providence for all peoples.
In any political campaign, a politician seeks to make himself relatable to potential voters. This seems to be a rather strange goal. After all, shouldn’t we want someone better than us? But it seems of little use to have a leader who does not know the plight of those he leads. Instead of just any leader, we naturally want someone who can understand our viewpoints and sympathize with our circumstances. We assume that a leader who more closely relates to us will be able most effectively to care for us. This same idea has shown itself in the history of the lives of the saints. God uses saints that we can relate to in order to bring us to himself.
For the first couple years after the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in Mexico, very few converts were won. Natives were slow to adopt this religion of the foreigners. It was through the witness of a native convert, St. Juan Diego, and the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who came as a native woman, that the nation was converted. The natives saw how God cared for them as a people in their own right. It was not simply the religion of the Spaniards anymore. Our Lady of Guadalupe was theirs in a way that other saints or apparitions could never be. It was their Lady, and they were led to faith in Christ because of her.
At the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., there are numerous chapels of Our Lady throughout. One could naturally wonder why so many different chapels all dedicated to the same saint would be necessary. But, each chapel presents some different apparition or devotion that is special to a particular people. Almost anyone can find a chapel that possesses some particular meaning for them individually. Mary becomes our mother and lady in a more familiar way.
So the ethnicity of St. Martin de Porres really is important for the faith of people. Just as in Christ “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15), St. Martin can serve as a powerful intercessor for those who feel he can sympathize with their condition. Personally, as an American, I feel an affinity with one other title listed on the holy card: “Star of the New World.” This saint of the Americas, and fellow Dominican, can serve as a reminder that God’s providence covers the entire world.
Image: Statue of St. Martin