800 new saints were martyred for refusing to convert to Islam

Although he has only been pope for two months, Pope Francis has now canonized more saints than any pope in history.

This interesting milestone was reached yesterday, when the Holy Father canonized 800 Italian martyrs killed in a 15th-century attack of the town of Otranto by Ottoman invaders. The men were murdered when they refused to reject Christ and convert to Islam. Dr. Donald Prudlo, associate professor of medieval history at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, briefly retold the new saints’ story in an interview with Vatican Radio:

Mehmed II was one of the most powerful and successful emperors in Ottoman Turkish history. He had taken the impregnable city of Constantinople in 1453, and had pacified the Balkan regions. By the 1470s Mehmed ‘The Conqueror’ was preparing a death blow to Europe. His fleet sailed the Mediterranean without challenge. Having taken ‘New Rome’ he set his sights on ‘Old Rome.’ In order to test the resolve of Christian Europe he sent an exploratory raiding party in 1480. Its target was the small maritime town of Otranto in far south Italy. During this expedition thousands of people were massacred, in what was really an attempt to instill terror into the inhabitants of the peninsula. After the city fell, its civil and religious leaders were either beheaded or sawn into pieces. Eight hundred men of the town were offered the choice between conversion to Islam or death. Led by the tailor Antonio Primaldi, acting as spokesman for the group, they were beheaded, one by one, on a hill outside town while their families watched. 

The significance of their sacrifice was clear. Antonio and his townsmen had, in reality, saved Europe – their bravery gave Christendom time both to regroup, and to realize the gravity of the threat. Mehmed II died the next year, at the age of only 49, frustrating Ottoman plans for expansion.

Relics of the Martyrs of Otranto can be viewed in the city’s cathedral (pictured above). A more detailed telling of the martyrs’ story can be read here.

During his homily at the Mass of canonization yesterday—the first of his pontificate—Pope Francis asked, “Where did they find the strength to remain faithful?”

Precisely from the faith, which makes us see beyond the limits of our human sight, beyond this earthly life … God will never leave us without strength and serenity. While we venerate the Martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain the many Christians who, precisely at this time, now, and in many parts of the world, are still suffering violence, that He give them the valor to be faithful and to respond to evil with good.

In addition to the 800 martyrs, Pope Francis also canonized two Latin American women yesterday. Mother Laura Montoya (1874-1949) is the first Colombian to be canonized a saint, and Maria Guadalupe Garcia Zavala is the second Mexican woman to be so honored.

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.