BB. John of Perugia and Peter of Sassoferrato
Muslims from Mauretania, North Africa, invaded Christian Spain in 711 AD, and quickly gained political control of what are now Spain and Portugal (with the exception of four kingdoms across the north: Asturias, Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia). In these Catholic districts the movement arose to drive the Moors out of the whole peninsula. The “Reconquest” was accomplished, but it took a long time - until 1492.
The Muslim Caliphs (governors) would have preferred to treat the Christians leniently, but in the ninth century they began to bear down on them. Other persecutions followed from time to time over the next six centuries.
St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan order in the 13th century, very much desired the conversion of Muslims to the Christian faith. It was for that mission that he sent to Spain two Italian friars, John of Perugia and Peter of Sassoferrato. When the pair first arrived in the Christian part of Spain, they went to Teruel in Aragon. Here they spent some time preparing themselves for entry into the Muslim part of Spain. Meanwhile, they created a very favorable opinion of themselves among the Spanish Catholics to whom they ministered at Teruel. The Spaniards appreciated not only their ardent preaching, but their poverty and simplicity of life.
When the two friars decided that they were ready to enter Islamic Spain, they moved south to Valencia, where the Moors were in power. So long as the Franciscans lived quietly at the Valencia Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the government did not molest them. But as soon as they began to preach Christianity in public, the Muslims arrested them and hauled them before the Moorish emir. The emir asked Friars John and Peter why they had come to Valencia. Blessed John frankly confessed that they were there in order to convert the Moors from their errors. The emir thereupon offered them the customary choice: conversion to Islam or death. Of course, they choose to die rather than to apostatize. Therefore, they were condemned to have their heads cut off. The execution took place August 29, 1231, in the garden of the emir’s palace. Before the scimitar descended on their necks, they prayed aloud for the conversion of the ruler who had ordered their death.
The martyrs’ bodies were brought back reverently to Teruel and miracles were soon attributed to their intercession. Pope Pius VI beatified them in 1783.
Not long after their deaths, their prayers for the emir were answered. In 1238 Valencia was conquered by James I, King of Aragon, and 50,000 Moors were expelled. Subsequent to his surrender, the emir who had slain the two Franciscans became a Christian. On his conversion he gave to the Franciscan order his palace, to be used as a friary. “While I was an unbeliever,” he explained to the Franciscan authorities, “I killed your brethren from Teruel. Here, then, is my house for your disposal, consecrated already by the blood of martyrs.”
Clearly, his conversion had been complete!
We know that Jesus promised, “Ask and you shall receive.” And we accept that statement in all faith. Still, it only strengthens our faith when we are permitted to see, every now and then, a great answer to a heartfelt prayer.
--Father Robert F. McNamara