Central America can claim its first saint with the July 30 canonization of Pedro de Betancur by Pope John Paul II in Guatemala City. Known as the “St. Francis of the Americas,” Pedro de Betancur is the first saint to have worked and died in Guatemala.
Calling the new saint an “outstanding example” of Christian mercy, the Holy Father noted that St. Pedro practiced mercy “heroically with the lowliest and the most deprived.” Speaking to the estimated 500,000 Guatemalans in attendance, the Holy Father spoke of the social ills that plague the country today and of the need for change.
“Let us think of the children and young people who are homeless or deprived of an education; of abandoned women with their many needs; of the hordes of social outcasts who live in the cities; of the victims of organized crime, of prostitution or of drugs; of the sick who are neglected and the elderly who live in loneliness,” he said in his homily during the three-hour liturgy.
Pedro very much wanted to become a priest, but God had other plans for the young man born into a poor family on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Pedro was a shepherd until age 24, when he began to make his way to Guatemala, hoping to connect with a relative engaged in government service there. By the time he reached Havana, he was out of money. After working there to earn more, he got to Guatemala City the following year. When he arrived he was so destitute that he joined the bread line which the Franciscans had established.
Soon, Pedro enrolled in the local Jesuit college in hopes of studying for the priesthood. No matter how hard he tried, however, he could not master the material; he withdrew from school. In 1655 he joined the Secular Franciscan Order. Three years later he opened a hospital for the convalescent poor; a shelter for the homeless and a school for the poor soon followed. Not wanting to neglect the rich of Guatemala City, Pedro began walking through their part of town ringing a bell and inviting them to repent.
Other men came to share in Pedro’s work. Out of this group came the Bethlehemite Congregation, which won papal approval after Pedro’s death. A Bethlehemite sisters’ community, similarly founded after Pedro’s death, was inspired by his life of prayer and compassion.
He is sometimes credited with originating the Christmas Eve posadas procession in which people representing Mary and Joseph seek a night’s lodging from their neighbors. The custom soon spread to Mexico and other Central American countries.
Pedro was beatified in 1980.
As humans, we often pride ourselves on our ability to reason. But, as Pedro’s life shows, other skills may be an even more crucial element of our humanity than a clever mind: compassion, imagination, love. Unable to master studies for the priesthood despite his efforts, Pedro responded to the needs of homeless and sick people; he provided education to the poor and salvation to the rich. He became holy—as fully human as any of us can ever be.
Speaking of Pedro and the four others beatified with him, Pope John Paul II said: “God lavished his kindness and his mercy on them, enriching them with his grace; he loved them with a fatherly, but demanding, love, which promised only hardships and suffering. He invited and called them to heroic holiness; he tore them away from their countries of origin and sent them to other lands to proclaim the message of the gospel, in the midst of inexpressible toil and difficulties” (L’Osservatore Romano).