A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
The 800 Martyrs of Otranto

Faithful Witnesses of Christ Among First Saints Canonized by Pope Francis

By Ivan de Vargas

ROME, 13 May 2013 (ZENIT)
The Church now has 802 new Saints, after the first canonization that Pope Francis presided over on Sunday in Saint Peter’s Square. They are the 800 martyrs of Otranto — killed savagely by the Ottoman army in 1480, as well as two Latin American nuns who worked their whole lives at the service of the poorest and invalid: Mother Laura Montoya (1874-1949), and Mother Lupita (1878-1963). This is one of the great events planned in the Year of Faith.
Antonio Primaldo and Companions

Antonio Pezzulla, called Primaldo, is the only name that has been recorded of the 800 fishermen, artisans, shepherds and farmers of the small Italian city of Otranto, in the region of Apulia, whose blood was shed out of fidelity to Christ, during an incursion of the Ottoman army on July 29, 1480.

The martyrdom of Antonio Primaldo and his companions is set historically in the warlike context that lasted for a long time in Europe’s relations with the Ottoman Empire. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the siege of Belgrade in 1456, Mehmed the Conqueror tried in vain to conquer the Island of Rhodes in 1479. He then went to the end of the Italian coast, closest to the ports of Albania, already under his dominion.

In the Hands of the Ottoman Army

The Turks approached the city of Otranto, with some 150 ships and more than 15,000 men, led by the Gedik Ahmed Pasha. The city had 6,000 inhabitants and had been abandoned by the Aragonese militias, committed in Tuscany. No sooner has the siege began, which lasted 15 days, they were ordered to surrender, and ordered to renounce their faith in Christ and convert to Islam. As the inhabitants refused, the city was bombed and fell into the hands of the invaders on August 12. The inflamed army killed them mercilessly, striking them with scimitars.

Arriving at the cathedral, where a good part of the inhabitants had sought refuge, the Ottomans knocked down the  door and encircled Archbishop Stefano Pendinelli, who was celebrating Holy Mass and distributing the Eucharist to those present. Archbishop Pendinelli was horribly quartered on the spot. In addition to the prelate, they killed canons, Religious and other faithful who were in the church.

Death Rather than Apostasy

The next day, the Ahmed Pasha ordered that all the survivors, some 800 men, be taken to the Turkish camp and forced to apostatize. Antonio Primaldo, a humble cloth shearer, answered firmly and immediately on behalf of all. He said they “regarded Jesus Christ as Son of God, their true Lord and God, and preferred to die a thousand times rather than deny him and become Muslims.” Commander Ahmed then ordered their execution.

Youths, adults, the elderly were led with ropes around their neck and their hands tied behind their back to the hill of Minerva, on the outskirts of the city. Before they were martyred, they comforted one another.

Primaldo, the first to suffer decapitation, stood up miraculously and stayed that way until the end of the killings. The miracle so impressed Berlabei, one of the executioners, that he flung his scimitar, confessed himself a Christian and was then impaled.

The inert bodies were left out in the open for a year in the place of execution, where they were found uncorrupted by the troops sent to liberate Otranto. In June of 1481, their remains were taken to the nearby church , “to the source of Minerva,” and on October 13 they were moved to the Cathedral. At the beginning of 1500 a chapel was built inside the Cathedral to house the relics definitively, constant object of pilgrimages.

Popular Recognition

Antonio Primaldo and his companions were recognized immediately as martyrs by the people. Every year on August 14, the local church devoutly celebrates their memory. On December 14, 1771 the decree of confirmation was issued of devotion ab immemorabili, accorded to the martyrs.

In 1988, the then archbishop of Otranto, Archbishop Vincenzo Franco, appointed the historical commission. The diocesan investigation was carried out from 1991-1993. It was recognized as valid by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on May 27, 1994. On July 6, 2007, Benedict XVI approved the decree recognizing that Blessed Antonio Primaldo and companions had been killed for their fidelity to Christ.  

Canonization

“Our diocese has awaited this moment for a long time. At a time of profound crisis, the imminent canonization of our martyrs is a strong invitation to live daily martyrdom to the utmost, made of fidelity to Christ and to His Church,” writes the Archbishop Donato Negro of Otranto. The recognized miracle, needed for the mentioned decree, refers to the cure from cancer of Sister Francesca Levote, professed religious of the Poor Sisters of Saint Clare.

Benedict XVI fixed the date of the canonization in the Ordinary Public Consistory of last February 11, the day he announced his resignation from the Petrine Ministry.  

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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