In one of his last acts as pope, Benedict XVI approved the canonization of the Martyrs of Otranto shortly before his resignation announcement.
If you don’t know the Martyrs of Otranto, you should.
This is the account by Saverio de Marco in the “Compendiosa istoria degli ottocento martiri otrantini [A brief history of the eight hundred martyrs of Otranto]” published in 1905:
“About one hundred men were presented to the pasha, who had at his side a miserable priest named Giovanni from Calabria, an apostate from the faith. He employed his satanic eloquence for the goal of persuading the Christians that they should abandon Christ and embrace Mohammedanism, sure of the good graces of Ahmed, who would grant them their lives, possessions, and all the benefits they enjoyed in their homeland: otherwise they would all be massacred. Among those heroes was a man named Antonio Primaldo, a tailor, advanced in age but full of religion and fervor. In the name of all, he replied: ‘Would that all believed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and were ready to die a thousand times for him’.”
The first of the chroniclers, Giovanni Michele Laggetto, adds, in the “Historia della guerra di Otranto del 1480 [Story of the war of Otranto in 1480],” transcribed from an ancient manuscript and published in 1924:
“And turning to the Christians, Primaldo spoke these words: ‘My brothers, until today we have fought in defense of our homeland, to save our lives, and for our earthly governors; now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for our Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him, remaining firm and constant in the faith, and with this earthly death we will earn eternal life and the glory of martyrdom.’ At these words, all began to shout with one voice and with great fervor that they wanted to die a thousand times, by any sort of death, rather than renounce Christ.”
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Ahmed condemned all the eight hundred prisoners to death. The following morning, they were led with ropes tied around their necks and their hands bound behind their backs to the Hill of Minerva, a few hundred meters outside of the city. De Marco writes:
“All of them repeated their profession of the faith and the generous response they had given at first, so the tyrant commanded that the decapitation should proceed, and, before the others, the head of the elderly Primaldo should be cut off. Primaldo was hateful to him, because he never stopped acting as an apostle toward his fellows. And before placing his head upon the stone, he told his companions that he saw heaven opened and the comforting angels; that they should be strong in the faith and look to heaven, already open to receive them. He bowed his head and it was cut off, but his corpse stood back up on its feet, and despite the efforts of the butchers, it remained erect and unmoving, until all were decapitated. The marvelous and astonishing event would have been a lesson of salvation for those infidels, if they had not been rebels against the light that enlightens every man who lives in the world. Only one of the butchers, named Berlabei, believed courageously in the miracle and, declaring himself a Christian in a loud voice, was condemned to be impaled.”
During the beatification process for the eight hundred, in 1539, four eyewitnesses spoke of the prodigy of Antonio Primaldo, who remained standing after being decapitated, and of the conversion and martyrdom of the executioner. This is the account of one of the four, Francesco Cerra, who in 1539 was 72 years old:
“Antonio Primaldo was the first to be slaughtered, and without his head he remained upright on his feet, nor could any of the efforts of the enemy knock him down, until all were killed. The butcher, stunned by the miracle, confessed that the Catholic faith was the true one, and insisted on becoming a Christian, and for this the pasha condemned him to death by impaling.”