One of the new canonized saints today was not a new name to people in Portugal, but rather one of their medieval founding fathers. On August 14, 1385, Don Nuno Alvares Pereira defeated a huge force of Spanish/Castilian troops with only a few thousand Portuguese (who were all fasting for the next day’s Feast of the Assumption). It was part of a whole campaign of such unbalanced battles, which ended by securing Portugal’s independence.
One of 26 acknowledged illegitimate children of the powerful prior of the Portuguese “tongue” of the Knights Hospitaller (a military religious order founded to run hospitals, protect pilgrims and fight Muslim aggression) who was himself the illegitimate son of an archbishop who’d been prior, he certainly didn’t come from a saintly family. (To be fair, all high offices in the order were reserved for knight-brothers, and you couldn’t be one if you were a priest-brother. So the bishop guy must have gotten ordained after being prior. And to be even more fair, there weren’t any Moors around. Most of the job of this powerful Prior of Crato was administering the Hospital’s huge Portuguese flocks of sheep and sending the money to Malta.)
But he got a good education and he married Donna Leonor Alvim, known as the most virtuous and richest girl in Portugal. Made Constable of Portugal at a young age for his valor and leadership during the first desperate days of the Castilian invasion and his support for the new king, he wielded power for many years. He even founded Portugal’s future royal family, the House of Braganza, through his only child, his daughter Beatriz.
But he also knew personal sorrow. Two of his brothers fought with the invading Castilians, as leaders; he told his troops that he would not think of them as his brothers. He said he believed it was right to be severe in a just cause.
In the end, though he was the richest man in Portugal, he gave it all up in 1423 after the death of his wife, Leonor, to become a barefoot, contemplative Carmelite , renaming himself Nuno di Santa Maria. He joined as an oblate lay brother, with the most work and least status. He insisted that this was the only way, because if the Castilians came back he would be able to leave the monastery to lead troops. Indeed, he received permission from his superior to wear his armor every day under his habit, and showed this to both his king and a delegation of Castilians. The rest of the time, he acted as the community’s porter (a job notoriously full of saints) and hence the feeder of poor visitors.
He had had a sudden attack of fever which began right after the final treaty signing between Castile and Portugal. Apparently his work was done. He died in 1431 on All Saints’ Day, while listening to someone reading him the Passion according to St. John. At the exact words “Behold your Son”, he closed his eyes and died.
Since he had lived a lot like a saint even on the battlefield, devotion to him began in his own time and has continued to this day. The Portuguese Carmelite homepage cites his military virtues of courage, loyalty, and generosity; his chivalrous service to widows, orphans, and the poor; his social virtues of courtesy, humility, and charity; and his religious virtues of faithfulness, obedience, and chastity.
Naturally, Portuguese people are very happy about his canonization. It is a big deal.
(I’m surprised that the Mass wasn’t held in Portugal by a Portuguese cardinal, as this pope prefers canonizations to occur close to the saint’s earthly home. I suppose the Portuguese wanted a reason to go to Rome, or there might have been some problems transferring the beatification ceremony from the Latin Rite to the Bragan Rite used in Lisbon. Or, since St. Nuno is popular in many former Portuguese colonies, they might have wanted a more neutral site. Or it could be the “ancestor of the ex-royal family” thing. However, since April 23 is the feast of St. George, Portugal’s patron, this is well-timed.)
“The more Castilians there are, the more honor for the Portuguese!”
When urged to attack — “It’s not the moment. Let me finish praying.”
(He went on to attack at just the right moment.)
“I came to the religious life to perform the humble ministries of those who profess the active life; and I do not want another habit than that of the servants.”
“If the King of Castile turns war against Portugal again, until I am buried I would serve both the religion that I profess and the homeland that has been mine.”
“I could sink a lance in Africa, if it were necessary to expose lives to danger, for the honor of the homeland or in defense of the Faith.”
His cause hung fire for centuries. He was beatified in 1918. But in 2000, a woman burnt in her kitchen with boiling oil had her eye miraculously cured through his intercession. (I feel that the boiling oil lends it that nice medieval warfare touch.) Apparently the Portuguese government made diplomatic objections to his canonization (the royal family thing made them uneasy, one assumes), but now he’s canonized for good and all. (Although not in Lisbon.) His feastday is November 6.
Many Portuguese feel that this is a summons to remember their history of proud and virtuous ancestors, and to stop losing their identity and pride in the modern world. Apparently, God deemed it time that the knight/Carmelite should charge to the rescue one more time.
But there are also Americans with a devotion to this guy, the Blessed Nuno Society. And he’s one of the ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II of England.
More about the new saint.
A really good portrait of him at a Portuguese blog. A statue of him as the young knight who saved Portugal on another blog. Equestrian statue of him in Lisbon, in an article about him in Portuguese.
A Gothic church financed by St. Nuno in gratitude for victory at the Battle of Valverde, Our Lady of the Scapular of Mount Carmel, Lisbon. This is also where he became a Carmelite. He was also buried there, but the tomb was swallowed up in the horrendous 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The church and convent has only been partly restored from the earthquake damage.