Pope advances sainthood causes, including first ‘martyr’ of charity

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An illustration depicts Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci in traditional Chinese clothing. In a decree Dec. 17, Pope Francis advanced the sainthood cause of Father Ricci, recognizing the heroic virtues of the 16th-century missionary to China and declaring him venerable. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

VATICAN CITY. Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of members of a Polish family who were sheltering a Jewish family during World War II, and, for the first time, advanced the sainthood cause of a candidate under the category of heroically offering his life out of loving service to others.

And following centuries of church debate, the pope also advanced the sainthood cause of his confrere, Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century missionary to China.

During a meeting Dec. 17 with Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, the pope also signed decrees advancing the sainthood causes of a Uruguayan bishop, 12 priests and religious men and women, and one laywoman.

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children, including their unborn child, were killed by the Nazis along with the Jews they had taken in. The recognition of martyrdom clears the way for all nine members of the Ulma family to be beatified.

Born in 1900 and 1912, respectively, Józef and Wiktoria were very active members in their church community.

Jewish residents were being executed in the area starting in 1942. The Ulmas sheltered eight Jews, who had escaped from a nearby village, on their farm in Markowa for a year and a half, even though to do so was punishable by death.

German police discovered the Jewish family members hiding on the farm and shot them dead; they then killed “in hatred of the faith” all nine members of the Ulma family on March 24, 1944.

The cause of Franz De Castro Holzwarth, a Brazilian layman born in 1942, is, according to the dicastery website, the first sainthood cause to be advanced according to a new pathway approved by Pope Francis in 2017, that of offering one’s life in “an extreme act of charity.”

De Castro was a lawyer and he also offered assistance and spiritual support to inmates in a prison in Jacareí.

When a prison riot broke out and hostages were taken Feb. 14, 1981, De Castro acted as a mediator. When negotiations broke down, he offered to take the place of a police guard who was being held hostage inside. The prisoners attempting to escape with De Castro as their hostage were all killed when the military police opened fire on them. De Castro died in the crossfire.

Although it has taken more than 400 years, the sainthood cause of Jesuit Father Ricci has moved forward with Pope Francis recognizing the heroic virtues of the 16th-century missionary.

Father Ricci, who was born in 1552 in Macerata, in central Italy, spent 28 years evangelizing, absorbing Chinese culture and bringing Western science to the faraway Asian continent.

Father Ricci won the trust and admiration of the Ming Dynasty Emperor Wanli, ensuring that he and his Jesuit brothers would have the freedom to evangelize.

He was a man of science — a cartographer, an astronomer and a mathematician — and he immersed himself in Chinese culture, enough to be able to translate many works, including a Catholic catechism, into Chinese and the teachings of Confucius into Portuguese.

He died in Beijing in 1610 at the age of 58, and the emperor made an unheard-of concession at the time of allowing Father Ricci, a foreigner, to be buried in Beijing.

The diocesan phase of Father Ricci’s sainthood cause opened in 1984 but was almost immediately closed when questions were raised about his commitment to pure Christianity. It opened again with Vatican approval in 2010.

Both Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have praised Father Ricci for being able to proclaim the Gospel with clarity and prudence in dialogue with another culture.

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