A Peruvian Spirituality of Prayer and Service to the Poor


Readings for the Feast Day of St. Martin de Porres, St. Rosa de Lima and St. Toribio de Mogrovejo:

Psalm 9:9-14

James 2:1–8,14–17

Mark 10:23–30

This homily was preached at All Saints Chapel at The School for Deacons Opening Eucharist on Saturday August 23, 2014.

In the early 1980s, Catholic priest and spiritual author Henri Nouwen left a prestigious teaching position at Yale Divinity School to live among the poor in Lima, Peru. As he describes in his published journal titled ¡Gracias!, Nouwen learned the profound connection between prayer and service to the poor while living in Latin America. It seemed to him that one of the best ways to serve the poor was to pray and that one of the best ways to pray was to serve the poor. He writes, “To go to the poor is to go to the Lord”[1] and “Entering into the suffering of the poor is the way to [listen] to God.”[2] This insight about prayer and service to the poor as two sides of the same coin seems to be in the lifeblood of Peruvians, the people with whom Nouwen lived. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Catholic priest with whom Nouwen briefly studied, is also a Peruvian and has articulated a radical theology called “liberation theology” based on the connection between prayer and service to the poor. He taught Nouwen that “a true liberation theologian is not just someone who thinks about liberation, but someone whose thought grows out of a life of solidarity with those who are poor and oppressed…Liberation theologians do not think themselves into a new way of living, but live themselves into a new way of thinking.”[3] The spirituality of prayer and service to the poor that molded Henri Nouwen in Peru and influenced millions of his readers is one that was embodied by three Peruvians of the 16th and 17th century that we celebrate today: St. Martin de Porres, St. Rosa de Lima and St. Toribio de Mogrovejo. The lives of these saints invite us to embrace and embody the Peruvian spirituality of prayer and service to the poor.

St. Martin de Porres apparently spent seven hours daily in prayer and meditation. However, he would usually do this at night because during the day he would pray by serving the poor, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and caring for orphans. Because he was biracial, he became the victim of derogatory slurs and slander. Being called a “vile bastard” and a “mulatto dog” deepened Martin’s ability to empathize with the pain and suffering of others and to broaden his understanding of the poor to include not only people, but animals as well. Known as the St. Francis of the Americas, Martin earned a reputation for communicating with all of God’s creatures, rational and irrational. It was in his presence that a bird, mouse, cat and dog all peacefully drank milk from the same bowl, a wonderful image of the kingdom of God (or the animal kingdom of God). When rats had infested a convent and Martin was ordered to poison them, he instead politely asked the rats to leave and promised to feed them and they agreed. Although also known for having the gift of bi-location, warding off demons, miraculously multiplying food, and even raising a dead dog back to life it was ultimately his devotion to humble prayer and service to the poor that inspired Pope John XXIII to name him the patron saint of all who work for social justice.

The priest who initiated Martin into the Body of Christ through baptism also baptized a young girl named Isabel seven years later. Because Isabel was so beautiful, people thought her name did not do her justice so they called her Rose or Rosa. Instead of using her beauty for vanity and social prestige, Rosa devoted herself to a life of extreme prayer, fasting and self-denial. For fourteen years, she lived in prayerful solitude, receiving mystical visions of Mary and Jesus, who said to her, “Rose of my heart, be my spouse!” She then displayed her love for her spouse, not only through her virginity, but also through her love and service to the poor, the sick and slaves. Although prayer and solitude were essential, like a true Peruvian she knew that prayer was best embodied in service to the poor. I imagine she learned this partly from the archbishop who confirmed her: Toribio de Mogrovejo.

Among these three Peruvians, the life and witness of Toribio may be the most relevant to us here at the School for Deacons. As the Archbishop of Lima, Toribio was deeply enmeshed in ecclesiastical politics and church hierarchy and yet he remained wholly committed to prayer through daily Eucharist, confession, thanksgiving and the recitation of the Psalms; and he used his position of authority in the church to protect the poor, to provide for the hungry, to give medicine and administer the sacraments to the sick. He founded the first seminary in South America (in Lima in 1591) and he knew that if the seminary education did not help the students pray and serve the poor more effectively then the seminary was not doing its job. He asked, along with James, “What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works?” (2:14). What good is prayer and education if they are not deeply connected to serving the poor and the oppressed?

Desert father Evagrius Ponticus said, “A theologian is one who prays.” Peruvian spirituality says, “A theologian is one who serves the poor, which is prayer in action.” ‘A true liberation theologian,’ as Gustavo Gutierrez said, ‘is not just someone who thinks about liberation, but someone whose thought grows out of a life of solidarity with [the poor]…Liberation theologians do not think themselves into a new way of living, but live themselves into a new way of thinking.” May this year of education and formation awaken a Peruvian spirituality within each of us and equip us all with tools to enhance our prayer and service to the poor so that we can be like Martin de Porres, Rosa de Lima, Toribio de Mogrovejo, Nouwen and Gutierrez and bring to earth the kingdom that God has promised to those who love him. Amen.

[1] Henri Nouwen, ¡Gracias!: A Latin American Journal (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1983), 20.

[2] Nouwen, 183.

[3] Nouwen, 159.

Other works consulted:

García-Rivera, Alex. St. Martin de Porres: The “Little Stories” and the Semiotics of Culture. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1995. 

Habig, M. A. Saints of the Americas. Huntington IN: Our Sunday Visitor Inc., 1974.


About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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