ROME — They were humble women, servants of God. And of their fellow men and women in the holy land.
On Sunday, in a canonization laden with significance both religious and political, Pope Francis declared Marie Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Baouardy the first two Palestinian saints of modern times.
Some 2,000 Palestinians gathered in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square to sing and pray and celebrate their saints. There, they heard the Pope pay tribute to the way in which the two new saints experienced the love of God.
“Sister Mariam Baouardy experienced this in an outstanding way. Poor and uneducated, she was able to counsel others and provide theological explanations with extreme clarity, the fruit of her constant converse with the Holy Spirit. Her docility to the Spirit also made her a means of encounter and fellowship with the Muslim world,” the Pope said.
“So, too, Sister Marie Alphonsine Danil Ghattas came to understand clearly what it means to radiate the love of God … and to be a witness to meekness and unity. She shows us the importance of becoming responsible for one another, of living lives of service one to another,” he said.
‘A light in the tunnel’
In the Holy Land, Palestinians tried to express what the canonization meant to them.
“As Christians, this is a sign of hope, this is a light in the tunnel,” said Father Jamal Khader, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. “Especially now in the Middle East, with all the events, with all the violence. We are celebrating the lives of two saints who worked humbly for everyone and who proved to be true followers of Jesus Christ.”
The Vatican wants to be seen as part of the peace process in the Middle East, and Pope Francis has made that a priority. And Francis can be expected at some point to take similar action on the Israeli side.
As political as the canonizations may have been, they carried deep spiritual meaning, as well.
Visions of the Virgin
Ghattas was born in Jerusalem in the 1840s to a devout Christian family. She became a nun, dedicating herself to a life of quiet servitude.
In Bethlehem, she said she began to receive visions of the Virgin Mary telling her to start a new congregation for Arab girls, called Sisters of the Rosary.
Ghattas’ hard work and her profound devotion led to the founding of the Rosary Sisters Convent. It was Ghattas’ home, which she donated to the convent to spread education and culture to those in need.
“Sometimes God creates from these weak people something great,” said Sister Agatha, a member of the Rosary Sisters congregation in Jerusalem.
A throat slit, a miracle occurs
Baouardy was born in Ibillin, a small village in Galilee, also in the 1840s. She was the 13th child in her family, and the only one to survive past infancy.
Her parents died when she was 3 years old, and her uncle raised her.
In Alexandria, Egypt, one of her uncle’s servants told her to convert to Islam. When she refused, the servant slit her throat.
It was then that Baouardy’s miracle began.
“Mariam became a martyr, and she went to heaven,” said Sister Fireal of the Carmelite Monastery in Bethlehem. “She saw the crown of grace, saw her mother and father. But she heard a voice saying that your life is not yet over and you should return to Earth.”
According to Baouardy’s account, a young nun dressed in blue healed her, cared for her, and led her to the church. It was, she believed, the Virgin Mary.
Baouardy led a life of service to the poor and to the church.
‘The journey continues’
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the canonization of the two women affirmed his people’s “determination to build a sovereign, independent and free Palestine based on the principles of equal citizenship and the values of spirituality and sublime humanity.”
“Our Holy Land has become a bastion of virtue for the entire world, and we are grateful to His Holiness Pope Francis and the Catholic Church for their observance and interest of the seed of virtue that has grown in Palestine,” Abbas said. “Palestine is not a land of war; it is rather a land of sanctity and virtue, as God intended it to be.”
The conferring of sainthood on the two women held great meaning for ordinary Palestinian Christians, as well.
“It’s a message for the whole world that Palestinian Christians do exist in this land, and that Palestinian Christians have a heritage of more than 2,000 years,” said Nashat Filmon, the director of the Palestinian Bible Society.
“And the journey continues.”