Lost in the shuffle of Pope Benedict’s announcement of his abdication last February was his declaration that the Martyrs of Otranto would be canonized, an event which took place this morning. In 1480, over 800 courageous Catholic men from southern Italy, led by Antonio Primaldi, were beheaded by Moslem invaders for refusing to renounce the Faith and convert to Islam. In so resisting, they arguably saved Rome and even Europe, as the invaders were an exploratory raiding party sent by Mehmed II of Turkey to test the mettle of the resident Italians. Unfortunately, Pope Francis’s canonization homily gives them relatively short shrift — no mention is made of who did the actual “martyring,” for example — but curious readers can find the full story in a 2008 piece for Catholic Answers magazine penned by Matthew Bunson, my favorite Catholic popular historian. Here are his closing paragraphs:

The martyrs of Otranto were not forgotten by the people who returned to Apulia after the fighting was over. The bones of the martyrs were gathered up, placed in reliquaries, and installed in a chapel just off the main altar in the restored cathedral. Some of the relics were also sent to the church of Santa Caterina in Formello at Naples.

On October 5, 1980, Pope John Paul II visited Otranto and said Mass in honor of the martyrs in the cathedral. Twenty-six years later, in July 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave his formal approval for the promulgation of a decree by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that the Martyrs of Otranto were killed out of “hatred for the faith” (in odium fidei) in Otranto on August 14, 1480. This was the formal recognition that they were martyrs.

In speaking of the sufferings of the martyrs of Otranto, Pope John Paul II touched upon the challenges of martyrdom for Christ, but he also stressed the example of the 800 to modern Christians, especially those enduring hardships and sufferings in hostile lands where persecutions and even death are commonplace. He declared,

Many confessors and disciples of Christ have passed through this test in the course of history. The Martyrs of Otranto passed through it 500 years ago. The martyrs of this century have passed and are passing through it today, martyrs who are unappreciated, otherwise little known, and who are found in places far away from us. [author translation]