The Catholic Defender: Saint Berard and Companions
When our holy Father St Francis learned by divine revelation that God had called him and the members of his order not only to personal perfection but also for the salvation of the souls of others, he entertained an ardent desire to convert the Mohammedans, whose inroads at that time frequently endangered Christian countries and the Christian Faith.
He was well versed in Arabic, an eloquent preacher, and was chosen by St. Francis, together with two other priests, Peter and Otho, and two lay-brothers, Accursius and Adjutus, to evangelize the infidels of the East.
Saint Berard a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar who was executed in Morocco for attempting to promote Christianity. He and his companions, Peter, Otho, Accursius, and Adjutus, are venerated as saints and considered the Franciscan Protomartyrs.
On the journey, Vitalis, the superior, fell sick in Spain, and when his illness refused to mend, he submitted to the will of God and remained behind, while he permitted his brethren under the guidance of Berard to proceed.
At Seville, in southern Spain, which the Mohammedans occupied at the time, St Berard and Companions preached fearlessly in the mosque that the teaching of Mohammed was falsehood and deceit, and that salvation could be found only in the Faith of Christ.
Preaching the gospel is often dangerous work. Leaving one’s homeland and adjusting to new cultures, governments and languages is difficult enough; but martyrdom caps all the other sacrifices.
In 1219, with the blessing of Saint Francis, Berard left Italy with Peter, Adjute, Accurs, Odo and Vitalis to preach in Morocco. En route in Spain, Vitalis became sick and commanded the other friars to continue their mission without him.
They started preaching immediately, on streets and in public squares. People treated them as if they were crazy and had them arrested. To save themselves from being sent back home, the friars declared they wanted to see the sultan. So the governor of Seville sent them to Morocco.
They tried preaching in Seville, then in Muslim hands, but made no converts. They went on to Morocco where they preached in the marketplace. The friars were immediately apprehended and ordered to leave the country; they refused.
Once in the city, they began immediately to preach to the Moslems round the market place. When he heard of it the king clapped them in gaol for twenty days without food or drink, their only nourishment being divine consolation. The king was further incensed by their perseverance in the faith and had them subjected to various tortures including scourging, each of the brothers in a different house.
Burning with rage, the Mohammedan ruler, who had been listening to them, ordered that their heads be cut off at once. But his son, who was with him, appeased the anger of his father, and at his suggestion the friars were permitted to sail across the sea to Morocco.
Iniquitous officials then bound them hand and foot, put a rope round their necks and dragged them along the ground, flaying them so that their entrails were almost visible. They proceeded to pour boiling oil and vinegar on the open wounds and then to roll them on straw bedding littered with broken pottery. There were almost thirty Moslems to watch and scourge them throughout the night.
When they began preaching again, an exasperated sultan ordered them executed. After enduring severe beatings and declining various bribes to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ, the friars were beheaded by the sultan himself on January 16, 1220.
This was quite in accordance with their wishes, since there among the Saracens they were right in the midst of the Mohammedan people.
Coming upon a group of Saracens, Berard, who had a good command of the Arabic language, began at once to preach the Faith of Christ to them.
These were the first Franciscan martyrs. When Francis heard of their deaths, he exclaimed, “Now I can truly say that I have five Friars Minor!”
Their relics were brought to Portugal where they prompted a young Augustinian canon to join the Franciscans and set off for Morocco the next year.
That young man was Anthony of Padua.
These five martyrs were canonized in 1481.