It was during a consistory called to declare the canonization of saints that Benedict XVI chose to announce his resignation. Last Sunday, these saints were canonized, among them 800 martyrs: Antonio Primaldo and his companions.
Saint Antonio Primaldo was a 15th century tailor and townsman of the southern Italian town of Otranto. The region was invaded by the Ottoman Turks who brutally executed Otranto's religious and civil leaders. When the invaders ordered the townspeople to convert to Islam, Saint Antonio encouraged his fellow townsmen to die for Christ since Christ had died for them. Refusing to convert, they were led to a hillside outside the city where they were beheaded, Saint Antonio being the first among them.
Speaking with ZENIT shortly after Pope Benedict's resignation, historian Timothy O'Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, noted how the then-Holy Father "realized the timeliness of the witness of these martyrs for a number of reasons: first of all, because they are laymen. These are men who were just involved with the world."
When the invaders where trying to force the townsmen of Otranto to apostatize, O'Donnell said, Primaldo, the lay tailor, stood up and gave a "heroic testimony, that Christ has died for us, so we should die for him. He ends up strengthening all the other men. The fact that all of these other laymen gave their life for Christ is a powerful witness."
O'Donnell also noted the relevance of elevating to sainthood these martyrs in today's day and age. "The greatest periods, in which the Church has been strongest," he said, "has been when she's persecuted. There are many countries in our world where the threat of radical Islam has been a source of persecution. But also in Europe with secularism, and the assault on religious liberty that we're seeing in the United States, is cause for concern."
The canonization of the Otranto martyrs, he continued, offers a reminder to the people of Italy and Europe "of the heroic witness of laypeople who were intimately involved in the city life, but had such a deep love of their faith and their families that they were willing to die rather than renounce it."
Associate professor of ancient and medieval history for Jacksonville State University, Donald Prudlo, described to ZENIT the historical context of the Otranto martyrdom, explaining how it was not only a powerful witness to the faith, but was significant to European history. "Mehmed II, called the Conquerer, was the Sultan of the Ottoman empire (r. 1451-1481)… The attack on Otranto in 1480 was a raiding party designed to test Italy's defenses. It was also calculated to spread terror across the coasts of Italy, and indeed it did alarm Europe greatly."
"Antonio and his companions in a certain way saved Europe," continued Prudlo, "for their example showed that Catholic Europe was not to be terrorized."
Prudlo added that he was particularly struck that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI chose to announce his renunciation during the canonization consistory of the Otranto martyrs. "Benedict too, like them, is on the leading edge of the fight to save Europe, not only from Islamic extremism in this case, but from rampant secularism and relativism. Antonio and his companions are martyrs of religious intolerance."
"In response to the irrationality of violence and intolerance," he said, "they laid down their lives. In a similar way, Benedict has lived a life dedicated to faith and reason, and this is why I found it particularly poignant that the Pope chose that moment for his announcement."