Pope Francis's first canonization ceremony was a record-breaking one. The new pontiff named over 800 new saints on Sunday. That's already almost double the number of saints declared by Pope John Paul II, whose 480-odd canonizations were, at the time, more than those of all of his predecessors since 1588, combined. But the latest canonization bonanza is notable for another reason: most of the 800 new saints are 15th-century martyrs, who were approved as a group for sainthood by Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Given Pope Francis's previous public commitment to improving the Catholic church's relationship with Muslim communities worldwide, Benedict XVI's unfinished business put the new pontiff in a delicate position. The 813 "Martyrs of Otranto" were beheaded by Ottoman soldiers for refusing to convert to Islam.
Pope Francis, who is also fighting against Benedict XVI's overall poor reputation among many in the Muslim community, tried to handle the potentially awkward moment by declining to mention "Islam" in his entire speech marking the canonizations. Instead, he emphasized the Christian faith of the martyrs, with a relatively toned-down nod to ending inter-religious violence: "Let us ask God to sustain those many Christians who, in these times and in many parts of the world, right now, still suffer violence, and give them the courage and fidelity to respond to evil with good,” he told the crowd in St. Peter's Square.
The pope also canonized two women from Latin America, which seems to be a more fitting way for the first pope from the continent to kick off his tenure. Those two new saints are Laura of St. Catherine of Siena Montoya y Upegui (also the first saint from Colombia*) and Maria Guadalupe Garcia Zavala of Mexico. Saints, as you might know, must have performed two miracles in the eyes of the church to qualify for the Catholic church's highest honor.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the country from which the new saint Laura of St. Catherine of Siena Montoya y Upegui is from. She was the first saint from Colombia, and not, of course, from Columbia.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.