“I will praise you, O God my Savior; I will give thanks to Your Name, for You have been … my helper and have delivered my body” (Sir 51: 1-2).
The two episodes of the martyrdom of Bl. Andre de Soveral, Bl Ambrosio Francisco Ferro and 28 Companions occurred in this context. In Rio Grande do Norte there were only two parishes: Our Lady of the Presentation in Natal, of which Fr Ambrosio Francisco Ferro was parish priest, and Our Lady of the Purification in Cunhau, directed by Fr Andre de Soveral. These two parish communities were victims of harsh religious persecution by the Calvinists.
Bl. Andre de Soveral was born around 1572 in Sao Vicente, Brazil, the principal town on the island of Santos. He most likely studied at Children of Jesus College in his home town and it is there that his Jesuit vocation began. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1593 and made his novitiate in Bahia. After studying Latin and moral theology and learning the Indios’ language, he was sent to the College of Olinda, a catechetical centre for the Indios throughout the region. He had his first missionary experience in Rio Grande do Norte in 1606 among the Potiguar Indios. On that occasion he entered a native village headed by an indigenous woman, Antonia Potiguara, whom he converted and baptized along with other Indios, and blessed her marriage. By 1614 he was parish priest of Cunhau and a member of the diocesan clergy.
The martyrdom of Fr Andre Fr Ambrosio and their faithful parishioners occurred on different days but in the same historical context. The first took place at Our Lady of the Presentation Chapel in Cunhau. On Sunday, 16 July 1645, Fr Andre de Soveral had gathered for Mass about 69 of the faithful, mostly farmers and workers employed in Cunhau’s sugar cane factory.
The Dutch sent one of their emissaries to Cunhau, an unscrupulous and cruel German named Jakob Rabe, who presented himself as the envoy of the Supreme Dutch Council of Recife, saying that he would communicate its orders at the end of Mass. But this was merely a pretext, for after the consecration a band of Dutch soldiers, accompanied by Indios, burst into the chapel, blocked the exits and ferociously attacked the defenseless faithful. Fr Andre realized the gravity of the situation and interrupted Mass to urge the faithful to prepare for death. Although he had told the tyrants not to touch the minister of God and the sacred vessels, he was killed by an axe hurled at him by an Indio.
The second episode of martyrdom occurred on the banks of the Uruaqu River, about 20 kilometres from Natal, on 3 October 1645. Here the victims were the city’s parishioners, led by their parish priest, Fr Ambrosio Francisco Ferro. Terrorized by the bloodshed that had occurred at Cunhau, the Catholics of Natal took refuge in several places, but in vain. The Dutch authorities forced them to go to a pre-arranged site where they were awaited by soldiers and a group of 200 Indios. Many of the faithful were tortured with their priest in various ways until they died. The chroniclers of the time describe the means of torture: their limbs were severed, their heads cut off; they were burned, their eyes, tongues and noses were torn off. A child was pinned to a tree trunk and another sliced in half with a sword. Mateus Moreira had his heart ripped out through his back, as he cried: “Praised be the Blessed Sacrament”. Those martyred include 27 Brazilians, one Portuguese, one Spaniard and one Frenchman.
Homily of John Paul II, Mar 5, 2000, In Celebration of Brazil’s Quincentennial of Catholic Faith
“You, Lord, have been my helper! I hear these words from the Book of Sirach echoing in my heart as I contemplate the wonders God has wrought in the lives of these brothers and sisters in the faith who have won the palm of martyrdom. Today I have the joy of raising them to the glory of the altars, presenting them to the Church and to the world as a shining witness to God’s power in the frailty of the human person.
You, Lord, have delivered me! This is the cry of André de Soveral, Ambrósio Francisco Ferro and 28 Companions, diocesan priests, lay men and women…
Yes, the Almighty was their powerful help in their time of trial and now they are experiencing the joy of eternal reward. Although these humble servants of the Gospel, whose names are for ever written in heaven, lived in different historical periods and in very diverse cultural contexts, they are linked by an identical experience of fidelity to Christ and to the Church. They are united by the same unconditional trust in the Lord and the same deep passion for the Gospel.
I will praise you, O God my Saviour! With their lives offered for the cause of Christ, these new blesseds, the first of the Jubilee Year, proclaim that God is “Father” (cf. ibid., v. 10), God is “protector” and “helper” (cf. v.2); he is our Saviour who listens to the appeals of those who trust in Him with all their heart (cf. v. 11).
2. These are the sentiments that fill our hearts as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of Brazil, which occurs this year. In this immense country, the implanting of the Gospel encountered many difficulties. The Church’s presence was gradually strengthened through the missionary activity of various orders and religious congregations and by priests of the diocesan clergy. The martyrs beatified today came, at the end of the 17th century, from the communities of Cunhaú and Uruaçu in Rio Grande do Norte. Fr André de Soveral, Fr Ambrósio Francisco Ferro and 28 lay companions belong to this generation of martyrs who watered their homeland, making it fertile for a generation of new Christians. They are the first fruits of the missionary work, the protomartyrs of Brazil. One of these, Mateus Moreira, had his heart ripped out through his back while he was still alive, and yet he had the strength to proclaim his faith in the Eucharist, saying: “Praised be the Blessed Sacrament”…
7. “Fear not, therefore” (Mt 10: 31). This is Christ’s invitation. It is also the exhortation of the new blesseds, who remained steadfast in their love of God and of their brothers and sisters, even in the midst of trial. This invitation comes to us as an encouragement in the Jubilee Year, a time for conversion and profound spiritual renewal. Let us not be afraid of trials and difficulties; may we not be hindered by obstacles from making courageous decisions consistent with the Gospel!
What do we have to fear, if Christ is with us? Why doubt, if we remain on Christ’s side and accept the commitment and responsibility of being his disciples? May the celebration of the Jubilee strengthen our determination to follow the Gospel. The new blesseds are an example to us and they offer us their help.
May Mary, Queen of Martyrs, who at the foot of the Cross shared fully in her Son’s sacrifice, sustain us in courageously bearing witness to our faith!”