Peter of St Joseph Betancurt (1626-1667), Brother Pedro, was born on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. His ministry, however, would be to the poor of Guatemala City.
This was a particularly cruel society, where a sub-class of Africans and Indians lived perpetually on the edge of starvation.
“You have the poor among you always,” said Jesus. Disgracefully, this text (Mt 26:11) has sometimes been used as an excuse for inaction. In fact, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy 15:11, which gives quite the opposite message: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying: Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy.”
Indeed, Jesus Himself had made this teaching absolutely clear in Matthew 25, where “the righteous” are rebuked for their indifference towards suffering: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” It is in this context that Brother Pedro shines out as a Christian exemplar.
Born in Vilafor, Tenerife, he began life as a shepherd, although the name Betancurt suggests some connection with Jean de Béthencourt, a Norman who had conquered the Canary Islands in 1402.
Pedro, though, felt a call to South America, and in 1650 made his way with great difficulty to Guatemala, where a relative was secretary to the governor. Arriving totally destitute, however, he found help only from a Franciscan friar.
Soon Pedro had formed the ambition to study for the priesthood at the Jesuit College of San Borgia, only to prove unequal to his studies. Instead, he became a Franciscan Tertiary in 1655, and dedicated the rest of his life to relieving the extremes of poverty.
Inspired in particular by the plight of the Holy Family at Bethlehem, Pedro eventually managed to enlist the help of both civil and religious authorities in establishing a hostel for the homeless and a school for abandoned children.
There was also an oratory, where he celebrated Mass very early every morning, so that his flock could attend before starting work. On Christmas Eve he would lead a procession in which figures representing Joseph and Mary would beg a night’s lodging from their neighbours.
Pedro also invented his own teaching methods, using songs, games and dance. His followers became known as the Bethlehemite Congregation, which after his death became formally recognised by Pope Innocent XI. The Rule combined active good works with prayer, fasting and penance.
After Pedro’s death, his burial place in Guatemala City became a place of pilgrimage. It was said that petitioners only had to tap on his tomb in order to find their prayers answered.
Brother Pedro was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2002.