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 | Katie Camario

Three Bishops Advance the Cause of Sainthood for 57 Florida Martyrs

July 17, 2023 | An unwavering love of the Holy Eucharist and devotion to the Catholic faith led to the tragic death of fifty-seven individuals during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They lived and were killed during the evangelization of historic La Florida, a region claimed by the country of Spain that included southeastern present-day United States.

These men and women, under consideration for sainthood, include Antonio Inija, and 56 companions, priests, religious, laymen and laywomen. They were Indigenous peoples of the Apalachee, Timucua, Guale, and other tribes of the Southeast and also European missionaries, presumed martyrs, who were killed between 1549 to 1712 by the British occupying forces.

“That is the greatest defense of the Eucharist in our nation's history,” said Dr. Mary Soha, M.D., Vice-Postulator and guide, overseeing the Cause of Canonization for the Martyrs of La Florida.  

According to Dr. Soha, it was their belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist that inspired the indigenous to rebuild their villages so the tabernacle became the center of village life. This eventually led to clashes where priests and the native people gave up their life defending the Eucharist and the ciborium to keep it from being defamed when they were attacked.

"Martyrdom is not about how somebody dies, it's about how they lived, because it's how they lived that gave them the strength and the courage to be able to say yes to a martyrdom,” said Dr. Soha.

The effort to declare the Martyrs of La Florida as saints is one step closer to reaching Rome after an Extraordinary Convocation was held June 30, 2023, in Tampa, FL.

Historians, experts, a canon lawyer, and three Florida bishops, including Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, gathered on June 30th, to take testimony on the life and legacy of the Martyrs of La Florida.

“It's important to look to them as examples of how to courageously live the Gospel in the times and circumstances of today and to share their story and their example of heroic faith, particularly with our young people, to inspire them to greater faith,” said Bishop Parkes during the opening Mass of the Convocation.

The Cause of Canonization for the Martyrs of La Florida was opened by Bishop Parkes on October 12, 2015, when he was bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee during an outdoor Mass with Bishop Felipe Estévez, Bishop Emeritus Kevin Boland, and Bishop Emeritus Sam Jacobs.

Although historians have made occasional attempts to uncover the story of these brave men and women of great faith, it remained largely unknown for centuries.

Father Len Plazewski, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Tampa serves as a Vice-Postulator for the Cause of Canonization for the Martyrs of La Florida.  He has been compiling documentation and historical accounts on the topic for over a decade. He says although it has taken centuries for the story to come to light, the timing could not have been better.

“Maybe God wanted this hidden for a while and brought it in our time because we need this example of faithfulness and forgiveness in our time,” Father Plazewski said. “So many of them died with forgiveness towards those who were killing them.”

Father Plazewski said the Convocation is the culmination of many years of research and discernment. The diocesan phase of the Cause is set to close in October of 2023. The documents are then sent to Rome’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. A postulator in Rome prepares a summary of the evidence to determine whether the candidates in question displayed heroic virtue and martyrdom.

The Cause is then examined by nine theologians, and if the majority are in favor, the Cause is passed to cardinals and bishops for further examination. If their judgment is favorable, the pope approves and authorizes the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints to declare the candidates Blessed for their martyrdom.

“I feel very strongly about this,” said Father Plazewski. “I think this is a very strong powerful, heroic, inspiring cause. It's a privilege to be part of this.”

Dr. Soha asks the faithful to direct their devotion towards the individuals included in the Cause, praying for their beatification and intercession as it moves forward.

“If anyone has the answer to a prayer, petitionary prayer or a special healing, we want them to contact one of the vice postulators to let us know so we can document that. If we have a major medical healing now, we can actually log that and use that when it comes time for the canonization,” she said.

To report prayers answered or favors granted through the intercessions of the Martyrs of La Florida, send your name, contact information, and details of the request and its resolution to Secretary@MartyrsOfLaFloridaMissions.org or call (850)445-1326.

To read the biographies and accounts of these Servants of God and for Cause updates click here: https://www.martyrsoflafloridamissions.org/

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Father Len Plazewski of the Diocese of St. Petersburg speaks to the Historical Commission of the Cause of Canonization for the Martyrs of La Florida on June 30, 2023, at the Franciscan Center in Tampa. Photo by Katie Camario.