Saint Nuno: a military general who became a religious

  A 14th century knight, Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira is still a national hero in his native Portugal. Monuments, public squares and churches are named in his honour celebrating the role he knight played in securing Portugal's independence from Spain in the Middle Ages.

Nuno Álvares Pereira was born in 1360 and raised at court surrounded by the principles of chivalry. A skilful military leader and strategist, his decisive victories in battle earned him tremendous prestige, property and power. Nuno's only surviving child Beatriz married the first Duke of Braganza; through the descendents of this marriage Saint Nuno is forebear to occupants of not only the Portuguese throne but also that of England; Catherine of Braganza married Charles II of England in 1662.

However, Nuno was unfazed by the power and privilege of court and following the death of his wife turned his back on worldly goods seeking the simple life of a religious friar. Putting aside the weapons of war, Nuno took up instead the 'spiritual armour' recommended in the Bible and echoed in the Carmelite Order's Rule. In 1422 he entered the Carmelite friary in Lisbon which he had founded, and as 'Brother Nuno of Saint Mary' dedicated himself to prayer and charity. He was given the job of porter at the community's gatehouse, from where he gave food and shelter to the poor, a task he carried out faithfully until his death in 1431.

In a letter to the people of Portugal dated 6th March, the country's Catholic bishops spoke of Nuno as a heroic figure in a time of crisis: "We need figures like Nuno Álvares Pereira: principled, consistent, holy, that is, friends of God and of God's creatures, especially the weakest. Such people raise up within society a spirit of confidence and dynamism, which can overcome and defeat any crisis." Citing "a vacuum of moral values" as the origin of the current global financial downturn, the bishops praised Nuno's witness as a statesman who knew how to put the interests of the people ­ especially the poorest in society ­ above his own comforts and career aspirations.

Echoing the sentiments of the Portuguese bishops, the Carmelite friar responsible for overseeing the canonisation process, Fr. Giovanni Grosso, said: "Although Nuno lived nearly six centuries ago, he remains someone profoundly relevant. After life as a lay person steeped in and informed by the highest Christian values, Nuno abandoned all power in the name of love in order to serve Jesus Christ in silence and humility in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary and alongside the poor, whom he raised out of misery by his total dedication." Saint Nuno will be the first friar of the Carmelite Order's 'Ancient Observance' to be canonised for hundreds of years.

The Prior General of the Carmelites, Most Rev Fernando Millán Romeral, has greeted the announcement of the canonisation enthusiastically, amused by the irony of the fact that it comes at a time when he ­ a Spaniard ­ holds the post of senior brother within the Order. He will be present at the canonisation ceremony along with Carmelites and political dignitaries from Portugal. In Britain the canonisation will be marked in various ways, including a celebration of Mass for the Portuguese community at the Carmelite friary in Aylesford, Kent.

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