Catholic martryrís ancient sacrifice seen as symbol for African-American community
BOSTON, Mass. (The Pilot) Ė To most people, "St. Moritz" conjures up images of a jet-set Swiss ski resort, a James Bond world of sleek chalets, titled glitterati and martinis shaken, not stirred. In fact, the Alpine playground traces its name to an African soldier-saint, who more than 1,700 year ago, gave his life for his faith at the dawn of Christendom.
PROMOTER OF SAINTíS EXAMPLE Ė Television producer Mario Valdes holds a book containing paintings of third-century martyr, St. Moritz. 'I would love to see St. Moritz embraced by the African-American community and presented to kids as not just a symbol but a shining example of how to live,' said Valdes. (Courtesy Mario Valdes).
For more than a millennium, St. Moritz was Christianityís muscular martyr, pure of heart and blameless in spirit, whose Nubian profile graced sculptures and paintings and whose sacrifice inspired the chivalric ideals of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
If an award-winning Boston television producer has his way, the legend of St. Moritz will be recaptured from the dustbin of history to inspire a new generation to turn away from violence and self-indulgence and live up to the principles of fidelity, humility and service personified by the saint.
"I would love to see St. Moritz embraced by the African-American community and presented to kids as not just a symbol but a shining example of how to live," said Mario Valdes, who has researched, written and produced television specials about black history and culture for, among others, PBS, WBGH-TV and the History Channel.
"Just look at the appalling carnage on the streets today. Young people need the high idealism and values embodied by St. Moritz," Valdes said, citing the spate of recent shootings on Bostonís streets. "A concerted effort is needed to introduce our youth to their own legacy,Ē he said.
St. Moritz, more commonly known as St. Maurice, was a Roman centurion, born in the upper Nile in the third century A.D. He rose through the ranks to command the celebrated "Theban Legion," composed entirely of the saintís African countrymen Ė all of them devout Christians.
In the year 286, Moritz and his famed 6,666 legionnaires accompanied the Emperor Maximian in a march from Rome to Gaul to suppress a revolt at the edge of the empire. After a perilous crossing of the Alps, the legion encamped in the Rhone valley south of Lake Geneva in what is today the French-speaking Swiss village of Saint-Maurice-en-Valais.
The emperor commanded the entire army to offer living sacrifices of Christian captives to the pagan gods for the success of their expedition. But Moritz, citing fidelity to his Christian faith, refused and withdrew his forces to Aguanam, three leagues from the main encampment.
"We are your soldiers, but are servants of the true God," Moritz told the emperor. "We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you. You can place no confidence in our second oath, should we violate the first."
Enraged, Maximian ordered every 10th man slain. The legion remained unmoved. A second decimation was ordered. Finally, every man fell to the sword, with none among the battle-tested warriors offering any resistance.
During the Middle Ages, the stone where St. Moritz lay down his head drew hordes of pilgrims on his feast day, celebrated today on Sept. 22. Hundreds of parish churches and towns were named after him, including a remote Alpine village destined to become the chic St. Moritz, a luxury resort known for sun-splashed ski slopes and elegant nightlife.
Up until the late Renaissance, St. Moritzís martyrdom figured among the highest acts of faith venerated by Christians. He was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire, of Austria as well as the papal Swiss Guards in the Vatican Ė the protector whose sword, when held by the blade, becomes a cross.
During an interview, Valdes eagerly spreads out photographs of statues, mosaics and paintings with St. Moritzís African features nobly portrayed by centuries of artists.
Valdesís research clearly shows a shift in the depiction of St. Moritz after the advent of the European slave trade, as traffickers in human flesh and their sponsors sought to dehumanize their captives, wiping away any images of Africans as noble or spiritually gifted.
"The truth of St. Moritz began to recede," said Valdes. "How could European Christians, in good conscience, slaughter millions in the Middle Passage if they were seen as co-equal heirs of Christís covenant? How could they be thrust into the foul holds of coffin ships if they were not just the co-equals of European Christians, but Christís own companions and martyrs?"
Even today, St. Moritz, whose spear was said to be made from the lance that pierced Christís side, is often depicted as a European in spite of growing awareness of Africans being systematically overlooked, devalued and ignored in history books.
While applauding Valdesís commitment to harnessing black history to shape the minds of African American youth, some question whether such an effort can overcome the formidable barriers of alienation, poor education and poverty.
"The story is well worth telling. Whether it could turn around the lives of kids is another story," said Rev. Wesley Roberts, pastor of Peoples Baptist Church in Boston and a founder of the Ten Point Coalition, formed to combat youth violence.
"If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Kingís life doesnít do it, then Iím not sure how a saint who lived almost 2,000 years ago could succeed," Rev. Roberts said. ...
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