ROSARIO, Argentina –Pope Francis on Friday advanced the sainthood causes of a handful of figures who, at first glance, might seem relevant only to small pockets within the Catholic Church.

Three in particular, hailing from Venezuela, Argentina and Italy, stand out: One is a layman, one a bishop and one a religious sister. All three were declared “blessed” by the pope, which is the preliminary step to sainthood. With the first two Francis recognized a miracle attributed to their intercession, while the religious sister was declared a martyr — she was killed in a satanic ritual — so no miracle was necessary.

The Vatican statement said, the new batch of “blesseds” represent South America and Europe with their “desire to serve the poor, the nation and the young.”

José Gregorio Hernández Cisneros, Venezuelan doctor of the poor

Born in 1864, this physician died in 1919 after being struck by a car. He became a highly renowned for his work with the poor during the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago. The fact the beatification was announced during the COVID-19 pandemic was something underlined by many in Venezuela.

“In the middle the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world, in the middle of this terrible crisis that our fatherland is living through, today we receive a balm from this person who unites us,” said Cardinal Baltazar Porras of Caracas in a news conference.

Hernández graduated as a medical doctor in 1888, traveled to Paris with a government grant where he studied several fields of medicine, including pathology, microbiology and physiology. Between 1891 and 1916, Hernández dedicated himself to teaching, medicine, and religious practice.

Twice in his life he joined the seminary, but a dictatorial government first and his poor health later, prevented him from following this path. Instead, he became a secular Franciscan and, following the spirit of St. Francis, focused much of his ministry on the poor, treating them for free and even buying them medicines with his own money.

Known for helping those in need, the new Venezuelan blessed is especially admired in a country suffering a six-year economic collapse featuring the world’s highest hyperinflation rate and shortages of basic goods.

The church of La Candelaria, in Caracas, where his remains are located, celebrated with fireworks and a prayer vigil.

Mamerto Esquiú, the Argentine bishop who defended nationalism

Fray Mamerto Esquiú joined the Franciscans when he was 10, though history books claim he first wore the traditional brown habit at the age of five – having fallen seriously ill, his mother made him a small cassock and promised she’d always dress him with it asking for his healing.

The sepulcher of Bishop Mamerto Esquiú, in the cathedral of Cordoba, Argentina. His incorrupt heart had remained in the Franciscan convent in Catamarca but on 20 January 2008 was stolen from the urn in which it was kept. The relic was never recovered, and the man arrested for the theft said he had thrown it into a nearby trashcan. (Credit: Wikimedia commons.)

In the words of Church historian Roberto Bosca, “the name of Esquiú, for various reasons, is little known today in his own country. He was a humble Franciscan friar, and therefore possessed a sensitivity completely alien to that of those who seek glory or power.”

“Although overshadowed by a secular sensibility, he can be considered a figure of the first order in the institutional organization of the Argentine Nation, whose foundations he contributed to cement,” Bosca told Crux. “He did not write great political works or hold high office: his influence was quieter, but also more profound because it constitutes a deep thought inside the consciences. We are immersed in the din, but the most important thing is not what makes more noise.”

Various aspects of Esquiú’s life illustrate the point. The best known is his contribution to a precarious national constitution, through a famous sermon in the parent Church of San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca on July 9, 1853.

“In this sense, Esquiú appears as a teacher of civility that allows him to be considered as a forerunner of John Paul II’s [1991] encyclical Centesimus Annus, when he says the Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order, but does not express preferences for one or another institutional or constitutional solution,” Bosca said. “The encyclical points out that the Church appreciates the system of democracy to the extent that it ensures adequate participation by citizens.”

According to Bosca, the soon-to-be blessed understood this “better even than other bishops who succeeded him.”

A political dimension to Esquiú’s faith, Bosca said, didn’t mean then, nor does it mean now, politicization of the Church.

“In Esquiú’s life there is a distinction between the two spheres, but at the same time faith informs a public performance that is not partisan,” Bosca said. “When it comes to Argentina’s history, religious orders are closely link to the birth of the nation. As a matter of fact, there’s a convent in the northern region of the country that boldly proclaims at its entrance that ‘we were here before Argentina existed’.”

“It seems to me that Pope Francis wants to put them into consideration by all with this beatification, but not only in a historical sense, but also a prospective one, looking into the future,” Bosca said.

“Christians in Argentina, and also in the world, need to be aware that faith has a transforming dynamic far superior to that of all political programs, which is the force of love,” he said. “The new blessed pristinely embodies this message.”

Maria Laura Mainetti, a reminder of the pope’s conviction about Satan

Sister Maria Laura Mainetti of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Cross was murdered in 2000 by three Italian teenage girls in a Satanic ritual. The girls had intended to stab the 60-year-old 18 times – six times each, to form 666, called the “number of the Beast” in the Book of Revelations. However, an autopsy revealed she actually had been stabbed 19 times with a kitchen knife.

Mainetti’s killers were convicted and imprisoned, but Italian reports note that after a few years in jail they’re all free now, with new names and living in larger Italian cities. One, reportedly, worked as a baby-sitter for a while.

Sister Maria Laura Mainetti. (Credit: Daughters of the Cross.)

According to some recollections of Mainetti’s death, her last words were a plea for God to forgive her killers.

The sister’s ministry was focused on helping juvenile delinquents, yet the three girls who killed her had no prior history of crime. However, police reports speak of notebooks with satanic writings and a blood oath made months before the murder. During interrogation, they confessed their original target had been their parish priest, but seeing that he was bulkier, they feared he’d prove too hard to kill.

Francis’ decision to declare Mainetti’s death as coming in odium fidei, meaning “hatred of the faith,” serves as a reminder that over 200 million Christians face religious persecution daily, and not only in places where they represent a minority. As he noted during his Sunday Angelus address on June 21, more Christians are martyred today than in the first centuries of the Church.

Faith-based violence and Satan, Francis believes, are actually related: In 2017, and several times since, he’s said the devil is behind anti-Christian persecution.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma