On track to become the first Central American named as a Roman Catholic saint, Pedro Betancur was born in Vilaflor, the Canary Islands, on September 18, 1626. As a young man he worked as a shepherd, but he decided to migrate to Guatemala to make a new life for himself with the help of a relative in government service there. He moved to Cuba, but he stayed only long enough to replenish his depleted purse to cover his travel on to Central America. He had decided to become a priest and associated with the Jesuits, but he found himself unable to fulfill the educational requirements. thus, in 1655, he joined the Franciscan order.
During his first three years as a Franciscan, Betancur organized a hospital, a homeless shelter, and a school, all aimed to serve the poor. Understanding that faith is for everyone, he became concerned for the wealthier elements of society and initiated walking tours through their neighborhood, during which time he would ring a bell and call for repentance. In the end, he organized a new order just to care for the several benevolent services he founded, the Order of Belen.
Besides his social service, Betancur became known for his severe acts of penance. He was known for self-flagellation, sleep deprivation, and lying with his hands outstretched on a full-size cross. These actions contributed greatly to his reputation for saintliness. He is also said to have thought up the idea of a procession on Christmas Eve in which participants assume the roles of Mary and Joseph and seek a night’s lodging from their neighbors. Over the years, the practice spread throughout Central America and Mexico.
Betancur lived most of his life in Antigua, and he was buried there in the Church of San Francisco. There are now a set of related sites in Antigua that have become the focus of pilgrimage. First is the tree he is said to have planted. The sacristy of the Church of San Francisco houses many relics of the saint, including pieces of his clothing and a skull he used for meditating upon death. The original tomb inside the church still exists, though his body was put in a new tomb in 1990. There is also a display of crutches, canes, and other mementos left by people who were healed as a result of their visit to the church. Prayers to Saint Pedro are often made with candles that are rubbed on the tombs and then on the bodies of the afflicted. Those healed may leave messages of thanks, while those not immediately healed may leave behind their requests for Saint Pedro’s intercession on their behalf.
Brother Pedro was nominated for sainthood as early as 1729, but his cause languished from more than two centuries. Meanwhile, in the mid-twentieth century, the church was heavily damaged in an earthquake. In the 1960s, the local Franciscans began to promote devotion to Pedro and began cataloguing the miracles claimed by pilgrims to Antigua. They also began to lobby for the reconstruction of the damaged church. Over the following decades, both concerns were answered. Betancur was beatified in 1980 and canonized by Pope John Paul II during a trip to Guatemala on July 31, 2002. The new church has become a leading pilgrimage site for Central American Catholics.