Saint January 29 : Blessed Francis Zirano - a Conventual Franciscan Friar who Refused to Convert to Islam to Save His Own Life



Blessed Friar Francis Zirano, a Conventual Franciscan Friar. Friar Francis Zirano, born in 1564 in Sassari, Italy, professed his Franciscan vows in 1580 and was ordained a priest in 1586. In 1599, Pope Clement VIII authorized him to collect funds to ransom Christians who were being held as slaves in North Africa.
 Friar Francis journeyed to Algiers arriving in 1602. He was certainly born in Sassari; most likely in 1564. We know the mother's name: Margherita, and the date of his death, 1598. His father's was probably struck by the plague of 1582 which, in the city of Sassari alone, caused twenty thousand victims.
 He had two sisters and probably a brother. From a poor family, while still young, he was nevertheless initiated into studies, which was very rare for those times, almost certainly at the convent of Santa Maria di Betlem, where at 14, according to the custom of the time, he was admitted to the novitiate and at 15 to profession. His religious and theological training took place in the years in which, in Sassari, he worked as a teacher and as a renowned orator Fr. Francesco Sanna, provincial minister in the years 1583-1587. These were also challenging years for the reform of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual according to the indications of the Council of Trent. Most likely he was ordained a priest on May 30, 1586. In the meantime, his cousin, the son of a maternal aunt, friar Francesco Serra, joined him in S. Maria, also as a religious; these will have great importance in the events of the last 13 years of the life of Fr. Zirano. 5. The orderly and industrious life of the convent of Santa Maria in 1590 was disturbed by a tragic episode: Friar Francesco Serra, the cousin of Fr. While traveling, Zirano is kidnapped and enslaved by Turkish pirates who have the base for their raids in Algiers. Such raids frequently occurred on the Sardinian coasts and not infrequently priests and religious were also kidnapped. If the kidnapped was well off he would provide the ransom on his own. The redemption of the poor was attempted by some religious institutes which arose for this purpose (Mercedari, Trinitari, etc.) and by various brotherhoods explicitly dedicated to this charitable work. 

 Christian slaves often converted to Islam in order to escape humiliation and free themselves from slavery. Fr. Francesco Zirano feared that something similar could also happen to his cousin, so after having hoped and awaited other possible solutions, he decided to personally face the fatigue and risks of Fra Francesco Serra's liberation. Despite this decision, he continues to give his contribution of work and commitment in his community of Sassari. In January 1598 there is a rotation in the offices and community offices of the convent of Santa Maria; p. Zirano is appointed treasurer and procurator: that is, in charge of dealing with the public affairs of the convent. In those days, this was such an important task that the appointment of Fr. Zirano is registered by the notary. He is the administrator of a community grain reserve and carries out the task of begging in some towns around Sassari. In that year, the mother most likely also dies. 1598 was above all the year of anxious waiting for the pope's response to his plea to be able to beg in all the churches of Sardinia in order to find the funds necessary for the ransom of his cousin. In fact, he has no other possibility to find the 200 scudi, the sum assigned for the ransom of his cousin, and to be able to support the expenses of the trip and meet many other unexpected events of such an enterprise. In Sardinia the begging aimed at the redemption of slaves was reserved for the religious Mercedari di Bonaria. Consequently he needs an explicit faculty from the pope. He presents the petition to Pope Clement VIII in the last months of 1597 or early 1598, as can be seen from the Pope's Brief , signed on March 19, 1599, called Ortatorio, in which he is granted the right to go to the begging for three years; the person of Fr. Zirano is referred to as "a man of about 33 , of short stature, black eyes and a brown beard". Having obtained the license, without wasting time, he began to travel through the towns of Sardinia begging, as well as in the halls of the churches, from house to house; in this way he has the opportunity to meet and comfort various people who had relatives in the same conditions as his cousin. 
At the end of the three-year period, in the spring of 1602, unable to leave for Africa directly from Sardinia, he went to Spain. King Philip III offers him a ride in a Spanish ship that takes to Algiers Fr. Matteo de Aguirre, an observant friar minor, already a slave in that city, an expert of the local language and the political situation, who promoted a project for the capture of Algiers with the help of the king of Cuco, who has a relative converted to Christianity. Fr. Francesco arrives in Africa on July 28, 1602 and immediately hurries to fulfill his mission. Unfortunately, the moment is not quite the right one. In Algiers all those who come from Cuco are considered enemies or spies. The redemption negotiations have been suspended. In the city the news of the arrival of Fr. Matteo de Aguirre and the same Fr. Zirano and his name is also included in the wanted list. However, he does not give up on his project: disguised as a Moorish merchant selling linen, he manages to free 4 slaves who work on farms outside the city walls. Pending the events, for 4 months, from September to December 1602, Fr. Zirano stops in the city of Cuco and carries out the priestly ministry in favor of the Christians ransomed or fled from Algiers and some renegades who stop in Cuco waiting to return to their homeland. In this period he also meets the spouses Gavino Pinna and Margherita Escano with their son Pedro, natives of Tempio. They confide in him the profound regret of having denied the Christian faith, albeit only outwardly. In fact, it was enough for a Christian to enter the mosque or name Mohammed and he was obliged to become a Mohammedan, otherwise he was burned alive. In fact, in their heart, the Pinna-Escano spouses always remained convinced Christians and demonstrated this by facilitating the task of the redeemers of slaves and helping the priests with offerings of masses and in various other ways. Returning to their homeland they had the joy of seeing their son Pedro ordained a priest 1 . Meanwhile, on January 10, Sid Amar ben Amar, playing on surprise, attacks battle and inflicts a humiliating defeat on the Algiers army. The king of Cuco is keen to let the king of Spain know the news and sends his own Fr. Zirano to bring a letter to the Spanish sovereign. On the way from the mountainous area to the port of Asofon, perhaps betrayed, certainly abandoned by the escort that was supposed to defend him from any ambushes by the soldiers of Algiers, he was arrested. The letter for the king of Spain was immediately removed, stripped of his clothes, beaten and chained, he was taken to Algiers, where he entered on January 6, 1603 " ..... half dead from cold and hunger, covered only in breeches, barefoot , with a large chain around his neck and handcuffs on his wrists ” (RAMIREZ, Relacion A, c. 5v). 8. It would take too long to summarize the events of the last 20 days of his life! He was locked up in the prison located inside the pasha's palace. Here, despite being in the midst of other Christians, everyone was forbidden to speak to him. They wanted to isolate him because he was mistakenly considered a very important person (fra Matteo de Aguirre the ambassador of the king of Spain Philip III), so much so that the price of his ransom was fixed in three thousand gold ducats; two hundred scudi were enough for the ransom of Fra Francesco Serra. Despite the very close surveillance, his cousin Fra Francesco Serra managed to visit him two Fridays in a row, at the time when the jailers were intent on praying, in the mosque. On January 22, 1603, the Janissaries (the militia that oversees Algiers) would like to have him arrive in Constantinople with an English ship as a war trophy for the Grand Vizier who also commands over Algiers; the attempt fails because the pasha prefers the ransom money. Two days later the tug of war resumes between the Pasha Solim├án who, in view of the ransom, wants to save his life and the Janissaries who want his death. 
The final verdict is pronounced on the morning of January 25th and it is terrible: he will be flayed alive; therefore condemned to bleed to death and in excruciating pain. At the news of this condemnation, the comment of Fr. Zirano is thanking the Lord: “We give thanks to the Lord our God, that he has chosen me as an unworthy servant”. He followed the long Via Crucis through the main street of Algiers, crowded for the market, made the subject of insults, spits and beatings, to the place of execution, outside Babason's gate. On reaching the place of execution, he received one more last invitation to deny the faith, but his response is more firm than ever: “I am a Christian and a religious of my father St. Francis and as such I want to die. And I beg God to enlighten you so that you know him . Finally he is skinned alive. When the last shred of skin is torn from him, he exclaims: "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my soul ... - and with these words he expired".

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