It may surprise more than a few people that the most recently canonized Carmelite saint is also the national hero of Portugal. Although he is not widely known in the rest of the world, just mention “the Holy Constable” in Portugal, and everyone knows who you are talking about.
Nuno was born into a noble family with a long history of distinguished religious and military service. He grew up with romantic stories of defenders of the poor and helpless, like the heroic Knights of the Round Table, and soldier-saints like George, Martin, and Santiago. Like so many other young nobles, he followed the accepted path to advancement, becoming a royal page at age 13, and marrying a wealthy noble lady at 16. They had three children, but only their daughter Beatriz survived to adulthood.
In 1383, King Fernando I died leaving no sons to succeed him. His only daughter was married to the King of Castile, who hoped to annex Portugal to his growing kingdom. Many Portuguese aristocrats felt that this action would cost them their language, culture, and identity. Together with Nuno, they decided to rally around John of Aviz, the illegitimate step-brother of the dead king. Although technically not eligible for the throne, John was a natural leader and an ardent patriot. To prepare for the coming invasion by a Castilian army, he named Nuno the Constable (commander in chief) of the rag-tag forces loyal to Portugal. Although Nuno was only 23 years old at the start, he had a keen military sense, and an unshakable trust in God’s help in what he saw as a holy struggle.
Between 1383 and 1411, Nuno fought many battles along the frontier. He was always outnumbered, often many times over, but never lost a battle. Like Joan of Arc, Nuno insisted that his soldiers remember that they were fighting for a holy cause, and that they had to act as moral Christians who were ready to die, if necessary. He pushed prostitutes and gamblers out of the camp, urged the soldiers to pray and receive the sacraments, and above all to be respectful and merciful to their enemies and the civilian population. Naturally, soldiers with this attitude were less fearful of death, and took many heroic chances on the battlefield. After each victory, Nuno always gave the glory to Mary and her protection of the Portuguese nation. He emphasized his devotion by inscribing Mary’s name on his sword. He prayed and fasted on a regular basis, even when he was in the midst of a busy campaign.
Once the fighting had ended, the crown of John I was secure. Nuno had become the most popular and powerful person in the kingdom, after the King. His wife had died, and his daughter was married to the King’s son. He spent much of his wealth building churches and monasteries to honor Mary, who had never abandoned him in hard times. He capped his gratitude by building the most beautiful church in Lisbon which he dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and personally selected Carmelite friars to care for it. Since Nuno was paying the bill for the church and the priory for the community, he laid down strict rules for the community’s prayer and discipline, as custodians of Mary’s shrine in the capital.
Finally, toward the end of his life, he gave away the rest of his wealth (mainly to his veterans) and asked to enter the community at the Carmo as a serving brother. As a humble doorkeeper, he hoped to spend his final years in quiet prayer and reflection. He was somewhat disappointed at first when many people continued to visit the Carmo just to see him. So he asked to be transferred to a country house instead, but his old friend the king intervened. He stated frankly that Nuno was a national treasure, and had to remain available to its people. After Nuno’s death, he received a spectacular state funeral and was buried in the gorgeous church he had built.
Sadly, Nuno’s beautiful church was destroyed in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, along with most of the city. Today you can still visit the site, where the bare, roofless arches have been preserved as a memorial to the many who died there. Nuno was beatified during World War I by Pope Benedict XV as a model of a good Christian soldier, who maintained his morality and religious virtues during wartime. Pope Benedict XVI finalized the process in 2009 with canonization, presenting Nuno to the world as one who had gained all possible wealth, power, and acclaim, but gave it all up in thanksgiving to a merciful God, and to Mary, the patroness who remained with him even in his darkest hours.
Originally published in The Carmelite Review