VATICAN CITY — In the largest group ever beatified at one time, as well as the most lay people(42) ever beatified during the same ceremony, Pope John Paul II beatified 233 Spanish martyrs March11.
All were killed between 1936 and 1939, during one of the worst persecutions the Catholic Church has ever known.
In most parts of the country, churches were either burned, closed or used as places of torture. Convents, seminaries and schools were often confiscated and used as prisons.
Simply wearing a cross around your neck in public became a life or death decision.
“It has to be remembered that the religious persecution was parallel to the civil war,” said Sister Maria Luisa Labarta, a postulator from Spain for six Escolapia (Sisters of the Pious Schools) nuns and two lay women murdered during this time. “When the monarchy lost the election of 1931, the Republicans came to power. My order was immediately prohibited from teaching.”
The Republicans identified themselves with communist and socialist thought, which brought an intensely anti-clerical atmosphere into Spain.
“The Republicans burned Catholic archives. They destroyed all religious objects, “ said Silvia Correale, the postulator for a group of 74 martyrs from the region of Valencia. Correale, an Argentinian, is the first female lay postulator.
“These people formed death squads, called ‘anarchists,’” she said.
“They were never from the regions where they carried out the killings.” Some came from outside of Spain, from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
From 1931 to 1936, acts of intimidation against the Church were carried out with few killings. But when the Republicans won the elections again in 1936, violence exploded with full force.
He Took His Brother's Place
One of the beatified, Pablo Melendez Gonzalo, was a significant figure in the city of Valencia in the early 20th century. He was the father of 10, a lawyer for Valencia's archbishop, director of the Catholic newspaper Voice of Valencia, president of the lay organization Catholic Action, and a founder of a Catholic political party. When the militia came to look for him, they also wanted one of his married sons, an outspoken Catholic.
“But another son, who was not married, stepped up and said ‘I am he,’ taking the place of his brother who had children,” said Correale. “Both were taken to a seminary which had been converted into a prison. They stayed there for many months. Pablo wrote letters to his family every day, letters which showed incredible serenity. Eventually everyone in the prison was killed by firing squad.”
Many of the martyrs could have avoided their death but chose to accompany loved ones and share their fate. One woman, Maria Teresa Ferragut Roig, had five daughters of which four had become nuns.
“When the persecutions began, the mother took the nuns back into the house, “ said Correale. “Though all dressed in civilian clothes, someone in town informed on them. The militia came for the daughters but not the mother. She said, ‘Where my daughters go, I will go.’ The militia decided to shoot all the daughters. Again, Maria Teresa told them, ‘Where my daughters go, I will go — but kill me last so that I can give each moral support until the end.’;All were killed facing their mother, who was killed last, as she had wished.”
Heroic acts of forgiveness also abound among the stories of the martyrs. One man refused to let his wife go downstairs when the militia came in the middle of the night for him. He told her, “It will be harder for you to forgive them later on.”
Another man, Rafael Alonso Guttierez, was found near death on the side of the road after being attacked by anarchists. While a town doctor tried to save him during his last moments, Alonso was asked to reveal the names of his attackers. Alonso refused and passed away shortly thereafter.
Two of the women who were made blessed are from Uruguay, the first beatifications for that country.
Dolores and Consuelo Mella were the daughters of a wealthy lawyer who had moved from Uruguay to Madrid in the early 1900s. Dolores, the eldest, lived in the residence of the Escolapia nuns, after having completed all her schooling with them. Though she never joined the order, she made a personal vow of celibacy as a lay person. In 1936, the militia closed the school and her residence, saying that it was needed for a hospital. A school alumna invited a few Escolapia nuns to live in an empty family apartment. Dolores was 39 at the time.
“Dolores went to live with the nuns, “ said Sr. Labarta. “She could have lived with her brother, Theofilo, who was a consul for Uruguay, or even sought asylum at the Uruguayan embassy for safety. But she chose to live with the nuns in order to help them.”
By this time, the nuns stayed indoors all day because the danger had grown too great. It was up to Dolores to go out every day to buy food and provisions. Eventually the milita came for her.
When her sister Consuelo, 38, heard the news, she immediately went to stay with the nuns. Within a few hours, two men arrived with a note written in Dolores's handwriting. It said that if the mother superior came, she would be freed. Despite a broken leg, the mother superior decided to go. Consuelo went with her, reasoning that her diplomatic passport would guarantee their safety.
They never came home.
Theofilo Mella went to 27 of Madrid's prisons in order to find them. Eventually, their bodies were found within one of the city morgues, where they recognized Consuelo's dress hanging out of a casket. They had been killed by firing squad on an abandoned highway, a typical execution for the martyrs of Spain during this time.
“Here we see people who knew where they were going, and what their decision meant,” said Don Ramon Fito, the diocesan delegate for the cause of saints of Valencia. “They accepted it with fortitude and valor. There were no great speeches, just true faith incarnated.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Rome.