National Catholic Register


Learning From the Example of the Spanish Martyrs

News Analysis



November 18-24, 2007 Issue | Posted 11/13/07 at 2:49 PM


The 20th century produced the largest number of martyrs in the history of the Church. What can 21st-century Catholics learn from the martyrs of the last hundred years? On Oct. 28, 498 Spanish men and women — two bishops, 24 priests, 462 religious men and women, two deacons, one seminarian, and seven laypeople — who were killed for their faith between 1934 and 1936 were beatified in St. Peter’s Square.

Father Liberio González Nombela, a parish priest in Toledo, Spain, was one of them. A group of soldiers told him to blaspheme. When he refused, the soldiers decided he should die like Christ.

Stripped naked, Father González was brutally scourged, crowned with thorns and crucified. He was given vinegar to drink and mocked.

“Blaspheme and we will forgive you,” his persecutors said.

“It is I who forgive you,” the priest replied as he made an effort to bless his executioners. He was shot.

Stories like Father González’s were commonplace during the religious persecution that scourged Spain in the 1930s. According to historian Hugh Thomas, such a harsh hatred for religion has never been seen in the history of Europe and perhaps not in the history of the world.

In the year 1931, the Spanish Second Republic was established. Following instructions from Pope Pius XI, the Catholic Church in Spain tried to collaborate with the new anti-clerical regime for the common good.

Despite this, the Republican government started a campaign to eradicate the Catholic faith from the nation. That campaign intensified after the Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, and the government, led by communists, socialists and radical groups, launched a ferocious persecution.

All churches were burned or closed. Altars, images and sacred objects were destroyed. Any liturgical celebration was forbidden. Convents were destroyed and consecrated life was banned, and priests and religious people were systematically killed.

During the persecution, 13 bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 religious, 283 nuns and thousands of laypeople, including children, were killed for being Christians.

In many cases, death came after torture, humiliation and abuse intended to make the victims apostatize or profane the sacraments.

Eternal Fruit

Spain was only one of the countries where Catholics faced mass martyrdom in the last century. Thousands of Mexicans died shouting “Viva Cristo Rey” (Long live Christ the King) during the anti-Catholic persecution of the 1920s.

Countless others were killed for believing in Christ under totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

No martyr dies in vain. And no historian can measure how much martyrs influence the course of history. Did not Spain, Mexico and other nations keep and increase their faith thanks to the mysterious efficacy of so much sacrifice? Would the world be the same without them?

We are heirs of the treasure of grace the martyrs purchased with their blood.

We are also heirs of their magnificent example of how to remain faithful in the midst of persecution.

To be a Christian in contemporary Western societies is tough. Whoever wants to remain faithful to the faith of our fathers must be prepared to be a laughingstock and an easy target to atheistic, secularist and relativist social and political forces.

Like those heroes of the faith who were martyred, we are called to be “transfigured” men and women.

As John Paul II explained in his homily during the March 2001 beatifications of 233 Spanish martyrs, the “transfigured” are “people who follow Christ in living and dying, who are inspired by him and let themselves be imbued with the grace that he gives us, whose food is to do the Father’s will, who let themselves be led by the Spirit, who prefer nothing to Christ’s Kingdom, who love others to the point of shedding their blood for them, who are ready to give him their all without expecting anything in return, who — in a word — live loving and die forgiving.”

We should be proud of and inspired by the brethren who shed their blood for Christ and mankind.

In a Godless culture, we are called to be the 21st-century heroes, whose sacrifice will water and fertilize the springtime of the Church and the fruits of the New Evangelization.

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar

teaches philosophy at Regina Apostolorum University in Rome.