Spanish Civil War Martyrs Recognized

Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical deploring the anti-Church sentiments of the Spanish government in 1933.

Who on earth would murder a 70-year-old partially paralyzed nun, her 80-year-old colleague and two religious sisters helping their elders?

Radicals in Spain, between 1934 and 1939, went on a rampage against the Catholic Church, especially targeting its most devout adherents. The aforementioned quartet were all Servants of Mary, Ministers to the Sick.

Mother Aurelia, Sister Aurora, Sister Agustina and Sister Daria are examples of Catholic martyrs of the Spanish Civil War. They were brutally forced out of their motherhouse in Madrid when the war started in July 1936, then killed five months later as they tried to make it to a convent in safe territory.

On June 4, the Vatican declared these four women martyrs of the faith, together with 91 others: 18 men from the Order of St. Benedict, four from the Discalced Carmelites, together with one diocesan priest, 66 Marist Brothers of the Schools and two allied laymen.

They were all killed in Spain between 1936 and 1939. The Vatican announcement opens the path toward sainthood.

It’s the latest announcement of Spanish martyrs; Pope John Paul II felt at least 50 years should pass before the Church began highlighting their sacrifice, so the first beatifications came in 1987, culminating in the largest beatification ceremony in history when Pope Benedict XVI made 498 Spanish martyrs "blessed."

At least 6,800 priests and religious, including 13 bishops, were murdered in this brutal phase of a violent century. Some 4,000 laypeople were killed for helping or hiding religious people.

Msgr. Vicente Carcel Orti, a Spanish historian and author of 30 books, including The Religious Persecution in Spain During the Second Republic, 1931-1939, has spent years researching declassified documents from the Vatican Archives on the tragic events of the 1930s.

He emphasizes three aspects of this confusing political period to help contemporary Catholics understand the historical situation of persecution and victory over it.

First, he says, we must know the context for the violence of the 1930s. The monarchy had become very unpopular by 1930, and it was associated with the Catholic Church, but the Church did not oppose Spain’s transition from monarchy to republic.

King Alfonso XII reigned from 1886-1931. For the last seven years of his rule, he allowed Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera to garner tremendous power as prime minister. He dissolved the parliament, political parties and trade unions.

When the prime minister was overthrown in January 1930, the stage was set for an offensive against everything associated with the king and his authority.

Municipal elections saw the victory of candidates favoring a republic in April 1931, and King Alfonso was forced into exile two days later. He fled to Rome. A provisional government bringing together various anti-Alfonso groups, from conservatives to socialists, took power.

According to Msgr. Carcel, Vatican documents confirm that Pope Pius XI advised the Spanish bishops to recognize the new republic, despite local hesitance that the government had taken power through a coup, not a democratic process.

Vatican documents "show that the Holy See and the Spanish Church faithfully abided by the Republic and wanted to collaborate with her for the common good," Msgr. Carcel told Levante-EMV, a leading newspaper in Valencia, Spain.

But the new government showed its anti-Christian face quickly.

The second reality to understand, according to Msgr. Carcel, is the phase from 1931-1936, when an escalating set of punitive laws — some enshrined in a new constitution — persecuted the institutional Church and demonized clerics.

The Second Republic took control of all Church property (ordering religious groups to pay rent and taxes for buildings they owned), made education secular, forbade religious orders to teach, and the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) was forcibly dissolved.

In response, Pius XI in 1933 issued the encyclical Dilectissima Nobis (On Oppression of the Church of Spain). He deplored that the new government was so hostile to a faith held by the vast majority of the Spanish people. And he demonstrated that he saw the connection between politics in Spain and socialistic politics in other parts of the world:

"[W]e can only conclude the struggle against the Church in Spain is not so much due to a misunderstanding of the Catholic faith and its beneficial institutions as of a hatred against the Lord and his Christ, nourished by groups subversive to any religious and social order, as alas we have seen in Mexico and Russia" (5).

The third reality in Spain, explains Msgr. Carcel, is that the persecution of individual clerics began even before the civil war, and it was part of a strategy to eliminate the Church’s authority as well as the country’s religious tradition, as they were obstacles to total control for the left.

Communists, socialists and anarchists were behind most of the killing — with massive military support as well as internationally trained cadres from the Communist International, including an American unit termed the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade."

Some uninformed analysts claim that Catholics were killed because they supported Gen. Francisco Franco, who led the "nationalists" to victory over the "republicans" in 1939. Msgr. Carcel warns that this is not historical; religious people were largely neutral with regard to politics.

He says it’s false to imagine the "republicans" were fighting to build a democracy. Rather, they were bent on implementing a system closer to the Soviet Union — the only nation that supported their side during the civil war.

Robert Royal, author of The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, points out another reality regarding the Spanish martyrs: The claim that the Catholic Church in Spain was targeted because it was corrupt is disproved by the "heroic and sincere" attitude of the martyrs themselves — martyrs such as Marist Brother Aquilino Baldomer Baro Riera.

Together with three sick brothers, he was led outside by executioners in Les Avellanes, Spain. He told them, "As a man, I forgive you; and as a Catholic man, I thank you, for you are placing in the palm of my hands the martyrdom every Catholic should desire."

When the militiamen told Brother Aquilino to turn around, he refused, insisting they shoot him facing forward. All four brothers were immediately executed.

These Marists are among the newly declared group of martyrs. They will be beatified on Oct. 13 in Tarragona, Spain, as part of a ceremony to end the Year of Faith.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.