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February 2012



Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War on 17th July 1936. The war was a titanic struggle broadly between those who wished to defend a Christian civilisation (the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco) and those who advocated a society based on secular humanism (the Republicans consisting of liberals, socialists, communists and anarchists.) Both sides committed terrible atrocities but nothing can quite match the near genocidal persecution meted out by the Marxist and Anarchist militias against the Catholic Church, one of the most severe persecutions in all of Church history. Between 10,000-20,000 Catholics died altogether including 13 bishops and nearly 7,000 priests, seminarians, monks and nuns many of whom have since been beatified.

The Second Republic: Liberalism as Diabolism

The establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 has been hailed as a great moment by liberals and progressives around the world. Its final demise in 1939 after a nearly 3 year conflict at the hands of Franco's Nationalist forces has been regarded as a tragedy and a great backward step. For the Church, however, the establishment of the Republic began a period of vicious persecution and untold horror and its end came as a relief.

From its first days, most of the politicians of the Spanish Republic showed themselves to be thoroughly hostile to the Church. After the Republic's establishment the Primate of Spain, Pedro Cardinal Segura called on Catholics to accept the new regime but also to vote in elections for candidates who "will guarantee to defend the rights of the Church and the social order," reminding them that the departed king and his family had always kept the Faith. Republican mobs responded by burning dozens of churches, convents and Catholic schools. When the still Catholic Prime Minister Niceto Alcalá Zamora called out the army to protect the churches he was opposed by the War minister and soon to be Prime Minister Manuel AzaƱa who stated: "All the conventos in Spain are not worth the life of a single republican."

Showing little regard for legality or the rights of the Church the new government declared Segura deposed and sent him into exile by putting him in a car and dropping him unceremoniously at the other side of the border. The new constitution banned religious education in any schools and called for the closure of all Catholic schools. The religious orders were to be expelled from the country. Public manifestations of the Faith (the Fiesta days so beloved of the Spanish people) were forbidden without specific state permission. Such was the state of things that by 1933 Pope Pius XI had felt compelled to write an encyclical, Dilectissima Nobis, in which he strongly condemned the actions of the Spanish government. The pope noted that "under the constitution and successive laws all opinions, even the most erroneous, have wide fields in which to manifest themselves, the Catholic Religion alone, that of almost all of the citizens, sees its teaching odiously watched, its schools and other institutions... restrained." Pius signed off:

"we 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."

The papal protests fell on deaf ears. The persecution intensified following the election of a Popular Front government in 1936. Attacks on churches and clergy intensified and in many cases the police and army were given orders from above not to intervene. It was in this context and in the wider context of political and social anarchy and disorder that the military uprising took place, the intention of which was to restore some kind of order to Spanish society. Its leader General Franco had been profoundly angered when he had learned that the military governor of Cadiz had watched as a convent was burned having been ordered by the government to do nothing.

The first six months of the conflict now known as the Spanish Civil War were the worst months for the Church for it was at this time that the persecution was at its most vicious. Hugh Thomas, a historian generally sympathetic to the Republic, writes: "Throughout Republican Spain, churches and convents were indiscriminately burned and despoiled. Practically nowhere had the Church taken part in the rising. Nearly all the stories of firing by rebels from church towers were also untrue." Thomas continues: “These attacks were accompanied by a colossal onslaught on the lives of members of the Church.”

Many of the accounts of the killings of clergy and other Catholics are so horrifying in their cruelty as to be difficult to read. One priest was stripped, scourged, forced to drink vinegar and then crowned with thorns and a wooden beam strapped to his back. While his captors considered nailing him to a cross, in the end he was simply shot. His last request was to be shot facing his killers so that he might die blessing them. In Lérida rosary beads were forced into monks ears till their tympana were perforated. The exhumed bodies of nineteen Salesian nuns were put on display in Barcelona. Just outside Madrid a priest, Don Antonio Diaz del Moral, was put in a bull ring and gored to unconsciousness after which his ear was cut off "in imitation of the amputation of the ear of a bull in honour of a matador." In Ciudad Real, "a young man distinguished for his piety had his eyes dug out." "A crucifix was forced down the mouth of a mother of two Jesuits." Other clergy were burned, buried alive or castrated. There were large bonfires of holy relics and artefacts and unspeakable blasphemies committed against the Blessed Sacrament. Hugh Thomas states: "At no time in the history of Europe or even perhaps the world has so passionate a hatred of religion and all its works been shown."

Faith and Courage

There are many inspiring stories of heroic martyrdom. Bishop Silvio Huix of Lérida after having said Mass for his fellow prisoners was taken to be executed with 22 laymen. He asked to be the last to be shot so that he might give absolution to the others before they went to their deaths. An entire community of Claretians was martyred. Several of them before being led away to death wrote this message on a chocolate bar wrapper:

August 12, 1936, Barbastro. Six of our companions are now martyrs. Soon we too shall join their ranks, but before we do we want to state that we forgive all who take our lives. We offer our lives for the Christianization of the workingmen, for the reign of the Catholic Church, for our beloved Congregation, and for our dear families. This is the last offering of its martyred sons for their Congregation.

One Claretian brother Fernando Saperas was martyred after having been unsuccessfully induced for 15 hours to break his vow of chastity. In 1994 Pope John Paul II would beatify all of these Claretian martyrs.

Countless other priests and religious died praying for their killers and praising Christ the King. Many brave lay men and women suffered the same fate. Warren Carroll records the fate of 19 year old Francisco Castello Aléu who told his captors before being martyred:

If to be a Catholic is a crime, I accept with pleasure my delinquency, since the greatest happiness a man can find in this world is to die for Christ. If had a thousand lives I would give them without a moment’s doubt for this cause.

A War of Principles and Doctrines

From 25 July 1936 until the war's end in April 1939 no Mass was said openly in the Republican zone, except in the strongly Catholic Basque provinces. On August 22nd, 1936, Pope Pius XI gave permission for Mass to be said in secret, without altars or sacred signs or vessels and using chalices of glass or pottery. It was these circumstances that caused all but two of the Spanish bishops to support the military uprising and declare the war a crusade. The Primate of Spain, Isidro Cardinal Gomá wrote in a pastoral letter on November 24th, 1936:

This most cruel war is at bottom a war of principles, of doctrines, of one concept of life and social reality against another, of one civilization against another. It is a war waged by the Christian and Spanish spirit against another spirit.

In 1937 following the occupation of the Basque provinces by the Nationalist forces, the pope recognized General Franco's government as the legitimate government of Spain. Whatever one thinks of Franco and the government he established it is a fact that this government always protected the Church and Christian values. But many of the issues that caused the war are still alive and fought over bitterly in Spain today.

Genocidal Toll

The religious persecutions claimed the lives of 6,832 clergy. This included 4,184 diocesan clergy, 2,365 male regular clergy and religious, and 283 nuns. This amounted to 12% of the clergy in Spain. In certain dioceses as many as 85% of priests were wiped out. The bishops in their “letter to the whole world” estimated that 20,000 out the 42,000 churches and chapels in Spain had been destroyed or damaged. In Barcelona only 10 churches were left unharmed. In the dioceses of Ciudad Real and Segorbe every church or chapel without exception was either damaged or destroyed.

The Church should not forget the Spanish martyrs and the Church has not forgotten them. Between 1987 and 2001 Pope John Paul II beatified around 500 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, including 233 on 11th March 2001. In October 2007 in the largest beatification ceremony in the history of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI beatified a further 498 martyrs. A further 2000 are having their causes for beatification examined.

In an age of increasing secular attacks against the Church, which now as then are increasingly taking on the force of law, it is worth remembering the heroic sacrifice of the martyrs of Spain and praying for their intercession.



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