Know your Martyrs
Spain is known for its many martyrs, especially the many who lost their lives during the religious persecution that broke out in the 1930s. Over 1,870 martyrs from this time period have already been officially recognized by the Catholic Church and many more are on their way to canonization.
Barbastro (Huesca, Spain) was the diocese that suffered most during the persecution. 80% of the clergy, the highest figure in all of Spain, were killed. A total of 18 Benedictines, 9 Piarists, 51 Claretians, 13 canons of the Cathedral, 114 diocesan priests, 5 seminarians, and a bishop were martyred.
The 51 Claretians or Missionaries, Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were martyred between August 2 and August 14 of 1936. The Claretian community of Barbastro (Province of Huesca, Spain) was composed of 60 missionaries: 9 priests, 12 religious brothers, and 39 seminarians on their way to ordination. Only 9 of these were over 25 years old.
On July 20, 1936, a group of armed men broke into the seminary and searched the house in hopes of finding arms inside. Although their search was in vain, the entire community was arrested. Before leaving the seminary, “in the blink of an eye, two priests went and got the two ciboria and there, in the patio, we consumed about 10 hosts per person” (Letter from Atilo Parussini to his family. Frascati, September 29, 1936). Strengthened by the Eucharist, they prepared to face their martyrdom.
The sick and elderly were taken to the hospital. The superior, the formation director, and the administrator were taken to prison and were the first to receive the palm of martyrdom on August 2, 1936. The rest were taken to the school run by the Piarists and locked in the auditorium until the day of their execution. They underwent every kind of physical and moral suffering: thirst, the stifling heat of August, insults, blasphemies, and mock firing squads, some of which lasted up to an hour. Prostitutes were sent into the auditorium to provoke them and they were offered freedom in return for blasphemies or if they agreed to take off their religious habit, because “it is not that we hate you. What we hate is your profession, your black habit, your cassock,” they told them. Yet not one of them gave in.
It was the Holy Communion they secretly received during the first days of the persecution, along with their prayer, the recitation of the Divine Office, the Sacrament of Confession, community life and fraternal charity which led them to pray for the grace of final perseverance for all. Their filial devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary kept them firm in the faith and strengthened their souls up until the moment of martyrdom. The time had come for them to remain true to the words they had so often sung: “Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, grant us sweet consolation in the fight when your faithful soldier falls to the ground, embracing his ideal. What ideal? That of shedding my blood for you, my Queen.”
The three superiors were executed by a firing squad on August 2, and on August 12 another 6 priests of the community were killed. They were bound two-by-two and then taken in the back of a truck to the cemetery. Once there, they were shot and their lifeless bodies fell into the trench behind them. On August 13, another 20 of them were executed. The one remaining priest gave them the absolution without being noticed by the executors. “We were all praying for our brothers, that God would give them the grace of holy perseverance until the end, as we had done the night before. Two of us started to pray the Rosary, meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries, and when we heard the shots, they began praying the Glorious Mysteries” (Pablo Hall). On August 15, 20 more were executed and on August 18, the last 2 were killed.
Brother Pablo Hall and Brother Atilo Parussini, both from Argentina, were freed on August 13 in virtue of their foreign nationality. In their final salute to the last group, they became witnesses of their last thoughts and words. “I whole-heartedly forgive all those who are hurting us, persecuting us, and trying to kill us… If they only knew that they are doing me the greatest favor, in spite of their hatred for me!” (Casadevall). “Please tell Father José Fogued that, seeing as how I cannot go to China as I had always wished, I am pleased to offer my blood for the missions in China and I will pray for them from Heaven” (Rafael Briega). Pablo Hall continued, saying, “We were all very moved, but they were very enthusiastic thanks to the example of those who had preceded them, and they assured us that they would be singing and shouting ‘Viva!’ (Long Live!) to Christ the King, the Heart of Mary, the Catholic religion, and the Pope, on their way to execution” (From the sworn testimony of Pablo Hall).
The spiritual strength of the martyrs was found in the writings which they left in their breviaries, prayer books, notebooks, and even on chocolate wrappers and a piano stool. Ramón Illa wrote to his family saying, “When you receive these lines, sing to the Lord for the immense grace of martyrdom that He is granting me.” Salvador Pigem wrote: “Long live the Immaculate Heart of Mary! We are killed for the mere fact that we are religious,” and added in his mother tongue: “Do not cry for me; I am a martyr of Jesus Christ.”.
An especially eloquent and moving letter was written on behalf of all the martyrs on August 13, paying their final salute to the Congregation:
“Dear Congregation: the day before yesterday, August 11, six of our Brothers died with the generosity that marks the death of martyrs. Today, August 13, twenty have obtained the palm of victory and tomorrow, August 14, the rest of us (twentytwo) hope to die. Glory to God! Glory to God! (…) We spent the day encouraging one another in our martyrdom and praying for our enemies and for our dear Institute. When the moment comes to choose the victims, all experience a holy serenity and desire to hear one’s own name, so he can come forward and join the ranks of the chosen. We look forward to this moment with generous impatience, and when it has come, we have seen some kiss the cords that bind them, and others offer words of forgiveness to their executors. When they head off in the truck, towards the cemetery, we hear them shout: ‘Long live Christ the King!’ The mob shouts: ‘Death! Death!’ But nothing intimidates them. THEY ARE YOUR SONS, DEAR CONGREGATION; these men who die facing pistols and rifles, shouting with confidence as they meet their death: LONG LIVE CHRIST THE KING! Tomorrow the rest of us will go and we now know what we should proclaim – even when the shots start to fire – to the Heart of our Mother, to Christ the King, the Catholic Church, and You, THE MOTHER OF ALL OF US (…). We joyfully die and not one of us feels faint or overburdened. We all die praying to God that the blood of our wounds may not be a blood of vengeance, but rather a blood that is alive. We pray that entering your veins, it may be a catalyst in your development and expansion throughout the world. Good-bye, dear Congregation! Your sons, martyrs of Barbastro, salute you from prison and offer you their painful anguish in expiation for our failures and as a witness to our faithful, generous, and perpetual love. The martyrs of tomorrow, August 14, realize that they will die on the Vespers of the Assumption. What a great thought! We die for wearing a cassock and we die the very same day we received it… Long live Christ the King! Long live the Heart of Mary! Long live the Congregation! Good-bye, dear Institute. We go to Heaven praying for you. Good-bye! Good-bye!”
May the blood of martyrs encourage us to live and die as true disciples of Christ.
© HM Magazine; nº204 September-October 2018