Thursday, October 17, 2013

Martyrs are Controversial: The 522 Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War

Last Sunday, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, celebrated Mass in Tarragona, Spain and announced the beatification of 522 martyrs. According to The Catholic Herald in the UK:

A Vatican official moved more than 500 Spanish Civil War martyrs closer to sainthood during a special beatification Mass in Tarragona, the archdiocese that suffered most under “the Red Terror.”
An estimated 20,000 people from throughout Spain as well as small contingents from Portugal and France attended a special outdoor Mass on Sunday celebrating the beatification of 522 members of Catholic religious orders as well as laypeople.

Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, celebrated the Mass. Archbishop Jaume Pujol Balcells of Tarragona and Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela of Madrid concelebrated.

The ceremony was held in Tarragona because nearly 150 people, including Auxiliary Bishop Manuel Borras Farre, and 66 diocesan priests, were murdered there during the war. Many of those who attended the Mass did not have a direct connection to those being beatified.

“This is a very special occasion in the history of the Church in Spain,” said Josep Maria Ibanez, 49, a resident of Sitges. “If you are Catholic, it is important to be here to show your support for the church and for those who were killed for their faith.”

The altar was set up on a large stage at the educational complex of Tarragona, not far from the city’s port facilities. In a televised message, Pope Francis urged those in attendance to join “from the heart” in the celebration to proclaim the beatified martyrs. The Pope said those martyrs were “Christians won over by Christ, disciples who have understood fully the path to that ‘love to the extreme limit’ that led Jesus to the Cross.”

He noted that Popes always tell people, “Imitate the martyrs.”

“It is always necessary to die a little in order to come out of ourselves, to leave behind our selfishness, our comfort, our laziness, our sadness, and to open ourselves to God, and to others, especially those most in need,” he said.

These beatifications do not come without controversy, however, since they were executed for their Catholic Faith during the Spanish Civil War--and the debate about Francisco Franco and that war looms over their martyrdoms, as The Telegraph notes:

Spain's Catholic Church has beatified 522 "martyrs", mostly clerics killed during the Spanish Civil War, prompting fury from Franco-era victims' groups who say the honour "legitimised" his dictatorship. . . .

Historians have estimated that about 500,000 people from both sides were killed in the 1936-1939 war. After Francisco Franco's victory, Nationalist forces executed some 50,000 Republicans. Franco's dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975.

Several thousand priests, monks and nuns were thought to have died at the hands of the Spanish republic's mainly left-wing defenders, among whom anti-Church sentiment was strong. . . .

The umbrella association of dozens of groups supporting Franco-era victims had written to [Pope Francis], saying: "Under the guise of a religious act, the (Catholic) hierarchy is committing a political act of pro-Franco affirmation."

The Platform for a Truth Commission added: "You should know that the Catholic Church backed Franco's military uprising against the Spanish Republic in 1936."

The Church "considered the war 'a crusade' by backing the generals who revolted, (and) legitimised the fascist dictatorship and the fierce repression that it afflicted on the Spanish," said the letter published Friday.

It has "forgotten the victims of Francoist repression", the letter said.

Some more progressive sections of the Spanish Catholic Church, a minority in Spain, also opposed the beatification, saying it would reopen the wounds of the past.

In addition to 515 Spaniards, three French, and a citizen each from Cuba, Colombia, the Philippines and Portugal were among those beatified, which is the last formal step before possible sainthood.

This reminds me of the controversy the beatification and canonization of the Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation provoked and can provoke. The memories of injustices in the past always provoke uncomfortable reaction--and the debate about the truth of the those events is the urgent matter of the controversy. Were the Catholics executed by successive monarchs in England merely traitors to the State, conspirators against the rule of law? Or were they targeted by a series of unjust and immoral laws that violated human freedom, a human freedom of religion that really did not exist in the sixteenth century? Were they executed because they were traitors or because they were Catholics? That argument about opening the wounds of the past was used against Pope Paul VI's 1970 canonization of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. ARCIC discussions between Anglican and Catholic theologians were underway; the Church had entered a new ecumenical age--is this a good time to bring up the past? Protestants in England could respond in kind (well, they already had in Oxford) celebrating the Marian Martyrs, already canonized in Foxe's Book of Martyrs!

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