Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Of Course I Am A Catholic!"

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati has been called "the most handsome saint in heaven" - he certainly had the looks, and, it seems, the charm, to make him a hit with the ladies.  However, the martyr from the Spanish Civil War whom I will look at today might give Pier Giorgio a run for his money - at least that's what I hear when I listen to young ladies' reaction to the life and personality of Blessed Francisco Castello Aleu.  The old saying "beauty is only skin deep" does not always hold true, for as Francisco was handsome, he was also virtuous, true beauty dwelt within as he sought to live a life of holiness, and service to Christ and his neighbour.

Francisco de Paula Castello i Aleu was born on the 19th April 1914 in Alicante, the third child of his parents.  His father died when he was just a few weeks old, and so his mother was left to raise her three children in difficult circumstances.  Despite this, young Francisco had a happy childhood and was religiously inclined.  After he made his First Holy Communion he went to Mass as often as he could – certainly every Sunday, but a few times during the week also.  While he had an affectionate nature, he had a terrible temper and was inclined to self-love, but he was given the grace to understand these personality flaws at a young age, and so began his struggle to overcome them: here the seeds of holiness were being sown.

When he was thirteen Francisco was sent to the Marists for his secondary education, and while he excelled in his studies, he suddenly faced a spiritual crisis.  While he still continued to go to Mass each Sunday, he stopped receiving the Sacraments, a sad development for a child who had loved the Blessed Eucharist.   Two years later, in 1929, his mother suddenly died: he was distraught, as were his two sisters.  In the throes of shock and sorrow, the three children decided to make a consecration to Our Lady, and this would be the chink of light which gradually brought Francisco back to faith. 

He graduated with his high school diploma with distinction on 14th April 1930, but he was now excelling in another area.  In November of that year he made the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius under a Jesuit priest, and this retreat filled him with great joy and strengthened his faith.  He placed himself under the direction of the priest, Fr Galán, and he began to live an intense spiritual life while seeking to put himself at the service of others.

First working for the Parochial Co-operators of Christ the King, Francisco then joined the newly founded Federation of Christian Youth of Catalonia.  With Catholic Action this new organisation sought to catechise young people and engage them in the apostolate of the Church.  Francisco had found his niche, working hard for the organisations, organising retreats and ministering among the young.

Meanwhile he was studying chemistry, graduating in 1934, and then winning a position as an engineer in a chemical fertilizer company on Lleida.  Among the factory workers he found another mission field, organising catechism courses for them and the poor of Lleida. It was a dangerous apostolate as Lleida was well known as an area where anti-clericalism was rife.   

In May 1936 Francisco and his girlfriend Maria Pelegri became engaged.  The two shared a similar spirit of prayer and sought holiness.  In their relationship they had remained chaste, and up to the moment of his death, Francisco could say that he never had anything that needed to be confessed in his relationship with Maria: theirs was a pure love.

The Civil War was by now raging, and on the 1st July Francisco, who had kept far away from politics and the agitation that was going on, was drafted.   He was sent to the fortress in Lleida, but the next day it fell to a Marxist militia.  Francisco was well known for his faith, so it came as no surprise when he was woken up in the middle of the night on the 20th-21st July, branded a facist and taken into custody with a number of others, incarcerated in a old chapel.  Here he remained until the 12th September.  A number of times they tried to persuade him to sign a document renouncing his Catholic faith: he refused.

On the 12th September he was transferred to another prison.  Here he was free enough to get around the cells and comfort other prisoners.  Full of joy and faith, he encouraged them to remain faithful to Christ, led prayers, and helped captive priests.  He managed to get many of his fellow prisoners to go to confession to the priest-prisoners, some reconciling to God after many years of spiritual exile. 

On the 23rd September his passion began.  On that day he endured a difficult interrogation by the communists; after he said to some fellow prisoners: “We will always be 'fascist' prisoners... Let's give up even the glory of martyrdom in the eyes of the world, because since our sacrifice is pleasing to God, nothing else matters!”   His trial took place on the 29th September; he said farewell to his fellow prisoners, made a general confession with a priest, and with joy went to court.  There he was accused of being a fascist, which Francisco denied: he was never involved in politics.   When all their questions failed, his captors finally came to the real crime: “Are you a Catholic?”

Francisco stood up straight and replied: “Yes, of course I am a Catholic!”   The public prosecutor, shocked at the “depravity” of the young man immediately called for the death sentence.  Francisco responded, “If being Catholic is an offense, I am very glad to be an offender, because the greatest happiness that anyone can find in this life is to die for Christ. And if I had a thousand lives, I would give them all for Him, without a moment's hesitation. I thank you therefore for the opportunity you are offering me to ensure my eternal salvation.”  He was then condemned to death.

Taken back to the prison, while his fellow prisoners were sorrowful, Francisco was filled with joy.  Given some time to himself, he wrote last letters to his fiancée whose two brothers had been killed a couple of weeks before, his sisters and aunt, and his spiritual director.  Later in the evening he was taken with five others and put on a truck.  He intoned the Credo, and led the others in singing it.  Brought to a cemetery, the favourite execution spot for the Republicans, Francisco recognised a friend of his sister in the onlookers, a young man. He smiled at him and said farewell.  

Taken into the cemetery, the six were lined up in front of a firing squad.  As the executioners were preparing, Francisco called out “One moment, please! I forgive you all, and I'll meet you in eternity!”  He then joined his hands and raised his eyes to heaven and prayed.    When the commander shouted “Fire!”, Francisco shouted “Long live Christ the King!”  His body was thrown into a grave which had already been dug. 

When the executioners had gone, the sister’s friend crept down into the grave.  He found that Francisco’s heart was still beating, his head tilted to the right, his eyes half open with a serene look on his face.  The young man could not save him, and Francisco was buried – whether he died before or was buried alive we do not know.   He was twenty-two years old.

Francisco was beatified in 2001, and was proclaimed one of the patrons for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.

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