St Christopher Magallanes (second row, second from the right) and Companions.
Today is the feast of St Christopher Magallanes and Companions, the first martyrs from the Mexican persecution of the Church to be canonised. I will continue my reflections on the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War in a moment, but we need also heed the lessons to be learned from the Mexican conflict.
Mexico was different from Spain in that faithful Catholics took up arms against their persecutors in the Cristero movement. None of the martyrs whose feast we celebrate today were involved in that movement, but some of the beatified Mexican martyrs were, most notably the fourteen year old Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio. The question which one might ask oneself is: can we take up arms against our persecutors? In terms of the Spanish Civil War most historians seem to imply that we Catholics can't - we just lie down, support the Republicans and then take the bullet they have reserved for us. Can we defend ourselves against martyrdom?
Well the answer to that is yes, we can, within certain limits - limits laid down by the Just War theory. We have the right to defend ourselves, our family and our faith, but must do so within ethical limits and only as a means of defence. We cannot run headlong into martyrdom - if it comes upon us and there is no means of escape, we embrace it, but we have a responsibility to preserve our lives, but not, of course, denying Christ or his teachings to do so. The rising in the Vendee following the French Revolution was one such effort, as was the Cristero movement - though I'm sure ethicists will argue back and forth.
Our martyrs today were not involved in the armed struggle against the persecuting government of Mexico, though one of them, St Christopher Magallanes, was accused of stirring it up. The group consists of twenty-two priests and three laymen, all killed simply because they were Catholic, and indeed apostolic in their labours in the vineyard. St Christopher was a most remarkable priest, full of initiatives to help the poor of his parish and beyond.
Back to the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War: in my last post I spoke about the canonised martyrs of Turon, today I would like to draw your attention to another Saint-Martyr, St Jaime Hilario, also a De La Salle brother.
St Jaime was a most attractive person: he was dedicated to Christ, to his vocation and to the children he served as a teacher, but he also had many obstacles to overcome even before he was called to martyrdom. He was born Manuel Barban Cosan in the foothills of the Pyrenees in northern Spain, in the village of Enviny on the 2nd January 1898. He was a rather serious young boy who lived his faith with great earnestness. When he was twelve he had made up his mind to become a priest, and at that young age entered the minor seminary. While he was there he developed problems with his hearing, and so it was decided that he could not go forward for ordination
Disappointed, Manuel returned home to his family, but did not lose his hope of giving his life to God. He believed that God did not want him to be a priest, his rejection from seminary revealed that, so he must try and see if God wanted him in the consecrated life as a brother. He approached the De La Salle brothers, and after careful consideration the superiors invited him to enter the congregation. He was thrilled, and so on 24th February 1917 he entered the novitiate in Irun. It was where God wanted him: professing his vows, he began work as a teacher and served for sixteen years in the classroom.
His hearing problems did not go away, however, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to perform his duties in the classroom. His superiors made the painful decision (for Jaime) to take him out of teaching and appointed him the gardener at the congregation's house of formation in San Jose, Tarragona. The move was difficult - some would say that it was a humiliation, but Jaime, already walking the path of holiness, embraced this sacrifice and threw himself into this humble work, living each day with joy and serenity as his hearing gradually worsened.
In July 1936, given a short break, Br Jaime was making his way home for a family visit when the Civil War broke out. He never reached Enviny: recognised as a brother, he was arrested by Republicans and jailed. In December he was brought to Tarragona and there transferred onto a prison ship where he joined a number of other De La Salle brothers. Conditions on the ship were not too good, and aware of what lay ahead, Jaime prepared for death.
On the 15th January 1937 a "trial" was held in which Br Jaime was condemned as a teacher of the Catholic faith. While he insisted that he was only a gardener, he also confirmed that he was a religious and made it clear that he was not going to abandon either his vocation or his faith. He was condemned to death and the sentence was carried out the next morning in a local cemetery known as the Mount of Olives. His last words were: "To die for Christ, my young friends, is to live". Two volleys missed him: terrified, the executioners fled - their commander, however, had no such fear. Walking up to Br Jaime he shot him at close range, discharged five bullets, killing him.
Jaime was beatified on the 29th April 1990, and canonised in the same ceremony as his brothers, the Martyrs of Turon, on the 21st November 1999.