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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Time For Change?

Here is a very interesting article from Francis Phillips in the Catholic Herald, and a timely one too.  The situations described and the questions raised are relevant for us in Ireland too. 

In fact just last Sunday during my homily for Pentecost, as I was reflecting on our personal Pentecost - our confirmation, I asked similar questions: as confirmation seems more the Sacrament of exit rather than the Sacrament of greater participation and responsibility in the Church, do we now need to reassess when the Sacrament should be given, and be more careful in our discerning as to who receives it? I asked.  I could see a few people shifting uncomfortably in the pews.

These are legitimate questions to ask in age when most Catholics are nominal at best, and for whom the Sacraments are nothing more than rites of passage.  How often have I heard Baptism described as a naming ceremony?  Or the Eucharist referred to as the "holy bread"?  Of course I do not blame the children, they are only responding to what they have been taught. 

Here in Ireland, though many try to deny it, there is a crisis of catechesis - two generations have not been taught the faith and that is largely due to an inadequate catechetical programme.  Tinkering with this programme will not help matters - it needs to be scrapped and a new programme based on the Catechism should be written from scratch and (AND!) submitted to Rome for approval.   This is, of course, a project for new personnel. 

One of the issues that will also need to be considered is where we prepare children for the Sacraments.  At the moment it is done in our schools which are overwhelmingly Catholic (in number if not completely in ethos), and we tend to leave the formation of children to the teachers. We priests go in and meet the children and meet parents, but the bulk of the work falls on the teacher.  When the teacher has the faith, practices it and has the skills to pass it on they cannot be rivalled.  However, in increasing numbers, our teachers do not have the faith, do not practice, do not understand it, and rely heavily on an inadequate catechetical programme to hand it on. 

Is it not time to consider taking Sacramental preparation out of the schools (keeping religion as a subject to assist the process?)?  Let each parish takes responsibility for preparing the children or teenagers, or adults, for the Sacraments, or if the parish cannot cope, it can be done on a deanery level.   Abolishing the "age" for reception of the various Sacraments would also help, as would the "big day" ceremonies.  Each candidate is assessed as an individual, and when they are ready, if they are practicing, they are given the Sacraments. 

In terms of order, I would return to the original order of the process of initiation, and give Confirmation before First Communion - both in the same ceremony, again when the individual is ready be they seven, ten, thirteen or eighteen.  The Sacraments should become a process of maturity in faith and not something done at a certain age.  The Bishop can still come for the annual ceremony in a parish, there would be no need to be granting faculties to parish priests every week - that episcopal visit is very important for a parish - people love to see their Bishop.

A few, radical thoughts for an Irish priest (there goes my chance of a mitre, thank God!!), but I do believe we need to start asking questions and be prepared to break the mould which custom (and custom alone) has created.  It does not undermine the decision of St Pius X, but as Francis Phillips points out, we live in a different age.

And today is the feast of St Joan of Arc, happy feast to you all!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Martyr For The Priesthood

Another martyr of the Spanish Civil War today: one of my favorites. 

A few days ago I looked at the life and martyrdom of the Bishop of Barbastro, Blessed Florentino, I mentioned that he was martyred with a gypsy, Blessed Ceferino Jimenez Malla.  Blessed Ceferino was beatified in 1997, and he is the first gypsy to be raised to the altars – he is considered the patron of gypsies and travellers.  Blessed Ceferino’s life, like many of the Spanish martyrs, reveals a man of profound holiness who may well have been beatified for heroic virtue. 

Born in Fraga, near Huesca in the north of Spain on the 26th August 1861, to a gypsy family who worked as cattle traders.  He was formed in the tradition of his family and lived the nomadic lifestyle his people had lived for generations.  Nominally Catholic, the faith meant little to him, and he was more superstitious than religious.   He initially worked as a cattle trader, but later turned his hand to horse trading, and here he made a name for himself.  As a young man he fell in love with his cousin Teresa Jimenez Castro, and they married according to gypsy rites; they settled in Barbastro.

As a man and trader, Ceferino was respected by gypsies and settled people alike.  He was known as “El Pele”, a nickname meaning “Strong One” which was well deserved.   The couple did not have children of their own, but were generous with their relations and always ready to help those in need. 

When in his forties, something began to happen to Ceferino, and he became more aware of the existence and presence of God, and the truth of the Catholic faith.  He began to pray and he realised that his union with Teresa was not regular.  In 1912 when he was fifty-one he and Teresa were married in the Church. Ceferino began to attend Mass, receive Holy Communion and live a full sacramental life.  He learned the Rosary, and was soon never to be seen without it.  With grace building on nature, Ceferino’s natural virtues were intensified as he grew in holiness.   Honest and charitable, he sought to serve others for Christ’s sake.
Soon after his conversion, he and Teresa adopted her niece who had been orphaned: Pepita.   Embracing this little girl, the couple’s desire for a child was fulfilled: Pepita was raised with great love and taught the Christian faith in a home where her adopted parents lived it with generosity and simplicity.

Meanwhile, Ceferino was discovering more and more about his faith.  He could neither read nor write, but this did not stop him learning the truths of the faith, the teachings of the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints.  In his prayer God seem to teach him much, and soon he was offering himself to help the Church in her mission of catechesis: his offer was accepted.  As a catechist he taught the faith to gypsy and settled children alike, and he was adored by them for his simple and pleasant ways. 

In 1922 his beloved Teresa died; he was bereft.  Turning to God, he found consolation in his prayer, and began to intensify his religious observance.  He was freer to be at the service of those in need, and so he became a peacemaker in the midst of his community.  He was sought after as a wise man for advice by people of all ethnic traditions.  When Pepita married, he then had the freedom to be even more generous with his money, and soon he had little, just enough to meet his few needs.  He would eventually have nothing and rely on charity himself, but even then he would give away much of what he received. 

In 1926 Ceferino was professed as a member of the Franciscan Third Order, and he sought to live as radically as possible the life and devotion of St Francis of Assisi.   Like the Poverello of Assisi, he was particularly devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and he spent a lot of time in adoration, eventually becoming a night adorer spending whole nights in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

When the Civil War broke out, Ceferino was well known as a holy man.  He was deeply distressed at what was happening, and sought to help priests as much as he could.   In July 1936 when he was in Barbastro, he came upon a situation in which a young priest was being abused by Republicans in the main square.  Ceferino quickly ran to the priest’s defence, but, though a strong man, he was quickly overcome by the militia himself, and he and the priest were arrested.  The two were thrown into prison.  In the cell, Ceferino prayed his Rosary.  When his captors saw the beads they told him to throw them away – he refused, and clutched the beads closer to prevent them taking them away from him: it was this refusal which sealed his fate.

On the 8th August, Ceferino was shot for his Catholic faith, his Rosary beads still in his hand. 

As a priest, the life and example of Blessed Ceferino is very humbling.  Here was a man who put his life at risk to help a priest, and his death came as a result of that very action.  For this, we priests should honour this holy man and give thanks for his deep love of the Church and the priesthood: we have much to learn from him.  In an age when priests face much criticism and even hatred from many (even within the Church) Blessed Ceferino stands as consoling friend and guide to help us keep our eyes on our vocation and our commitment to serve Christ and his Church.

I wonder?  I know St Jean-Marie Vianney is the patron of all priests, it is not unimaginable that Blessed Ceferino could also be considered as a co-patron of priests, seeing as he laid down his life to defend one.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Monday Musings

The Holy Father announced yesterday that he will declare St John of Avila and St Hildegard of Bingen Doctors of the Church on Sunday the 7th October.  He is doing so at the beginning of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation and for a particular reason - these two figures, he says, are of considerable importance and relevance.  Well, that should offer all of us an opportunity to get reading the lives and writings of these two new Doctors.  In fact, given that the Holy Father is placing the emphasis on two Saints in the context of the New Evangelisation, we can see that the Saints in general are important as the Church "puts out into the deep" in this new missionary endeavour. 

We must spare a thought for the Holy Father in these days as two crises envelop the Vatican.  The president of the Institute for the Works of Religion (Vatican "bank") is in trouble, and after an investigation, a suspect in the so-called "Vati-leaks"  has been arrested - it is the Pope's own butler.   This will be hard on the Holy Father who relies on and trusts those people who are members of the "Papal family".  To have a trusted assistant betray a confidence is one of the worst kinds of betrayal.   He may not have been the only one though, the Vatican gendarme are continuing their investigations.

According to reports, the man will be tried by the Vatican legal system - that must be a first in a long time.  In this system, the defendant has a trial, and if found guilty, can have two appeals.  If found guilty after all that, he'll do his time in an Italian prison.  I heard that he could face up to thirty years in prison because these leaks constitute a national security breach.  It all sounds very strange, but then again we have to remember that the Vatican is an independent sovereign state and it operates as such.

Some will find that hard to take - after all, Jesus did not set up his own country - he was an itinerant preacher proclaiming the Word of God. True, but in practical terms if the Holy Father is to do the same without interference from secular governments, he needs to be free from the obligations of citizenship, and so the best way to do that is to have him living in an independent country where he is the ruler.   If we object to that, just look at the way some of the history's secular rulers treated the Church - Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Joseph II of Austria, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin; and today - Barack Obama and Enda Kenny: if the Pope were a citizen under any of them his ministry would be seriously curtailed.  Indeed Napoleon almost made the Popes his puppets as he dragged one Pope into captivity where he died, and made the life of another an absolute misery. 

But we must pray for him.  The Pope holds the Papal family very dear. One member, Manuela Camagni, died a couple of years ago: this is another blow. 

When I first read of the "Papal family" I was very much impressed.  These members of staff - his secretaries, the sisters that care for him and the household, form a little community in the Papal apartments.   It must be a real support to the Holy Father who can rely on them to make a home for him in the midst of the officialdom and ceremony which surrounds him.  

To be honest, it is a model which we priests and our bishops should look to. As diocesan priests many of us do not live in community - and even those priests that live together may not form a community.  When in seminary we were told that we were preparing for life on our own - our parishes would be our community, but in reality when we go to our homes after a day's work, there is no community there.  Some priests like that, other's don't.  Certainly, in my opinion, it is not an ideal situation, priests need support, and unfortunately when there is no domestic support, priests on their own can fall prey to too many temptations just out of sheer loneliness or isolation.
When I was in Drogheda three of us priests lived in the presbytery and we actually did have a community.  We usually had dinner together, sometimes went out for an evening together, took an interest in each other's lives and interests, and helped each other.  Our individual families were always welcome.  Our staff were also part of the community - the housekeepers, secretaries, the handyman.  But such situations are rare.

As I was thinking about all this the Lord's words from Genesis came to mind: "It is not good for man to be alone".  We understand that in terms of marriage and man as a social animal.  In terms of priesthood, I think we might also see it as being a good indication that we should not live isolated lives.   I am not advocating marriage for priests, by the way, but certainly we might look at how priests can live in the midst of a family in his domestic life.  How that can happen I do not know.  One thing I do know - it should not be completely formed of priests as the tendency to clericalism would be a serious temptation.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Worthy Daughter Of Dominic

In yesterday’s post I looked at the life of the former Dominican Master General who was martyred in the Civil War, Blessed Buenaventura Garcia Paredes, as I was doing so I thought of another Dominican martyred in the conflict, one who made history, even if in a negative way.   This was Sr Josefina Sauleda Paulis, the first cloistered Dominican nun to be martyred for the Catholic faith. 

By the way, I know I have exploring these martyrs and I have been benefiting from it, but I hope, that regular readers are not pulling their hair out in frustration and want something controversial to get the juices going.  I think the example of these Catholics is important – we face many assaults to our faith and while we may never have to face what these brothers and sisters had to face, their courage can inspire us – and we can call on their intercession when we too are being tested.  Take these days as a little retreat with the contemporary martyrs of the Church so we may be encouraged and edified.

I’m sure Blessed Josefina never thought that she would make history within her Order, but her life seemed directed towards a heroic witness to Christ right from the beginning.  Born Ventureta Martha Francisca Sauleda i Paulis in San Pol de Mar near Barcelona on the 30th July 1885 to Victoria Sauleda i Roura and Josepa Paulis i Roura, she was baptised six after her birth.  At the age of two she was confirmed, and received her First Holy Communion when she was twelve.

Both of her parents were devout, but it was her mother who took charge of the children’s religious instruction, and she impressed on them the importance of personal prayer as simply speaking with God.  Here lay the seeds of Ventureta’s contemplative vocation.  Attending the Dominican College, the young girl excelled in her studies and reflected on the life of the sisters which she found deeply attractive.   When she finished school she had made up her mind to give her life to Christ – but where? She had a desire to serve Christ in an apostolic congregation, but there was also another desire: she yearned for the contemplative life.  At the suggestion of her spiritual director she decided to do a series of spiritual exercises to help her discern: when she had finished she found the call to the cloister to be the deeper one.  She knew which Order she was called to: the Dominicans.

On the 19th January 1905 she entered the Dominican Monastery of Mount Zion in Barcelona, there to spend the rest of her life in prayer and quiet service.  On the 12th March she received the habit and was given the name Sr Maria Josefina.  She made her first vows on the 24th March 1906 and solemnly professed on the 12th April 1909.  She settled down into community life, fulfilling her duties, dedicating her life to prayer and penance.    She was noted for her ability, charity and kindness.  On the 21st June 1929 she was elected Prioress, and re-elected in 1932.  Standing down having served two terms, she was appointed Mistress of Novices in 1935.

As the community was at prayer on the morning of the 19th July 1939 their meditation was disturbed by the sounds of bullets outside the monastery.  When they opened the church for Sunday Mass, no one came – the revolution had started and people were staying in their homes.  The day was eerie – the battle for Barcelona was in full swing, the communists would win.  When evening came their neighbours called into the sisters and urged them to leave the monastery- they would take them into their homes – the Prioress agreed, and the community dispersed into the homes of their neighbours who took every precaution to protect them.  The next morning the sisters returned to the monastery – their chaplain arrived and they had Mass after which he urged them to leave and take refuge in safe houses. They did so.

The Prioress, Sr Josefina and a small group took refuge in an empty apartment not far from the monastery, and from there witnessed the violent attack on the monastery carried out by the communists on Tuesday 21st July.  A police check on the apartment passed over as the chaplain posed as the owner.  The Prioress was quite old and the sisters urged her to go into the country, back to her village where she would be safe.  Having persuaded her to do so, Sr Josefina was elected as temporary Prioress. 

Realising they were in real danger, Josefina was looking for a safer refuge and the little group moved, and they lived safely in there new accommodation until the end of August.  On the 31st August, Sr Josefina and another sister had cause to go back to the apartment to collect some belongings.  As they passed the damaged monastery, a look of pity registered itself on their faces and it was noticed by some communists who were hanging the street.  While the two nuns were in the apartment, the militia had been contacted and they entered the building.  They caught Sr Josefina who was downstairs and arrested her.  She was taken to a prison building and there interrogated for twelve consecutive hours: they thought she was the Prioress of the monastery and wanted to know where she had hidden the monastery’s wealth and where the chaplain and other sisters were hiding.  She remained silent, infuriating her captors who turned violent and threatened her.   Realising she would not talk they bundled her into a car and drove off.

The next day Sr Josefina’s body was found on display in the Hippodrome.  A placard around its neck declared that here was the Prioress of Mount Zion Monastery and her name was Sauleda.  It was brought to the local morgue where the sacristan of the monastery discovered it and informed her family.  Her remains were unrecognisable – her face had been completely torn up – it was obvious that she had been brutally tortured before she died.   A bullet was found in her head, and her face torn – the coroner concluded that her face had been torn apart with instruments of torture, and she as then shot in the head.  Years later one of those who tortured her came forward and revealed that she had endured great suffering with prayer and forgiveness and had died at dawn on the morning of the 1st September.

Sr Josefina was the first cloistered Dominican nun to be martyred, she was beatified on the 28th October 2007. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Worthy Son Of Dominic

When it comes to the atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War, defenders of the Republicans always cite the murder of poet and dramatist Fredrico Garcia Lorca as an unforgivable crime.  The brutal murder of such a cultured man, we are told, just shows how evil and philistine the Nationalists really were.  The killing of innocents regardless of who they are is always wrong, and in killing Lorca, the Nationalists murdered one of the world's greatest artists.  Lorca was not an innocent, though, he was firmly in the Republican camp and was using his position to push the new regime's agenda - so he was politically involved.  It is still not a reason to murder the poor man.  Warren Carroll in his book, The Last Crusade maintains that General Franco did not give the orders to kill Lorca - he was not even aware of the execution until later, and when he found out he disciplined the ones responsible.  I'm sure historians and literary critics will argue that one out for years.

But Carroll also points out that as the defenders of the Republican cause lament the killing of a renowned man of letters by the Nationalists as an act of cultural desecration (my phrase), he points out that the Republicans themselves killed renowned and famous people in their rage against the Catholic faith.  I am by no means defending the killing of Lorca by referring to the killing of other notables, atrocities were committed by both sides, but we do need to recognise that the murdering of eminent figures occurred on both sides.

Among the notable figures murdered by the Republicans, and since beatified, was Fr Buenaventura Garcia Paredes, the former Master General of the Dominican Order (the Superior General).  For those who are not au fait with Catholicism, the Master of the Dominicans is a very important position in the Church and he can be highly influential. 

Fr Buenaventura was born in Castanedo de Valdes in Asturias in the north of Spain on the 19th April 1866, and baptised the same day.  His parents Serapio and Maria were very pious and brought their children up in the Catholic faith, passing on not only their knowledge but their practice of prayer and an example of faith and trust in God.  Their children were impressed by this example and Buenaventura's older brother became a priest. As a child, Buenaventura helped his father herd sheep while attending to other duties, including his schooling.  Like his elder brother he discerned a vocation to the priesthood, but within the Dominican Order.

He spent two years at the Dominican Apostolic School in Corias, and while his teachers felt he was ready to enter novitiate, the superior thought his health was little too precarious at the time to receive him, and so he was sent home.   When he recovered his health, he entered the Order in another province, in Ocana, Toledo. He made his first profession in 1884, Solemn Profession in 1887 and was ordained priest on the 25th July 1891, the Feast of St James.  He continued his studies and in 1897 he was awarded a doctorate in Philosophy, and the following year a doctorate in Civil Law.

In 1899 he was sent to the Philippines, where he took up a position in the University of St Tomas in Manila and wrote for and eventually edited Libertas, a Catholic daily newspaper. In 1901 he was elected the Coventual Prior of the Royal Monastery of St Tomas in Avila, and so he returned to Spain.  He continued his academic work, publishing a number of important books, including studies of the pontificate of Leo XIII.  He founded the College of Santa Maria de Nieve in Segovia, and in 1910 he was elected the Prior of St Dominic's in Ocana.  In this capacity he had to attend the Provincial Chapter in Manila, and there he was elected the Prior Provincial of the Holy Rosary Province, a Province that spanned a large part of Spain and parts of Asia: it was the biggest province in the Order at the time. 

As Provincial Fr Buenaventura was zealous for the renewal of a missionary spirit, travelling a great deal between Europe and Asia meeting the friars and nuns, establishing new provinces in the east, and in Spain re-establishing the old province of Aragon whose territory had been incorporated into Holy Rosary. He began the building of an extension to the University of St Tomas in Manila, set up an important Dominican journal promoting the teachings and spirituality of St Dominic, and extended the province into new territory in the US.  He stepped down in 1917 and was sent to found a new Priory in Madrid, and serve as Prior.

In 1926, at the Order's General Chapter, held that year in Ocana, Fr Buenaventura was elected the Master of the Order.  When news of the election came to him he was stunned.  Brought before the Chapter to formally accept, he fell to the ground and with tears in his eyes begged to be freed of the office - he was not capable of the onerous duties the position required.  The Prior Provincial of Spain, Fr Luis Alonso Getino, told him to trust in divine providence and asked him to accept.  He did so and took the oath of office.

Moving to Rome, Fr Buenaventura spent the next two and half years working tirelessly in the service of the Order.  Coupled with his official and ceremonial functions, he led a renewal of the Order, renewing the Constitutions of the nuns, visited many countries, tried to help and support the Dominicans in Mexico during the persecutions there and restored the Polish province of St Hyacinth.  It was Fr Buenaventura who re-situated the Angelicum University to its present site in Rome, the former convent of Sts Dominic and Sixtus.  His health, however, was not good, and so on the 30th March 1929 he resigned as Master and returned to Ocana.  There is evidence which suggests that his health was not the only reason for his resignation, but rather his failure, in the eyes of officials in the Curia and perhaps even the Pope, to deal with politically motivated friars in France - he took too long, it seems, to investigate them.

He was in the Priory of Ocana when the Civil War broke out, and the community was attacked on the 19th July 1936.  Fr Buenaventura had managed to get out the night before, and found refuge with a friend, Pedro Errazquin.  It was suggested he go to the Philippines, but he said he needed Rome's permission to do so.  He was given permission and he applied for a passport, but it was refused because he was a religious. 

At the end of July his friend Pedro was arrested and shot.  Fr Buenaventura fled to the another refuge, the Pension House, where he ministered to a small community of residences there.  His last days were spent in prayer and reflection awaiting, he must have known by then, his death.  On the 11th August the militia had found out where he was and arrived to arrest him.  He was taken to prison, a checa (the prisons Republicans established in various buildings).  The next day he was taken out and shot as he clutched his rosary and his brievary, his body was buried in the cemetery of Fuencarral.

In 1940 his remains were transferred to the crypt of the Holy Rosary Church in Madrid, and then in 1967 to the chapel of the Monastery of St Tomas in Avila.  He was beatified in 2007.  Blessed Buenaventura was not only honoured as a martyr within the Dominican Order, but the obvious holiness of his life had been acknowledged by many even in his lifetime.  His martyrdom crowned a life of heroic virtue and renown as a scholar and superior.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Martyred Shepherd

Of all the dioceses of Spain, none would bear the brunt of the anti-Catholic persecution of the Republicans as badly as the diocese of Barbastro in the north.  The diocese lost the vast majority of its diocesan priests (85 % of them, I believe), and many religious priests and brothers shared in the same fate.  The bishop of the diocese, Florentino Asensio Barroso was also martyred, joining twelve of his brother bishops in shedding his blood for Christ during the conflict. 

Florentio was born in Villasexmir near Valladolid on the 16th October 1877, the son of a shopkeeper Jacinto Asensio and his wife Gabina.While still very young his family returned to their original town, Villavieja del Cerro, and there the young Florentino grew up fostering a growing attraction to the priesthood.  When old enough he entered the seminary in Valladolid, excelled in his studies and was ordained priest on the 1st June 1901.  He was first assigned to the parish of Villaverde de Medina, and then two years later, to Valladolid as chaplain to the Sisters of the Poor and archivist in the episcopal palace.  Spotting the young priest's talent, Bishop Jose Maria Cos y Macho appointed him as his secretary.   He then served as a professor of theology in the University of Valladolid and as priest in the cathedral.  It was his ministry in the cathedral which brought him to the attention of figures in the Church.  His pastoral zeal and ministry as a preacher were noted by many including the Papal Nuncio.

When the diocese of Barbastro became vacant in late 1935, Fr Florentino was informed that the Pope was going to appoint him as the new bishop.  The priest was thrown into turmoil - he did not see himself as worthy of the position and did not believe he had the ability to fulfil the duties of the office.  A flurry of letters criss-crossed from the cathedral residence to the nunciature.  However the nuncio was convinced that he had picked the right man and so urged Fr Florentino accept in obedience to the Pope: he relented. 

On the 26th January 1936, Florentino was consecrated bishop in the cathedral of Valladolid and took possession of his See by proxy on the 8th March.  A solemn entry into the cathedral was being planned for the 15th March, but with tensions high and made aware that anti-Catholic demonstrations were being planned to disrupt the ceremony, the new bishop quietly entered his cathedral, celebrating only the necessary rites. 

He served just under five months as bishop, and in those months his zeal, tact and heroism reveal that he would have been a most remarkable bishop.  He preached in his cathedral every Sunday, encouraged pastoral initiatives among the faithful and had a particular concern for workers and their rights.  He was a bishop who would have been prepared to listen to those among the Republican movement who sought justice for the poor had they given him a chance.  But as a Catholic bishop his cards were already marked.

When the Civil War broke out, Bishop Florentino was confined to his palace. Arrested on the 22nd July, he was taken into custody with numerous other priests and religious.  From his cell window he could see the havoc which was invading the city.  On the 8th August he was taken into solitary confinement in the city jail, and there began his via dolorosa.

He was brutally interrogated, abused and mocked, and during one session he was castrated in full view of all present.   As his persecutors pushed him around they ridiculed his faith.  One said to him "Do not be afraid.  If what you preach is true, you'll go to heaven soon!"  "Yes", the bishop replied, "and there I will pray for you".   The next morning, at dawn, he was put on a truck with a number of other Catholics, among them the Gypsy Blessed Ceferino Jimenez Malla, taken to a cemetery and shot.  He was buried in a mass grave, but after the Civil War his remains were identified by his initial on his underwear, and brought to his cathedral in Barbastro for burial.

Blessed Florentino was beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1997.  His feast is the 9th August, the day of his martyrdom.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Clash Between Church And Obama Heating Up

A quick post to draw your attention to this interview with Cardinal Dolan on Obama's attempt to force the Church infinge her conscience and moral beliefs.   Obama is in serious denial, as he pushes his agenda he just doesn't see that it is a religious rights issue.  

I note with chagrin that the one of the adverts before the interview, and another on the page, is for contraception - was that intentional?  If so, it is in poor taste!

A related article, Mark Dooley has an interesting post on the Irish government's plans to require priests to break the Seal of Confession.

A Beautiful Soul

Blessed Maria Jorda Botella

When it comes to martyrdom, the Republicans of Spain did not discern between men and women.  While the vast majority of those who were killed were men - mostly priests and brothers and many laymen, a few hundred sisters and nuns also died, as well as a large number of lay women.  Most of these women were involved in Church organisations, notably Catholic Action, or were known locally for their deep faith and consistent religious practice.  Yesterday I looked at the life of Blessed Maria Teresa Ferragud, today I would to present another extraordinary lay woman martyred for her Catholic faith. 

Blessed Maria Jorda Botello, one of the martyrs of Valencia, was only thirty-one when she died, but her short life left an impression on all who knew her.  Born in Alcoi, Alicante, on the 26th January 1905, she was baptised Maria Pilar two days later.  As was the custom she was confirmed on the 20th October of the same year while still a baby, and received her First Holy Communion on the 21st April 1912.  She grew up as a normal, though pious child.   She was good at school, and received a good general education.  A member of the Children of Mary, she learned the virtues of purity, humility, charity and obedience: she also fostered a growing zeal in her heart.  She was constantly reading the lives of the saints, and loved the stories of the martyrs in particular - it seems God was preparing her for her heroic destiny. 

As a young woman she was involved in various associations in her parish, notably the Society of St Vincent de Paul and Catholic Action, dedicating herself to the service of the poor and promoting the Catholic faith, catechising the young and leading others to faith not only by what she taught, but by the way she lived. 

Maria was not only pious, she was joyful: all who knew her were impressed by her serenity and cheerfulness. She had a wonderful sense of optimism - nothing could get her down -her faith in God was so strong that nothing could shake her trust.  She was also a very beautiful young woman, she was still unmarried when she was martyred and did not have a fiance: she may have made a decision to remain single - we do not have much information on this.   

When the persecution broke out, Maria's name was already on the list of Catholic agitators - her obvious holiness and success in proclaiming the Gospel was evidence enough for her condemnation.  Realising the danger she moved to Madrid to stay with her brother, but she was found by Republicans, arrested and brought back to Alcoi where she was imprisoned in a former college.   She was then taken to a prison in Benifallim. 

While in prison her beauty attracted some of the militia, and a number of them tried to seduce and rape her.  Maria fought them off, but as she preserved her chastity, she lost her life as she was beaten to death in the struggle.  She died a martyr for her faith and for her purity on the 26th September 1936.  Her body was buried in Benifallim, but after the war exhumed and brought back to her hometown for burial.  In 1957 her remains were again exhumed and translated to the parish church where she had been baptised, confirmed, received her First Communion, and where she had attended Mass every day.  Today her tomb is a place of pilgrimage where the people of her parish and beyond come to honour their Beata who remained true to Christ. 

She was beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul in 2001.  She is officially designated "Virgin and Martyr".

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

For Greater Glory

I meant to put up the trailer for that new movie about the Cristeros war in Mexico, so I'm taking the opportunity now.  Starring Andy Garcia, For Greater Glory offers us a dramatic presentation of the war, its causes and those who participated in it.  Garcia plays General Enrique Gorostieta Verlarde who leads the rebels, though not a believer himself.  Asked in the movie by his wife why he is entering this war when he does not believe he says "I believe in freedom".   Here's the trailer.

I notice the movie also focuses on  Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio.  Little Jose was only fourteen when he fought in the war and was martyred.  His death was heroic - he was stabbed by bayonets by a group of government soldiers on the 10th February 1928.  Though fatally injured, Jose continued to call out "Viva Cristo Rey" - Long live Christ the King.  The commander, furious with him, then shot him in the head.  Still alive as he lay on the ground he marked the cross in the sand with his own blood,  kissed it and died.   You have to hand it to the kid, not only courage and faith in abundance, but style too.  He was beatified by Pope Benedict on the 20th November 2005.

Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio

The movie goes on general release in the US on the 1st June.  I'm not sure when it's coming to Ireland or the UK - if it comes.  I would like to see it.  Faith and conflict when they seem to be bedfellows, must always be carefully examined: the Cristeros war was complicated, I hope this movie does not present it in a too simplistic way.

"This Is A True Saint"

Great minds think alike!  As I was pondering the Spanish martyrs to see who I would blog on next one of those I was considering was Blessed Maria Teresa Ferragud and her four daughters.  Lo and behold as I catch up on the comments I see an anonymous commenter has the same idea. 

For those that doubt that Scripture has a relevance for us today, then Blessed Maria Teresa stands as an example that it does, because in this eighty-three year old woman we see the mother of the Maccabees all over again.  Blessed Maria Teresa was martyred with her four daughters in Cruz Abierto on the 25th October 1936. 

Maria Teresa was born on the 14th January 1853 in Algemesi, south of Valencia.  A pious young woman, she married a man with a similar disposition towards faith, Vicente Silverio Masia, and had nine children.  The faith of the parents inspired their children, and of the nine six entered religious life: four daughters became nuns - three Poor Clares and a Discalced Augustinian, and two sons became priests, on a missionary priest in Latin America. 

A daily Mass goer, Maria Teresa nurtured a deep devotion to the Blessed Eucharist and the Sacred Heart, as well as profound relationship with Our Lady.  Having a zealous heart she sought to serve Christ not only in raising her family, but also in various apostolates in the Church.  A member of Catholic Action, she was also a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, serving as President in her local conference. 

When the persecution broke out, Maria Teresa hid her four daughters in the family home.   There they continued their religious life as best as they could.  However, they could not hide for long: locals knew them and among them there was supporters of the Republican militia's pogrom of priests and religious. On the 19th October 1936 the militia arrived at the Farragud home and arrested the four sisters: distraught, Maria Teresa ran after them, insisting that she be taken with them.  Given her reputation as a devout Catholic, the militia obliged.

In their prison cell in a former Cistercian monastery, Maria Teresa encouraged her daughters, preparing them  for martyrdom.  She urged them to remain faithful to Christ and their vocations.  As her daughters, Maria Teresa need not have worried, the four woman were as devout and determined as their mother: though some of the militia promised them their lives if they married them, the nuns refused to consider the "proposals".  On the 25th October 1936, at ten o'clock at night, the five were brought out to be shot.  Maria Teresa had one last request: that she be shot last so as to encourage her daughters: her requested was granted.

As each of her daughters went to their death, Maria Teresa was a rock of support: "My daughters, be faithful to your celestial husband and do not believe the flatteries of these men.  My daughters, do not be afraid.  Death is only a question of time."   Her daughters bravely embrace their martyrdom:  Sr Maria Jesus, Sr Maria Veronica and Sr Maria Felicidad, Poor Clare nuns, and Sr Josefa de la Purificacion, Discalced Augustinian nun.

When the daughters were dead, the militia men turned to Maria Teresa: "Old woman", one said to her, "are you not afraid to die?"  She responded: "All my life I wanted to do something for Jesus, and now I'm going to left behind?  Kill me for the same reason you killed my daughters.  I am a Christian."  She was shot and died instantly.  One of the militia remarked, "This is a true saint".

Maria Teresa and her daughters were beatified together among the Martyrs of Valencia by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 2001.  During the Beatification, Blessed Maria Teresa was referred to specifically by the Pope in his homily.

In other news: I see there is a new book out which examines whether the founder of Islam actually existed.  Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins by Robert Spencer is sure to raise a few objections. No harm asking the question, and it seems Spencer's work is well researched and argued.  In Christianity we are well used to Jesus' existence being called into question, I'm not sure how Muslims will react. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

"To Die For Christ...Is To Live"

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. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

For The Cause Of Catholic Education

Lest you think that in my recent reflections on the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, I am engaging in a Carmelfest, today I will look at the first martyrs who have been canonised.  So far hundreds have been beatified - bishops, priests, religious and laity, but to date only eleven martyrs have been canonised: nine De La Salle brothers, a Passionist Priest and St Pedro Poveda, the renowned educationalist and founder of the Teresian Association (yes, another Carmelite connection, though St Pedro was a diocesan priest).

Today we might look at the first to be canonised: the eight De La Brothers of Turon and St Inocencio Canoura Arnau, a Passionist priest.   These martyrs are among the first to be killed, dying on 9th October 1934, before the real rage began.  Although they were martyred before the Civil War broke out, their deaths were part of the same persecution which began not in 1936, but in 1931. 

Turon is in the north of Spain, in Asturias.  It was a coal mining town, and anti-Catholic feeling was rising as socialists and communists fought for the hearts of miners.  A ban on teaching religion had been imposed, but it was well known that the De La Salle brothers ignored the ban and remained an important religious influence on the people, particularly the young.  The brothers, led by their Superior, Br Cirilo, encouraged the young to take their faith seriously, and had great success in promoting sacramental observance among them.  The brothers openly escorted their students to Mass on Sunday, much to the chagrin of the authorities.

The community was known for its piety.  The brothers were dedicated to their vocations and to the children they served.  Br Cilio Bertran was the Superior, and he governed with a wise and generous heart.  Most of the members of the community were in their twenties, so the lives of the older members had inspired a number of vocations to the Lasalian way of life. 

In the first days of October 1934, a general strike was called, and the miners of Asturias took up arms.  They formed a virtual army, and began to occupy various towns in the province.  On Friday 5th October, they arrived in Turon.  Given their anti-clerical nature, they headed for the De La Salle school.  As it was the First Friday, the brothers had a priest staying with them to hear confessions and offer Mass for them and their students.  Fr Inocenio was a Passionist from the nearby community at Mieres.

Born on the 10th March 1887 in Galicia, Manuel as he was, joined the Passionists when he was 14, and was given the name Br Incocenio of Mary Immaculate upon entering novitiate. He was ordained a priest in 1920 and had spent his life preaching missions and teaching. 

The miners arrived at the house at dawn, and storming it arrested the eight brothers and Fr Inocencio.  They were taken to what was called the "House of the People".  While there they were imprisoner there, they were condemned to death by a revolutionary "court".  At dawn on the 9th October the nine were led out and shot, their bodies thrown into a common grave.

Given their influence on the young, and their dedication to Catholic education, the De La Salle brothers were a serious threat to the revolution.   The martyrs were beatified together on 29th April 1990, and canonised on 21st November 1999.  Their feast day is the 9th October.

The brothers were: St Cirilio Bertran, the Superior; St Marciano Jose, the cook; St Julian Alfredo, St Victoriano Pio, St Benjamin Julian,  St Augusto Andres, St Benio de Jesus, and St Aniceto Adolfo, who was still in first vows. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Heroic Prioress

As I am writing about our Carmelite sisters who were martyred, I had better dedicate this post to the fifth sister who has been beatified.  Whereas the sisters of Guadalajara and Blessed Mercedes died on the 24th July 1936, our next Beata, Maria Sagrario died a few weeks later, on the 15th August.

Elvira Moragas y Cantarero was born in Lillo near Toledo, on the 8th January 1881,  the third of four children born to Ricardo Moragas, a pharmacist, and his wife, Isabel.  When she was five, her father was appointed the pharmaceutical purveyor to the royal family, and so the Moragas family moved to Madrid. Intrigued by her father's work, Elvira wanted to become a pharmacist herself.  Few women in Spain at the time managed to get themselves into the professions, but Elvira was determined, and she became one of the first women in Spain to be admitted to the pharmacy degree and graduate with the qualification.  She completed her degree with distinction, and went to work with her father.  When he died, she continued her work and her professional ability became apparent.

God, however, had other things in store for her.  She discerned a vocation to the Carmelites, and made up her mind to enter.  Her spiritual director asked her to wait for a while: her younger brother was still in need of her help, so she had a duty to him; she agreed.  In 1915 she finally entered the Order, joining the Community in the Monastery of St Anne and St Joseph in Madrid.   On the 21st December of that year she received the name Sr Maria Sagragrio of St Aloysius Gonzaga and began her novitiate, taking first vows on the 24th December 1916.  She was solemnly professed on the 6th January 1920.

Sr Maria Sagrario excelled in the monastery.  Her pharmaceutical skills came in handy, but it was her devotion to the contemplative life, her virtues and wisdom which impressed the sisters.  So much so, she was elected Prioress in 1927.  In 1930, her term over, she was appointed Mistress of Novices: again she excelled.   On the 1st July 1936 she was re-elected Prioress.

Two days later the terror began.  Madrid was in an uproar as the anti-Catholic persecution seemed to grow with even more fury every day.   Sr Maria Sagrario, concerned for the care of the sisters, was making plans to disband the Community and find safe havens for them.  On the 20th July a mob attacked the monastery: it was time to get the sisters to safety.  With great heroism and efficiency, Maria Sagrario spirited the nuns to various safe havens and told them to stay hidden until the rage passed.  The nuns, though terrified themselves, saw the serenity of their Prioress.  They also noted, and testified later, that Maria Sagrario was completely open to the will of God and was willing to accept death in order to protect the sisters.

Maria Sagrario took refuge with another sister's family.  Her brother asked her to come and stay with him, but she refused - she had to stay where she was.  On the 14th August the house was raided by Republicans who arrested the two sisters.    As Prioress, they were interested in questioning her - having rumaged through the monastery they did not find any valuables.  They tried to force her to tell where they were: Maria Sagrario remained silent.  When asked as to the whereabouts of the other sisters: again, Maria Sagrario remained silent.  The question process was rough and she was threatened: yet she remained serene.

The next day, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, she was taken out to a prarie, the Pradera of Saint Isidro where she was shot.  God accepted her sacrifice: the sisters of the community survived the presecution.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Gentle Sr Mercedes

In Discalced Carmel, as we celebrate the feast of the Martyrs of Guadalajara on the 24th July, they share that feast with another martyred Carmelite sister, Blessed Maria Mercedes Prat.  Blessed Mercedes was not a cloistered Discalced Carmelite, but a sister of the Society of St Teresa founded in 1876 by St Henry Osso.  The congregation is affliated to the Discalced Carmelite Order, and so we look upon the sisters of St Teresa as members of our family - their saints are commemorated on our Calendar.

Blessed Mercedes was a most remarkable woman.  She was born in Barcelona on the 6th March 1880 and baptised the following day.  Devout from her childhood, she sought to live her Catholic faith with great intensity.  She made her First Holy Communion when she was ten, and made the resolution to go to Mass every day, if possible, and receive Jesus in the Eucharist.  Formed by her Eucharistic devotion, she offered herself to help others, demonstrating a natural kindness towards her neighbour.  Within a short space of time she was orphaned: her father Juan died on the 16th May 1895, her mother Teresa exactly one year later.  At the age of sixteen, as the eldest child, she had to assume responsibility of looking after her siblings.

She was artistically talented and good with her hands.  Indeed, she would have made many a man very happy if she was interesting in marrying: but she wasn't - her heart belonged to Christ.   She served a catechist, and joined the Arch-confraternity of St Teresa where she became familar with the life and writings of St Teresa of Avila, and the Society of St Teresa, a congregation dedicated to children and education.

Having observed the sisters of the Society, she discerned a vocation to join them.  When her siblings were old enough, she entered the Society in 1904, making her novitiate in the community's house in Tortosa.  She made first profession on the 10th March 1907, and final profession three years later.  She was assigned to teach, which she did with great acumen and charity.

In 1920, Sr Mercedes was appointed to the Mother House of the congregation, in Barcelona, where, for the next sixteen years, she continued her life of prayer, dedication to the Society's mission and works of charity.  She was deeply admired by her sisters, the children in her care and the people who worked with her.  She was firm, but a woman of extraordinary charity, kindness and gentleness.

When the persecution against Catholics broke out in Spain, Barcelona was one of the hotbeds.  Catalonya, as a province seeking independence from Spain, was already a hotbed of political activity, and among those vying for power within the area were the Communists.   Focusing on education, as Communists and revolutionaries do, the congregations involved in education were expelled from their schools, the Society of St Teresa among them.  On the 9th July 1936, Sr Mercedes and the sisters were forced to leave their school and flee.     In hiding for a few weeks, Mercedes was captured by the Republican militia on the 23rd July.  Asked to identify herself, she said that she was a religious and a teacher.  "Do you realise that you can be shot for that?" the member of the militia said to her.  Mercedes turned to a sister who was with her: "They are going to kill us.  But let us go, I must obey because it is the will of God".

The two sisters were arrested and imprisoned.  Throughout the night they were interrogated and threatened: Sr Mercedes remained calm and gentle as ever.  Just before dawn on the 24th July, she was taken by members of the militia from her cell and brought out to a spot on the road to Rabasada.   At dawn she was shot as she prayed.  Taking some moments to die she prayed the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and then "Forgive we forgive".  The sister who was with her, and spared her own life, closed Sr Mercedes's eyes and would later give the testimony of the martyrdom.

Blessed Mercedes was beatified on the 29th April 1990. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Martyrs of Guadalajara

Blesseds Teresa, Maria Pilar and Maria Angeles

If I am going to reflect on some of the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, I had better start with my own brothers and sisters - the Discalced Carmelites.  And of them I must begin with the first three martyrs of the War to be raised to the altars - the three nuns of Monastery of Guadalajara who were martyred on the 24th July 1936: Blessed John Paul II beatified them on the 29th March 1987.

As with all of the martyrs, each of them has their own story and experience of life.  These three women were attracted to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, seeking to live their lives in a cloistered monastery offering their prayers and sacrifice for the Church and those in need. 

Sr Maria Pilar of St Francis Borgia, the oldest of the three, was born Jacoba Martinez  Garcia in Tarazona, in the province of Zaragoza in Aragon, on 30th December 1877.  At the age of twenty she fulfiled her desire to enter Carmel, joining the Monastery of Guadalajara in Castile-La Mancha.   She had a tremendous devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and spent as much time as could in His presence.  It seems she was given a particular grace of feeling his Eucharistic presence throughout her life, so much so that she would call him "the Living One".  Her devotion to the Eucharistic presence of Christ edified her sisters, and she was deeply respected and loved. At time of her martyrdom she was 58 years old.

Sr Maria Angeles of St Joseph was born Marciana Valtierra Tordesillas in Getafe, outside Madrid, on 6th March 1905.  She heard the call to Carmel when she was very young, and though she made various efforts, she had to wait until she was twenty-four before she could enter.  She would only spend seven years as a Carmelite sister, but in those years the holiness of her life impressed the community.  The Prioress was so struck by her virtue that she referred to her as "a little angel".  Sr Maria Angeles had a vibrant missionary spirit - it is surprising that she did not join an apostolic missionary congregation, but like St Therese, she was resolved to be a missionary within the cloister.   She never thought of herself, but rather made herself the servant of all, always available to help her sisters in their needs.  She was 31 when called to martyrdom.

St Teresa of the Child Jesus and St John of the Cross was the youngest of the martyrs.  She was born Eusebia Garcia y Garcia in Mochales, not far from Guadalajara in Castile-La Mancha, on the 5th March 1909.  She was an early bloomer, making up her mind to enter Carmel when she was thirteen.  Like St Therese she had to wait until she was sixteen, facing many obstacles.  Like Therese, Teresa was determined: she heard the call to offer herself to Christ in Carmel and she was going to respond regardless of what stood in her way.    This reveals a very impulsive and determined nature which was not always graced, and so her first years in religious life were years dedicated to overcoming this stubborn streak.  It was through generous acts of charity and self-denial that she gradually overcame this aspect of her personality, and indeed led her to great holiness.  She chose as her motto "Charity above all", and sought to live this every day of her life.     Like Sr Maria Pilar she was given a particular grace for devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and loved adoration.  She used to describe adoration as "sunbathing" because of the divine rays she received.   She was 27 when martyred.

As tensions were rising in Spain, the sisters in the Community kept a careful eye on what was happening.  Learning from the experience of the French Revolution in which sixteen members of the Order were martyred, the Prioress made the decision that the Community should be ready to disband and flee at a moment's notice.  As is usual for Carmelite nuns, the sisters of the Community were offering their prayers and sacrifices for Spain and for her Catholics.  Interestingly, something was stirring within the hearts of Sr Maria Angeles and Sr Teresa - they heard a distinct call to offer themselves - to suffer and to die.  Such an experience in not unknown in Carmel: when nuns find themselves in the middle of persecution, they tend to offer themselves as an oblation.  Both of the sisters answered the call and made the oblation.

Meanwhile, Sr Maria Pilar, was reflecting in a similar way.   Before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament she sought to discern what to do, and asked Jesus that if he needed a victim for the community, so it would be spared, she would offer herself.  She asked him to accept this offering and save the other sisters.  She made this offering around the 22nd July 1936.

On that day, 22nd July, Mother Prioress made the decision that things were too dangerous and the Community would have to disband.  Anti-religious feeling in Guadalajara was very high and a number of occurrences led her to realise that the Monastery was a definite target for the anti-Catholic Republicans.  Taking off their habits, the sisters assumed secular dress, and then, in small groups, slipped out into the city to seek refuge with friends who had agreed to hide them.  In these private houses and apartments, the sisters hope to ride out the storm.

On the 24th July it became clear to Srs Maria Pilar, Maria Angeles and Teresa, that their hiding place was not very safe.  They decided they needed to find a more secure place.  Going out to look for an alternative,  they walked through the streets which were filled with Republicans.   Though they were in secular dress, a woman Republican recognised them, their short hair probably gave them away, and shouted "Look, nuns!  Shoot them!"  The sisters ran, but a hail of bullets descended on them.  Sr Maria Angeles was killed outright, falling on to the street in a pool of blood.  Sr Maria Pilar was seriously wounded, but still alive.  She survived for a few hours, but died in dreadful agony. As she was dying she prayed the words of Jesus from the Cross: "Forgive them, Lord, for they do not know what they are doing".

Sr Teresa was agile enough to dodge the bullets and she escaped.   The whole experience was so distressing that she was disorientated, and so she was wandering around the streets.  She met some people who seemed concerned and offered to help her.  Going with them, she soon realised that they were some of those who had attacked them.  They brought her a cemetery, the favourite execution site for the Republicans, and there she was shot.  She cried out "Viva Cristo Rey!"  Long live Christ the King, before she fell to the ground and died.

As a friend of mine, a brother Carmelite, said to me just last night: if supporters of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War think that three innocent Carmelite sisters were politically active and so were normal casualties of conflict they are much mistaken.  The Carmelites of Guadalajara were simple, holy women, who spent their days in prayer and sacrifice, helping those who came to them, and seeking to love all people for Christ's sake.   Their death was a true martyrdom and their story needs to be hold and their lives and sacrifice celebrated.  They are just three of thousands of others whose only crime was to believe in Jesus Christ: and in Republican Spain, that was a crime.  May their example and intercession give heart to all of us who struggle with oppressive regimes and anti-Catholic attacks.

The feast of Blesseds Maria Pilar, Maria Angeles and Teresa is the 24th July.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reinventing History

Skipping through a few sites to get the morning news, I see Nicholas Hahn has an interesting article on the Cristeros movement in Mexico and the new movie which tells the story of the rebellion.  As noted in the article, it is an element in Mexican history which has been somewhat airbrushed from the official history of the country.

I have just finished reading Warren Carroll's short history of the Spanish Civil War, The Last Crusade, another contentious historical conflict which has itself been airbrushed in order to present one side of the story.  Carroll's book is interesting, it takes the premise that Franco's counter-revolution against the Republicans was a Crusade to save the faith in Spain.  Not everyone would agree with that point, and I think there was more to Franco and his revolt, which, to be fair, Carroll acknowledges. 

Usually it is the victors who write history - the Spanish Civil War is the exception - the accepted history of the Civil War is that of the losers, the Republicans. In that history much has been ignored and written out, particularly the persecution of the Church.  Given that the Republicans and their allies, be it their political descendants or the left-leaning historians who have made the Civil War their area of expertise, the Catholic Church is understood to be an oppressive force responsible, with the monarchy, for the dreadful conditions which existed in pre-Republican Spain.  The priests, religious and lay faithful who died in the conflict were victims of war, and a minuscule number in comparison with the innocent Republicans who perished in Franco's reprisals.  Franco was a fascist, according to the official history, an ally of Hitler, and a dictator who held Spain in an iron grip and undermined the liberties of the Spanish people.

Thus is the official account, but the reality is not so simple.  Republican sympathisers ignore the fact that there was an active persecution of Catholics for their faith: thousands were killed for no other reason than that they were Catholics.  Priests, nuns and brothers who dedicated their lives to caring for the poor - the very people the Republicans claimed they were defending, were murdered.  Indeed the poor themselves were murdered for refusing to renounce their Catholic faith.  The Republicans took a particular interest in the lay members of Catholic Action - a movement in which lay people actively participated in the apostolate of the Church.    They were slaughtered in their hundreds.  Then simple, ordinary Catholics were killed for holding a rosary or wearing a scapular, or being known to be good and holy people.  In Valencia, as the Republicans were looking for the relic of the Holy Grail, they let it be known that whoever was hiding it would be killed with their family.    Not very democratic that!

The relationship between the Republicans and the Soviet Union is also very interesting.  Stalin was in communication with the Communist members of the Republican government, and as the Civil War progressed, the Communists gained more control over the Republicans.   There is little doubt that had the Republicans won the Civil War, the Soviet Union would have had a major role in deciding the future of the country, and we may have seen Spain slip behind the Iron curtain.  It is well known that the Republicans sent Spain's gold reserves to Stalin who held onto them and used himself.    The International Brigades, in which many Irish people served, were sent by the Soviet Union to help achieve a Republican victory: whether the members of those Brigades actively participated in the murder of innocent Catholics is debatable.

Anyway, every aspect of this tragic conflict has been debated, and continues to be debated.  The problem is that only one side gets a decent hearing.  Go into any bookshop and if you find books on the Spanish Civil War, they are all pro-Republican.  Even the biographies of Franco are written from a pro-Republican standpoint.  The victims of the Republicans are forgotten, but we need to know about them.  2,000 of them have been proposed for sainthood, and well over a thousand have already been beatified and a number canonised.  From time to time I will dedicate a post to some of these holy men and women who, unarmed, stared down the barrel of a gun (usually a number of guns) and refused to deny Christ.   As Catholics we must not allow them be airbrushed out of history - their heroism needs to be known and celebrated.

And Irish readers, take note: the persecution of innocent Catholics in Spain was carried out by cradle Catholics who rejected their faith and gave in to a demonic rage which took no cognisance of reason or charity.  You can see a similar rage in many in Ireland today, and a similar disregard for the truth.   I am not saying we could have a persecution here, but the seeds are there.

And here's a good news story: the first Pro-Life March in Rome took place last Sunday with a large crowd taking part.  Beginning at Coliseum - the site of Christian martyrdom and where the ancient Romans were entertained by barbaric amusements, the marchers walked to St Peter's Square.  A large number of young people took part, and that is no surprise.  The up and coming generations tend to be more pro-life much to the chagrin of the pro-abortion movement. 

Why are so many young people flocking to the pro-life cause?  Well it is no surprise: they can see the devastation abortion has cause in modern society.  But there is another, more personal reason: having been born in a time when abortion is considered a norm, they know that they are the lucky ones - they survived.  Someone once said that the children born in the US after Roe v Wade, and in Britain after the Abortion Act, are survivors, and realising that they see the value of human life.  It's a pity the older generations don't see that.  We will pray that one day they will.