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.

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