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Forty-six Marist Brothers weren’t the only ones martyred in Spain on Oct. 8, 1936. And October 8 was not the only day martyrs were killed during the Spanish Civil War. But they are the biggest singly identified group the Church celebrates on October 8 — the Marist Martyrs of Barcelona.
When Pope Benedict XVI beatified 498 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War in 2007, it was the single largest number of blessed beatified on the same day in the history of the Catholic Church and the event attracted huge numbers.
It was easy to get lost in the crowd of 50,000 pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, and it is just as easy to get lost in the crowd of martyrs. English readers have little information about many of them, besides their names and that they died for their faith.
But that is, in a sense, the whole point of martyrdom.
“Today’s addition to the roll of Blesseds of such a large number of Martyrs shows that the supreme witness of blood is not an exception reserved for only a few individuals, but a realistic possibility for the entire Christian People,” Pope Benedict said.
The martyrs killed on Oct. 8 in Barcelona were emblematic of that. They were killed because the rebel forces “of the people” saw them as tied to the landowners and oligarchs of the country. Yet the martyrs that I tracked down tended to come from very humble backgrounds — hardly Spain’s powerbrokers.
“Their example testifies that Baptism commits Christians to participating courageously in the spreading of the Kingdom of God, if need be cooperating with the sacrifice of life itself,” Pope Benedict added. “Indeed, they are men and women of different ages, vocations and social classes who paid with their lives for their faithfulness to Christ and his Church.”
As if to illustrate his point, the Marist martyrs were trying to sneak back into the country in civilian clothes to continue their mission of education.
Beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys
In the long run-up to the Spanish Civil War it is hard to distinguish the “bad guys” from the “good guys.” There were the anarchists and communists who turned against the Church, seeing it as an ally of the forces that had suppressed the people for so long.
General Francisco Franco rose to power by championing the opposition to those “bad guys,” but he was a brutal fascist dictator. Church leaders made common cause with him more out of necessity than affinity, as did many Catholics outside of Spain. But important Catholic intellectuals like Dorothy Day and Jacques Maritain opposed both sides and their atrocities, as did the writer Georges Bernanos, who renounced his support for Franco after witnessing crimes committed by his soldiers.
As Franco was rising to power in the 1930s, rebel forces were cracking down on the Catholic Church, continuing a campaign of terror that had begun with the burning of convents and other Church properties in 1931.
In order to wrest the minds of the people from the Church’s grasp, Catholic education was outlawed in Spain in 1933, schools were confiscated and religious orders were disbanded. The Marist Brothers of Spain retreated to the congregation’s headquarters in Lyon, France, but from there hatched a plot to secretly return to their students in civilian dress.
They traveled to Barcelona by boat, but their plan was foiled and rebel forces met the boat, rounded up the brothers, briefly imprisoned them, then shot them.
Simple lives, profound sacrifice
A few stories of the October 8 martyrs can stand for the rest.
First, a teacher: Brother Pedro Ciordia Hernandez.
Brother Ciordia was remembered for inspiring his students to share his passion for the subjects he taught. He spent hours a day correcting students’ work in order to give specific feedback to each one.
Brother Ciordia had been born into a family of farmers and had left the farm to enter the Marists at age 13. Seven years after making his perpetual profession, he presented a synopsis of ascetic theology during the Marists’ “Second Novitiate.” His theological skills matched the intensity of his religious life, and he was put in charge of successive schools. He was teaching in Barcelona when the crackdown came.
Second, a nurse: Brother Juan de Mata.
Brother Juan cared for the medical needs of teachers and students. His father was a miller and his mother was a housewife. He was 27 before he joined the Marist novitiate. That was a late vocation in those days — and it was widely expected that he would not last long. He did well, though, and became known for his joyful demeanor — except when he was tasked with reading out loud from the works of St. Marcellin Champagnat, the order’s founder. He always cried when he read those words.
Brother Juan was skilled and big-hearted. “He knew how to be close to the sick and to make their sufferings his own,” one biographer reports. He was shot and left in a heap of bodies of the brothers he had formally served.
Third, a diocesan priest: Father José María Ruano López.
October 8, 1936, was a bloody night in Spain outside of Barcelona, and Father Ruana is one of that day’s martyrs who died, not in Barcelona, but near the coastal town of Almeria to the south.
His father was a day laborer who met the Daughters of Charity after becoming a doorman at a hospital. The family gained a deep Marian Devotion and José entered a local seminary and was ordained in 1916 and was pastor of a parish that served the population who worked in the sulfur mines.
When the religious persecution started, his church was forbidden to ring its bells or hold religious processions. On Oct. 7, 1936, Father Ruano was captured, and beaten. The next day he was thrown in a car, driven out on a highway and shot. He was 48 when he died. In his final words he asked Our Lady’s intercession for his persecutors, praying “God save you!”
Catholics of the 21st century face what 20th century Catholics faced: A political situation that offers no strong Christian alternative, and a series of complications locking the Church into one imperfect alliance or another. Whether it comes to a situation like Spain in the 1930s or we suffer a bloodless martyrdom, the world needs to see the same witness.
As Pope Benedict XVI told pilgrims, “This martyrdom of ordinary life constitutes a particularly important witness in the secularized society of our time.”
A version of this appeared at Seton Shrine.