Living Hope Newsletter – December 2012
The Claretian Martyrs of Barbastro
“Beloved congregation, the day before yesterday, on the 11th, six of our brothers died with a generosity befitting martyrs. Today, the 13th, twenty more have won the palm of victory. And tomorrow, the 14th, the remaining 21 of us expect to die…” – Claretian Fr. Faustino Pérez, in his farewell letter to the congregation, August 13, 1936, Barbastro, Spain.
When these words were written by Fr. Pérez, the Spanish Civil War had just begun, with communist and anarchist forces taking over towns and villages around the country. Both groups sought to eliminate any vestige of Catholicism in Spain.
In July of 1936, an anarchist militia assaulted Barbastro, a town in northwest Spain and the site of a Claretian seminary filled with young men preparing for religious life. On July 20th, the group broke into the seminary in the middle of the night. They claimed to be searching for hidden weapons, and were infuriated when they found none.
The seminary’s Claretian Father Superior Felipe de Jesús Munárriz told the invaders there were no weapons and no politics on seminary grounds, and he rang the bells to call the community together. The Claretians gathered in the seminary patio, silent and composed.
Fr. Munárriz and two other superiors were arrested and taken from their Congregation that night. In the squalor and summer heat of the town jail, the anarchists questioned the priests about the supposed weapons hidden in the seminary. One of the priests, Fr. Leonicio Pérez, held out his rosary to his captors, saying, “I do not have, nor do I want, any other weapon than this.”
After almost two weeks of questioning, the three priests, along with other prisoners, were bound and taken by force to the town cemetery late at night. There, lined up against an old adobe wall, they refused to abandon their faith. For their devotion to Christ, they were executed.
While the superiors were taken to the jail, the remaining priests, brothers, and seminarians were tied up and marched from their seminary in an ominous procession through the town. The young men were forced into confinement in a school auditorium basement, certain they were awaiting their deaths. For 25 days, they were denied basic necessities. The Claretians were taunted and threatened to try to make them abandon their vows out of fear. The young men wore their cassocks throughout the ordeal as a sign of their fidelity to their Congregation.
Throughout this time, the Claretian spirit prevailed. The men supported one another and focused on their community life centered on the Eucharist. They celebrated the sacrament daily with hosts hidden in their food baskets from supporters. They prayed and meditated in preparation for martyrdom at the end of their struggle.
The Claretians wrote messages of faith during their last days in confinement. Prayer books, scraps of paper, stair steps, walls, benches, and stage props were covered “as far as the hand could reach” with their writing. They left stunning farewells and expressions of their joy at facing martyrdom for Christ.
On August 12, the revolutionaries harshly summoned the six oldest of the imprisoned Claretians in the middle of the night. They were taken to the cemetery to face the same execution as their Father Superior and the others before them.
Three days later, the remaining Claretians were roused from their sleep. As their captors shouted their names, each young man jumped down from the auditorium stage to take his place in line with his companions. As they were bound in the same ropes used to tie up their fellow Claretians just days before, the young seminarians forgave their captors.
Leading up to this moment, the Eucharist and prayers, meditation, and writing had given the Claretians strength. Together, they had made their last confessions and encouraged one another to stand strong to the end.
“We have spent the day in religious silence,” wrote their leader, Fr. Faustino Pérez, “preparing for our death tomorrow. Only the holy murmur of prayers can be heard in this room, a witness to our deep anguish. When we talk, it is to encourage one another . . . .”
On their way to field outside of town, the Claretians were mocked and beaten as they sang songs of Christ the Savior. There, they were offered a last chance to abandon their faith and pledge allegiance to the revolution. Some on their knees, others with their arms extended to form of a cross, they shouted, “Long live Christ the King! Long live the Heart of Mary!” Gun shots silenced their final cry of love for Christ.
The Claretians were buried in a mass grave in Barbastro and later identified by the names on their cassocks, sewn in by the tailor at the seminary.
The final 40 missionaries had drawn up an official farewell on the back of a chocolate wrapper and signed it, one by one. This was delivered to the Congregation by two Claretians who were spared death because they were not Spanish nationals. The paper bears witness to the indomitable spirit of Claretian martyrs, and is a treasure to the Congregation.
imple monuments now occupy the exact places of the Claretians’ martyrdom in Spain, and the remains of the 51 men are kept in the church of Barbastro. Pope John Paul II beatified the Claretian Martyrs of Barbastro in 1992, and their feast day is celebrated on August 13. In his beatification homily, the Pope said, “Had these young men of Barbastro not received adequate religious formation and been trained in solid piety, they would not have merited the grace of martyrdom. Faithful to Christ, they triumphed with Him.”