Bl. Niceforo and Companions

(Executed 1936)

When we speak of martyrs we are probably thinking of people who suffered for the Faith in ancient times. But in every age of Christianity, even our own, Christ has continued to call on some men, women and children to die for Him and with Him.

A Christian martyr is one killed out of hatred for his Faith or its teachings. Thus Pope Pius XI said of the thousands of Catholics brutally killed in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, that they were “genuine martyrs.”

This terrible civil war has often been called a rehearsal for World War II, because international Fascism and Communism became involved in it. Nevertheless, it remained a typically Spanish conflict, the culminating struggle in a century-long series of contests between anti-Catholic and Catholic Spaniards in this traditionally Catholic but very diversified country.

In 1931, the Spanish Liberal elements (including rationalists, Freemasons, and various socialist groups) succeeded in ousting King Alfonso XIII and establishing a republic. While any nation has a right to choose its own form of government, the foundation of the Spanish Republic was ominous, because it was accompanied by anti-Catholic legislation and the burning of convents by anarchist groups. A Catholic reaction reversed this tendency in 1933-1936, but the fire was by no means extinguished.

In 1936, General Francisco Franco, a staunch Catholic, formed a national movement to restore legality and order in Spain. The opposition, under the banner of the Republic, sent its army against Franco’s army. A bitter contest followed, in which most Protestant countries of the West were inclined to favor the Republican Loyalists (supported by international Communism) against Franco (who received some aid from Hitler and Mussolini). In a sense, therefore, the Spanish Civil War became an ideological contest.

Especially at the start, however, the Loyalists renewed the attack on the Catholic Church, its property and its representatives. Critics of the modern Spanish Church sometimes claimed that the Spanish clergy and religious were unworthy and decadent. But it stands to reason that not all the many church victims could be that worthless. The number of bishops killed was 12; of secular priests, 4100; of religious-order clergy, 2300; and of nuns, 382. Records were kept of these victims, who died particularly in 1936 and 1937. It was impossible to keep a record of the countless laymen and laywomen executed, sometimes simply because they were caught with a crucifix, medal or rosary.

General Franco eventually won the war and restored the rights of the Church. He was succeeded in 1975 by a revived and modernized monarchy, headed by King Juan Carlos I, who is still reigning. While Catholicism has lost some of its prerogatives in our day, it still retains a favored position in Spain.

Once the wounds of the Civil War were healed, the popes were able to entertain the proposal to declare its noblest victims, martyrs. This is now being done gradually. Thus on October 1, 1991, Pope John Paul II beatified the Spanish Passionist Father, Niceforo de Jesus, and 25 of his confreres at the monastery of Daimiel.

Their story is brief but moving. The Passionist monastery at Daimiel specialized in training its young members in missionary methods. It housed six priests, four lay brothers, and 15 students, aged 18 to 21.

At midnight on July 21, 1936, when the anti-religious campaign was at its height, a crowd of some 200 armed men surrounded the Passionist house and demanded that all leave immediately. Father Niceforo, the provincial superior, first gathered his men together. He gave them general absolution and Holy Communion. All of them agreed to be faithful to God and to their vocation, no matter what. Then they were herded off to the local cemetery and charged with being members of a religious order. The local mayor intervened to prevent their being buried alive, or shot right there; so, having said farewell to each other, they were led off in different directions, like sheep to the slaughter. Niceforo and five of the students were killed on July 23 at Manzanares; nine others at another place on the same day. The rest were shot in groups on July 25, September 25, and October 23. That was their earthly end. It was also their heavenly beginning.

The ready acceptance of death by these young men revives, as does any such martyrdom, the questions: If your faith and my faith were to be challenged in this way, how would we respond?

--Father Robert F. McNamara