New Blessed Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War Offer a Model for Today
Father Bonet and his companions were truly free men, because they surrendered to the truth that God is.
By Erika Ahern
On Nov. 14, Pope Francis will beatify Capuchin Father Josep Domènech Bonet and two of his Franciscan companions in Manresa, Spain. Victims of the Spanish Civil War’s fierce religious persecution, the three men will be the latest martyrs raised to the altar from a bloodbath that claimed the lives of an estimated 6,832 clergy. Their suffering and courage even to the point of death offers us an inspiring and bold example for today: to live and die for the honor of God.
Few details remain of Father Bonet’s early life. He came into a Spain that for centuries had suffered at the hands of invaders and persecuted its own people for their fidelity to the Catholic faith. The violent swings in Spanish history between staunch defenders of the faith and rabid hatred of the clergy would play out in Father Bonet’s own life, from birth to death.
He was born Sept. 6, 1892, in the Barcelona suburb of Santa Coloma de Gramenet. “Coloma” may be a derivative of the Latin columbarium, suggesting the site was used by Roman occupiers as a burial place for urns containing the ashes of the dead. As a Catalonian child living near Barcelona, Josep probably spoke Spanish, but also would have been familiar with Catalan, the language of the Republican army during the Civil War.
Until the late 1900s, around the time of his birth, the town was a collection of farmhouses overlooked by the ruins of a pre-Roman Iberian village. Josep would most likely have attended Mass as a child at the parish of San Josep Oriol, named for another Catalan saint, whose church and shrine were destroyed in 1936 in the same persecution that would take the life of young Josep.
Josep left home in 1909 to enter the Capuchin Franciscan monastery in Manresa, where he took final vows in 1913 and was ordained in 1915. Manresa is a city deeply imbued with the Catholic faith, particularly Jesuit spirituality. Josep would have lived near the Cave of St. Ignatius and overheard (mostly) good-natured disputes over whether the shrine belonged to the Jesuits or his own Capuchins.
Just before Josep’s birth, a wealthy family donated land and the Capuchins began to rebuild in 1887 after the government expropriated convents, monasteries and Church property and redistributed it to middle-class landowners. The friars not only rebuilt multiple convents in Manresa and outside of Barcelona, but also within 20 years established a school of biblical studies, a philosophical journal and a theological review that is still published today. The library became famous, and Josep — who took the name Benedict — would have received the best intellectual training available as a seminarian and young priest.
Father Benedict (Benet in Catalan) lived, for a Franciscan, an unremarkable life and would have died in obscurity had history not revolved again.
In the early 1930s, as tensions rose between the communist Republicans and General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists, the anti-clerical bent always simmering beneath the surface of Spanish history erupted in deadly force. Robert Royal, in The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, aptly calls this persecution the “Spanish Holocaust.”
Before the civil war itself began, areas under the control of the Republican government saw the harassment of habited priests and religious and church burnings. Local officials often passed these off as the actions of “uncontrollables,” and gave little attention when rashes of violence first broke out. Catholic schools were closed or destroyed in the spring of 1936.
The destruction of cultural and religious symbols served as a preview of the destruction of lives. Images remain from this time of anarchist and communist forces desecrating and burning churches and convents, using statues of Christ and the saints for target practice, and lining up defaced religious symbols as a warning.
In The Cypresses Believe in God, his novel of warning, José María Gironella chronicles 1931-1936, the years leading up to the persecution. He speaks particularly of the hatred fomenting in the hearts of the young: “Those children frightened him. They were growing and they would absorb all the poison the neighborhood exuded.”
Enough of them did absorb that poison that they became anarchist and communist militia who, from July 1936 through January 1937, attacked, tortured and executed Catholics simply for being Catholic, for showing acts of charity, or for refusing to blaspheme.
Thousands of martyrs won their crowns in those months. On July 22, the Capuchins of Manresa abandoned their monastery and found refuge with families still faithful to the Church. The moment of truth came for Father Bonet on Aug. 6, when the local communist forces found his hiding place. He was tortured just outside of the city, but refused to blaspheme the name of God. They stabbed him to death on Aug. 7.
The Spanish Civil War saw atrocities and heroism on both sides of the political debate. Staunch Catholics found themselves driven into the arms of the Nationalists for refuge, accepting aid from Italy and Germany in the faint hope of saving their country. Anarchists and communists waved Soviet flags and enjoyed the favor of American intellectuals such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway.
But for the martyrs, their deaths centered not on party affiliation, but on one truth: Jesus Christ is the center of human history and the answer to the question that is every human person. Political categories only provided excuses for a country torn apart by anger, disillusion and pain to inflict on Catholics the price demanded: their blood. Politics did not define the martyrs. Their love of God above life itself did.
Parallels between pre-war Spain and our own times are difficult to dismiss. The working-up of mob rage against Catholic symbols and widespread acceptance of anti-religious propaganda in the mass media should sound eerily familiar. If ignorance of history dooms us to repeat it, we are well on our way in imitation of 1930s Spain.
The upcoming beatification offers us a providential moment of clarity that we may in our time face our final moments as Father Bonet did. Already we face a culture and, as St. John Paul II writes, “a way of thinking contrary to evangelical principles and which have a powerful influence on society” (Redemptor Hominis, 12). John Paul outlines for us the little moments of martyrdom that prepare us should we also be asked to give our lives:
“[Martyrdom] could be [by] the influence of materialism or religious indifference which kill spiritual aspirations, or the false and individualistic notion of freedom which confuses the possibility of choosing whatever gratifies one’s passions with concern for fully developing one’s human calling, spiritual destiny and the common good. Is it not this kind of freedom which forms the basis of human dignity and encourages Christian faith?”
Father Bonet and his companions were truly free men. In spite of persecution and in the face of death, they found their human calling, their destiny, and gave their lives that we may all know the truth. It is not self-gratification, financial security or professional fulfillment that bring freedom and dignity. It is surrender to the truth that God is. Their surrender to God gave them that true and final freedom to give their lives. May we do the same.