Today’s the Feast of the Spanish Civil War Martyrs: Here’s What You Need to Know About Them
As Catholics, we hear about fierce mass persecutions and borderline holocausts against those who believe and follow Jesus Christ. We think of our brave brothers and sisters marching with heads held high into the Colosseum in the first century or of the martyrs in England during Henry VIII’s and Queen Elizabeth I’s reigns.
In the modern age, when it comes to martyrs, admittedly, my mind automatically thinks of one-off martyrdoms found in the lives of St. Maximilian Kolbe or Bl. Stanley Rother. But the reality is that we are not far from one of the most brutal persecutions and martyrdoms the Church has ever experienced.
Over 38,000 Spanish Catholics were killed by their own government between 1936 and 1939 (some sources estimate that the number is closer to 112,000 lives lost), 6,800 of whom were priests and bishops. The mere numbers rival those seen during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, which was notorious for almost running the Church out of France. The “Red Terror” in Spain was detrimental to the Church, but outside of Spain, the stories of those martyred are largely unknown.
Eleven of these martyrs have been canonized and 1,915 beatified by Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Over 2,000 more are in the process of being beatified. 20,000 churches were destroyed. It’s hard to wrap our heads around these numbers, especially considering that it all occurred less than 100 years ago.
It started in 1931. Communist, anti-clerical, and anti-monarchist republicans established a new constitution and republic in Spain. The church and the monarchy had a long history of closeness and were seen by the new government as one in the same. They wrote a new constitution that declared religious orders, Catholic schools, seminaries, and Catholic cemeteries unlawful. Churches were burned and priceless religious arts were destroyed.
By 1936, anti-Catholicism feelings were at an all-time high. Priests were taken from their parishes and publicly executed without trial, often in the middle of Mass, or in the middle of the night.
Anyone seen going in or out of the church, wearing a crucifix, or showing any outward sign of Catholicism were taken and killed, even if their faith was slightly suspected. Neighbors and friends ratted known Catholics out and priests and bishops were forced into hiding.
There weren’t many places outside of Spain they could escape to as the world plummeted into a Great Depression and the early hostilities of World War II were just beginning to brew.
It wasn’t until the military dictator Francisco Franco overturned the government in 1938 through militaristic rebellion that order began to resume. Franco was anti-Catholic (anti-religion or anything outside of the socialist republic for that matter), and many of the martyrdoms continued under his reign.
But order was slowly restored by his heavy militaristic hand. Spain stayed under his leadership for 40 years. Now, a socialist government remains. They are known for being very pro what the Church is against, including same-sex marriage, abortion, and easy divorce. The Church in Spain was shaken, in some ways, it’s still recovering and trying to pick up the broken pieces.
The numbers alone are troubling. But we have a beautiful example found with the faithful in Spain, who held their faith close, prayed for their country, and hoped for heaven should they be martyred. We can draw from their example, no matter where we stand politically.
Let us pray for the souls of those who persecuted the church and continue to do so in our modern age, and let us ask for the intercession of the Spanish Martyrs in the mist of these troubled, uncertain times.
Blessed Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, pray for us!