Open letter on the occasion of the beatification of the Claretian martyrs of
Sigüenza, Fernán Caballero and Tarragona
The witness of their death
- “Long live Christ the King!” “Long live the Heart of Mary!” What did the chorus of voices of our martyred brothers express when they surrendered their lives with these words? We are so accustomed to hear or read the history of our martyred brothers it seems as if these expressions are an essential part of the narrative. During these days I have been reading the positio (several hundred pages with numerous testimonies about those who are about to be beatified, their biographies and the story of their martyrdom). I must confess that discovering these writings has repeatedly forced me to think of what all this meant. At the end of their lives our martyred brothers loudly declared what they had lived for and what they considered worth dying for. Their words are laden with a deep meaning beyond what these phrases might mean if pronounced in another context.
- Through these expressions, I believe our brothers were expressing their faith, reaffirming their faithfulness to their vocation, and proclaiming their hope. Through this, we have a glimpse of the witness of a life centered on Christ and the Kingdom. They found its meaning in Him. From Jesus they were able to determine the meaning of their death united to the values that had inspired their lives and filled their hearts with plans and hopes. Their outcry was born of a deep experience that shaped their lives. It now gave meaning to death. Full of trust, they surrendered themselves to the Father who had called them and to their Mother, Mary, who always accompanied them.
The journey of martyrdom
- The chronicle of the journey to martyrdom of our brothers cannot be understood without looking at the history which preceded the highest point of their lives. Such a great expression of faithfulness to an ideal they professed is possible only if it is built on a solid foundation. We discover this as we read – sometimes detailed other times succinct – pages that tell us of their journey to the moment they found themselves before the weapons that murdered them. In most cases, the faith experience has its roots in the family. It was in the family where they learned to love and to be loved. Where they discovered a God always present in this experience of love. Faith was an integral part of their family history. It was in that context their vocation was born. The few letters we have been able to discover of these Claretians to their families and, particularly those to their parents, are inspiringly beautiful. Memories of the past accompanied and encouraged them on their journey to martyrdom. The seeds sown gave abundant fruit.
- Two other elements are evident that solidly support their faithfulness firmly expressed in martyrdom. These are the formation process our brothers lived, and their community life experience. The formation process created a solid consciousness and a deep appreciation of their vocation. It also raised lofty missionary ideals. It also helped them cultivate a great trust in God and Mary. This helped to sustain them at the most difficult and uncertain moments that marked the last months and days of their earthly existence. The second support for all of them was community. This is one of the aspects that always impressed us in the experience of the lives of the Blessed Martyrs of Barbastro. It is also found again, especially in the group of young Claretians who suffered martyrdom in Fernán Caballero. Their last months in Ciudad Real speak to us about a “communitarian” journey to martyrdom. The testimony of some of the classmates who shared those last days with them, and later were able to escape, confirms this. The testimony of 76 year old Brother Vilamassana, who offered to accompany a brother of his community, Fr. Vila, is also an inspiring example. Both end up prisoners on a boat called “Segre,” anchored in Tarragona. It was used as a prison. Both gave witness to their faith as martyrs. Fr. Jose M. Ruiz Cano, formation director of a numerous group of adolescent seminarians in the initial stages of their formation, witnessed his martyrdom as an act of faith in God and love for the community. Other martyrs found themselves literally alone at the time they faced the highest moment of their lives. However, they must have certainly felt very close to their brothers in the Congregation with whom they had shared ideals, dreams, and life. I invite you to read the biographies of these martyrs to better understand the value and context of their testimony.
Faithful to the Covenant
- The situation of each of our brothers who will be beatified on October 13, 2013, is unique.. Some of them were students in the last stage of their formation process. In fact, three of them had made their perpetual profession a few days before their death. They consciously accepted martyrdom as a possibility of their missionary vocation. Jesús Aníbal Gómez, a Colombian, did not hesitate to express to those who were interrogating him his religious status and the joy he felt being a religious. Two priests were respected and competent professors of the Pontifical School of Tarragona. Before this assignment they were professors at Claretian formation Centers. As I mentioned above, one was the person in charge of the formation of postulants. Among the brother missionaries, three gave a good part of their lives in the Claretian mission of Equatorial Guinea. Because of sickness they returned to their province of origin. I am sure that the memory of their missionary years in Guinea, and the many people with whom they shared their lives in the mission accompanied them on their journey to martyrdom. The gift of life which before was lived out in missionary service, merited their martyrdom. Other missionary brothers spent their religious life at the service of the communities to which they had been assigned. They always were builders of fraternity. To be sure, in the heart of each of the 23 martyrs they found a strong movement of those loves that made them brothers — the love of the Word of God, the Eucharist, the Heart of Mary, the Founder, the Congregation and the mission. The ties born from these loves are not easily broken and are capable of maintaining community united until death.
- The martyrs were keenly aware of the difficult political situation of the times and the consequences it could have for them. They faced it prudently and intelligently, but also with a deep serenity and trust in God. They had to give up many things. They lived the limitations and sufferings accompanying their life in prison and felt the tremendous burden of the threats on their lives. The younger ones understood that they would probably have to give up their missionary dreams. The older ones realized they would have to stop carrying out the apostolic or community tasks the superiors had entrusted to them which they had generously accepted. But they were absolutely not willing to give up the vocation God had given them and the pathway to follow it — the Claretian missionary life. They were faithful to the Covenant. I believe that there lies the secret to the peace and fortitude they showed. Many witnesses were impressed by the way they surrendered their lives. Their violent death, born from a trust in God and forgiveness, was a powerful proclamation of the hope in “a new heaven and the new earth where justice will dwell” (2 Peter 3:13) and of the way leading to it.
- “Long live Christ the King!” “Long live the heart of Mary!” These phrases on the lips of our brother martyrs were not shouts coming from the enthusiasm of the moment, or paradoxically to hide the fear of a violent death. Nor expressions of revenge or insult to their persecutors. They had gone through the filter of a “via crucis” lasting several days or weeks. It was a cry that had been forged by the fire of prayer and of fraternal dialogue where many feelings were present in their hearts during those days, expressions of trust and forgiveness at a crucial moment of their lives in light of the Kingdom of God. They possessed the ability to explain a life proper of the last words of a person.
- We gratefully remember our brothers and joyfully celebrate their beatification. They are united to other Claretians who walked the same road to martyrdom beginning with Fr. Francesc Crusats, the first Claretian martyr. He was assassinated in La Selva del Camp on September 30 of 1868. Some have already been beatified and we hope others will follow in the near future. Because of various reasons, others will probably not follow and will not be officially recognized as martyrs. However, all constitute a precious congregational heritage of which we feel proud and which continues to inspire our missionary journey.
Let’s keep their memory alive
- What does it mean for us to celebrate their memory? How does the gesture of these 23 brothers of ours about to be beatified challenge us? Where does this memory direct our vision? Blessed John Paul II told us in the Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consacrata: “In this century, just as in other times in history, consecrated men and women have given witness to Christ the Lord with the surrender of their own lives. We can count in the thousands those who are forced to live clandestinely by totalitarian regimes or violent groups, hindered in their missionary activity, in aiding the poor, in assisting the sick and marginalized, and yet have lived and continue to live their consecration in the midst of long and heroic trials, even frequently giving their own blood in perfect conformity with the crucified Christ. The church has officially recognized the holiness of some of them and honors them as martyrs of Christ who illumine us with their example, intercede for our faithfulness and wait for us in glory. It is to be desired to keep alive in the consciousness of the church the memory of so many witnesses to the faith as an incentive for their celebration and imitation.” (VC 86). I invite you to live the grace of this beatification of our brothers in three dimensions that are expressed in three words: faithfulness, availability, and fraternity.
- We keep their memory alive thankful to God who works wonders in the “smallness” of those who trust in his mercy. Their memory helps us to focus on what constitutes the fundamental center of our lives which is to give primacy to God and to seek the Kingdom of God and its justice above all else. In faithfulness to this covenant, our life is blessed by God and becomes a source of blessing for others. This is the source of missionary strength and energy.
- The General Chapter exhorted us to strengthen the theological dimension of our life. Without a deep experience of God it is impossible to live with meaning our joy and our vocation in today’s world. We would like to reflect in our lives the dream of our Father Founder for each one of his missionaries — to be “men on fire in charity and spread this fire wherever they go.” Our brother martyrs let that fire consume their lives. Remembering them centers our lives again because it de-centers us and makes us look again toward the Lord we follow, and for whom it is worthwhile to give our lives.
- It is not, however, an exercise of the will. It is, rather and above all, an exercise of total trust in the mercy of God. The capacity to live the martyrdom dimension of the missionary vocation is not a prerogative of “strong men.” It is the fruit of knowing how to see Jesus. The martyrs have fixed their eyes on Jesus. They have known how to long-for the tender and merciful gaze of the Master who transformed the heart of Peter who had denied the Lord and then was able to give his life professing his faith in Him. Our brothers died seeing Jesus because they had lived with their gaze and their heart fixed upon Him. Their memory invites us, therefore, to always and exclusively place, “the things of my Father” (cf Lk 2:49) at the center of our lives.
- To be willing to accept the consequences of discipleship. We profess Jesus as Lord. He invites us to follow the path the disciple is called to follow. To embrace the cross and be in full communion with Him and with our brothers and sisters, in the hope of being able to hear, when reaching the goal, his word of blessing: “Come, blessed of my Father, receive the inheritance of the reign prepared for you from the creation of the world…” (Mat 25:34ff). Availability to follow Jesus is leaving everything behind.
- Availability also means assuming the discernment of the route our journey will take. He who has placed everything in God’s hands can always leave for new goals, because he never gets far from what is central in his life and ministry – the witness and the proclamation of the Kingdom. We are in the epoch of a “new evangelization.” The Synod has asked religious to be willing to go to the geographical, social and cultural frontiers of the mission. What hinders us from starting on our way? We know that the Lord both awaits and accompanies us. What could make us afraid? Having Him, what else do we need? The memory of our martyred brothers is a powerful challenge to our availability. It would not be fair to celebrate their generous gesture and then remain restrained in our response or even worse, be egoistic.
- The blood shed by our brothers is the missionary drive that spurs us onward toward those goals they would have liked to reach. Toward those areas where they would have liked to work, toward those people they would have liked to accompany in search of a deeper experience of God’s love. Those were the people they loved in their hearts. For all this they gave their lives in a gesture of availability that they perhaps had never imagined. Their lives were not taken from them. They gave their lives because they were sure that their blood would be the seed for new missionary life.
- As Blessed Faustino Pérez wrote in a letter to the Congregation a little before dying as a martyr, “We all die begging God that the blood poured out from our wounds not be a vengeful blood, but a blood that, entering red and alive in your veins, may stimulate your development and expansion throughout the world.” Let us not allow this blood to be adulterated with attachments and hesitancy that takes us from the only good to which we should be attached — it is the Lord who calls and sends us.
- The witness of our martyrs invites us also to be grateful for the gift of community. They possibly never felt as close to each other as at hour of martyrdom. When one experiences the force of one’s own weakness and limitations, one needs to feel with greater intensely the closeness and love of our brothers. But this fraternity is not improvised, as if it were a strategy to endure what could be unbearable. It was the fruit of a journey made in community, sharing the same ideals and values, friendship and daily life. The way to martyrdom in the formation community of Ciudad Real was a communitarian journey. The outcry of each one at the moment of giving their lives was a manifestation of what united them intimately. The farewell embrace of our brothers before separating sealed a communion that had been a fundamental part of their lives.
- Many of them shared the journey to martyrdom with other persons than Claretians. They encouraged the martyrs at that difficult moment in life, and they themselves felt encouraged by their presence. Bishops, priests, religious men and women and many lay people who wrote interesting pages for church history did so because they were able to do it witnessing to the power of the Gospel in order to create fraternity and also be forgiving and praying for those who persecuted them.
- At a historical time marked by individualism, but where there is such a thirst for communion, the gift of community is a great grace. But building community is also a challenge. Gospel fraternity is built each day around the Word and the Eucharist. It is built around missionary ideals and in overcoming the thousand difficulties that appear along the journey, in dialogue and in discernment that seeks the will of God for the community and each one of its members. Gospel fraternity is expressed and grows in the commitment to build fraternity in our world, in those who live on the margin of our society and in the hearts of all people.
- Walking alone is not a sign of courage, but of fear to share the journey. The community helped each one of our brothers to be faithful even to the point of giving their lives for the Gospel. Their testimony encourages and inspires us to be able to embrace each other and to open our heart to our brothers. This is the first step toward being able to be part of a community of disciples of Jesus. Without this attire we cannot participate in the banquet of the Kingdom. To live and be thankful for the gift of community is another way to celebrate the beatification of our martyred brothers. To be creators of fraternity and to reach out to those who are waiting for a hand to hold and a heart to embrace them, is the invitation made by those who knew how to die forgiving and loving.
In the year of faith
- The “Year of Faith” began on October 11, 2012 to profess, celebrate and witness our faith. These are the three dimensions that Pope Benedict XVI proposed in order to live meaningfully this “year of faith” (Porta Fidei, n. 9). The Pope reminded us that this journey of faith starts by welcoming the call of Jesus to follow him and invites us to embrace the witness of faith:
-of Mary who believed and accepted the call of God and who transmitted to the disciples everything she had kept in her heart.
-of the apostles who left everything behind in order to follow Jesus.
-of the disciples of Jesus who formed the Early Christian community attentive to the needs of all.
-of the martyrs who gave witness to their faith with the gift of life and words of forgiveness for their persecutors.
-of those who have consecrated their lives to God leaving everything behind and taking the Gospel as the only norm of their lives
-of so many Christians who have fostered actions in favor of justice in order to give witness to the mission of Jesus who came to proclaim liberation
-of those who have professed the beauty of following the Lord in their family life, their work, their participation in public life, etc,. (Porta Fidei 13).
- In this Year of faith we embrace the memory of our martyred brothers. Aware of our “smallness” and all our limitations but with daring and generosity, we feel called to continue to write the missionary history of the Congregation that they graced with the beauty of their testimony.
Rome, April 1, 2013
Josep M. Abella, cmf