Achieving Our Highest Aspiration, The Anchor, October 24, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
October 24, 2008

Last October 28 in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict presided over the largest beatification in the history of the Church, as 498 Spanish martyrs were raised to the altars.  

They were all killed in hatred of the Catholic faith during the Spanish Civil War, which terrorized Spain from 1936-1939. In the span of four years of anti-Catholic frenzy, leftist republican desecrated and burned to the ground hundreds of Churches and monasteries and executed nearly 7,000 priests, 13 bishops, 283 nuns and thousands of lay people.

One of the youngest of these martyrs has quickly become one of the most famous.

Blessed Bartolomé Marquez was orphaned at a very young age and was raised by his poor, hardworking uncle and aunt in the city of Pozoblanco in southern Spain. Having another mouth to feed was a sacrifice for them, but Bartolomé tried to make up for it by working extra hard in the chair-making shop they owned.

When he was 15, the Salesians opened a new high school in Pozoblanco and Bartolomé enrolled. The sons of Don Bosco quickly recognized that Bartolomé had tremendous intellectual gifts. They got him involved in study circles so that he could learn what he had missed as well as good study habits.  They lent him books, which he devoured. When he expressed a desire to write, they lent him a typewriter. Their investments would not go to waste.

Knowing that he was receiving a treasure, Bartolomé wanted to pass on the fruits of his study to others. He became a lay catechist at a time when lay catechists were rare. His amiability and love for the faith won over his students almost immediately. His personality and competence also helped him conquer his peers. When the young adults of his region were forming a chapter of Catholic Action, they elected 18-year-old Bartolomé, with his borrowed typewriter, as their secretary. He did not let them down — even when his position as an officer would lead to his arrest, sentence and martyrdom.

While he was home on leave from mandatory military service, the persecutions against the Church began. He was arrested on August 18, 1936 for refusing, as a Catholic lay leader, to participate in anti-clerical military campaigns in the north. On September 24, he was moved to a prison in Jaen, where, despite being mistreated, he rejoiced to be surrounded by fifteen priests and other Catholic lay leaders. When his trial came up, he could have saved his life by denying his faith and agreeing to participate in the republicans’ anti-Catholic pogroms, but he told the court that if he lived, he would continue to be an active Catholic.

With that, he was sentenced to death on September 29, two months before his 22nd birthday. When the guards came for him three days later to bring him before the firing squad, he kissed his handcuffs and removed his shoes so that he could walk barefoot to the place of execution and thereby “be more conformed to Christ.” When the guards placed him before the wall, they suggested he turn his back to the rifles, as most victims did, because it was comparatively less dreadful and painful. He politely refused. “Whoever dies for Christ,” he said courageously, “should do so facing forward and standing straight.” As he was showered with bullets, his last words were a triumphant, “¡Viva Cristo Rey!,” “Long live Christ the King!”

What has made him famous, however, is not so much this heroism before his executioners, but his tenderness toward his loved ones in two letters written the day before he died.

The first was to the aunt and uncle who raised him.  He told them that he rejoiced that he was about to die in the state of grace, enter fully into the passion of Christ, and pass into the place of those blessed to be persecuted for the sake of justice. He then gave them his dying wish, which was an echo of Christ’s first word from the Cross toward those who were responsible for his execution.

“Pardon. Pardon. And Pardon. The favor for which I’m asking needs to be accompanied by the desire to do all the good possible to my executioners. For that reason, I ask you to avenge me with the vengeance of a Christian: doing good to those who have tried to do evil to me.”

He begged them to continue as good Catholics. He asked them to take special care of his goddaughter’s religious education, saying that although he would not be able to complete his spiritual duties toward her on earth, he would be her godfather from heaven and would pray that she be a model for all Spanish Catholic women. He finished the letter by saying that he would await them all in heaven where he would be praying for their salvation. “Hasta el cielo. Os abrazo a todos” — “Until heaven. I embrace you all.”

The second letter, written to his girlfriend Maruja, is even more touching. I think it will go down in history as one of the most beautiful ever composed. It is fitting to print it on this day when we’re publishing a special supplement for engaged couples, for it shows how love for God is the deepest foundation for genuine romantic love.

“My dearest Maruja: Your memory will remain with me to the grave and, as long as the slightest throb stirs my heart, it will beat for love of you. God has deemed fit to sublimate these worldly affections, ennobling them when we love each other in him. Though in my final days, God is my light and what I long for, this does not mean that the recollection of the one dearest to me will not accompany me until the hour of my death.

“I am assisted by many priests who — what a sweet comfort — pour out the treasures of grace into my soul, strengthening it. I look death in the eye and, believe my words, it does not daunt me or make me afraid.

“My sentence before the court of mankind will be my soundest defense before God’s court; in their effort to revile me, they have ennobled me; in trying to sentence me, they have absolved me, and by attempting to lose me, they have saved me. … Because in killing me, they grant me true life and in condemning me for always upholding the highest ideals of religion, country and family, they swing open before me the doors of heaven.

“My body will be buried in a grave in this cemetery of Jaen; while I am left with only a few hours before that definitive repose, allow me to ask but one thing of you: that in memory of the love we shared, which at this moment is enhanced, that you would take on as your primary objective the salvation of your soul. In that way, we will procure our reuniting in heaven for all eternity, where nothing will separate us.

“Goodbye, until that moment, then, dearest Maruja! Do not forget that I am looking at you from heaven, and try to be a model Christian woman, since, in the end, worldly goods and delights are of no avail if we do not manage to save our souls.

“My thoughts of gratitude to all your family and, for you, all my love, sublimated in the hours of death. Do not forget me, my Maruja, and let my memory always remind you there is a better life, and that attaining it should constitute our highest aspiration.

“Be strong and make a new life; you are young and kind, and you will have God’s help, which I will implore upon you from his kingdom. Goodbye, until eternity, then, when we shall continue to love each other for life everlasting. — Bartolomé”