Visiting The Seminary For Martyrs, The Anchor, September 14, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
September 14, 2012

At the beginning of September I went to Spain to do a retreat and a continuing formation course for priests in the Pyrenees. In addition to a lot of time for prayer surrounded by natural and artistic beauty, some very thought-provoking lectures on the upcoming Year of Faith, many new friendships with 29 priests from Spain and the obvious opportunity to improve my Spanish, the retreat center was also strategically situated to provide some incredible excursions: a pilgrimage to Lourdes, something I’m always ready to do, but even more important now that I’m pastor of a parish dedicated to St. Bernadette; Barcelona’s famous and recently dedicated Basilica of Sagrada Familia; the breath-taking mountain shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat; the cave in Manresa where St. Ignatius of Loyola began writing his “Spiritual Exercises”; the Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar in Zaragosa; some incredible mountain hikes and more.

It was a very rich interior and exterior pilgrimage, but the most unforgettable stage on that itinerary was totally unexpected. One afternoon, two carloads of us went to a small city called Barbastro where we visited the birth place of St. Josemaria Escriva, the Spanish priest and Apostle of the Laity canonized a decade ago by John Paul II who founded Opus Dei to help lay people to become holy in the midst of daily lives and work. As we were thanking the woman who gave us the tour of the house in which he was born, she asked if we were going to go to the shrine housing the relics of the Claretian martyrs. Most of us had no idea what she was talking about, but we said we were interested. She gave us directions and told us to hurry, because she thought it was about to close for the day.

We arrived at 7:20 p.m., 20 minutes after closing time. But the door was still open and I entered and spoke to a religious Brother inside, asking if it were still possible to visit the relics. He said that they had just closed for the day but, sensing a different Spanish accent, he asked me how far I had traveled to get there. “De los Estados Unidos,” I responded with a smile. He graciously said that, considering I might never make it back there, he would give me and my brother priests a tour after hours.

Using models and diagrams, he told the story of the Spanish Civil War and how on July 20, 1936, a group of anarchists firing muskets burst into Barbastro’s Seminary of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, popularly called “Claretians” after their founder St. Anthony Mary Claret. They rounded up all those present: the three priest formators, the seminarians preparing for priestly ordination, and the Brothers of the community who worked in the seminary and received formation, 51 in all. After taking a census and roughing some up for sport, the three priests were brought to the city jail and the rest were brought across town to another religious house that the anarchists were using as a makeshift holding cell. Over the course of the next month, they were taken in waves to be slaughtered: first the priests on August 2, shot in the cemetery; then the six oldest of those who remained, who were scourged with wires and cords to the point of death and then shot; on August 13 and 15, in two groups of 20, the Claretians prepared for and celebrated the Assumption of Our Lady by seeing her in person; and on August 18, the two last Claretians, who had been sick, were executed.

The brother then took us into a room unlike any I had ever seen, even at Auschwitz. There were display cases featuring the bullets that had been taken from the bodies of several of the martyrs and then guns that had been used to shoot them. Other displays featured their breviaries, opened to the Common of Martyrs, which they prayed every day as they prepared to become martyrs themselves. There were hymn books featuring the sacred music they would chant as they were incarcerated awaiting their fate. The silver tabernacle in an adjoining chapel was made to look like a bread basket, because each morning the person whom the anarchists sent to bring them bread would also smuggle the Eucharist hidden within the basket. There were display cases with front pages of the Socialist Worker newspaper, proclaiming with joy that they had bombed the Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar, were extinguishing religion after millennia of ignorance, and executing priests, religious and seminarians.

When we got to the room with the remains of the 51 martyrs, arranged in small, transparent caskets with their names on the outside and their bones visible on the inside, we all knelt down to pray right before them. After I opened my eyes, I looked at the remains in the casket in front of me, a seminarian named Josemaria Ormo. The first thing I noticed was the bullet hole into the top of his skull, meaning that he was shot kneeling. I called the attention of the priest next to me to it and he then pointed out to me the crushed skull of the martyr’s remains in front of him. We were both stunned.

It’s hard to believe that not even that was the most powerful part of the visit. The letters they wrote were. While the Claretians were awaiting their deaths, they wrote to their families, fellow Claretians, murderers and the whole Church on any writing materials they could find — on the bottoms of piano benches, on wrapping paper for chocolates, on the insides of walls — hoping that these last testaments would be discovered after their death.

One of the seminarians wrote in Latin a phrase that indicated their bravery, that they saw themselves as the successors of the valiant gladiators of old: “Christe, Morituri te salutant,” “O Christ, those who are about to die, salute You!”

But their overall message was one of comfort to their families of origin and in religious life, telling them not to be sad, but to rejoice, because they were about to be martyred and would pray for them from Heaven. They wrote that even though they would not have the chance to preach the Gospel from pulpits, they would preach it even more powerfully by their witness and, like St. Therese, spend their eternity doing good upon the earth. Finally they wrote that they forgave their assassins, begging God to accept the shedding of their blood as a prayer that He not hold their sins against them.

Pope John Paul II, who beatified them all on Oct. 25, 1992, said that they were the most illustrious graduates a seminary could ever have, and called their house of formation a “Martyrs’ Seminary,” a place that prepared them not only to celebrate the Mass but to enter fully into Christ’s passion, mercy, death and resurrection and show others how to do the same. On this day in which we celebrate the triumph of the Cross, we remember how they preached this mystery 76 years ago.