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Catholic Heroes . . . Augustinian Martyrs Of El Escorial

July 26, 2022 saints No Comments


With the resurgence of socialist, leftist agendas in the West, it’s critical to memorialize in our hearts the many martyrs who lost their lives, sacrificed to Spain’s “Red Terror.” Nearly seven thousand shed their blood for the Church during the Spanish Civil War. The ones mentioned in this article are but a small portion of the 498 beatified by Pope Benedict XVI October 29, 2007. We outline first the history, which is unfamiliar to many.
The first group of many groups of martyrs was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II, who well knew the dangers of Communism. Pope Paul VI had stopped any immediate processes of canonization, because he felt 50 years should pass, and also, that Spain should be a democracy. John Paul II waited until 1987, fulfilling both the wishes of Pope Paul VI. Martyrdom is about faithfulness, not ideology, and many have sought to drag the Church into the debate, then and now, regarding Spain’s political history.
Socialists began persecuting Catholicism in the 1930s, coming to power shortly before the Spanish Civil War. They stole Church property and then made the Church pay rent, dissolved the Jesuits, and stopped Catholic teaching. In response, Pius XI issued the encyclical, Dilectissima Nobis, “On the Oppression of the Church in Spain.” They called themselves “Republicans,” but the term relates in no way to Republicans in the American sense. They were socialists, and worked together with the Communists in their rise to power.
Violent anti-clericalism became a hallmark of the movement. By the time the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, it was a crime to be a priest, a crime to go to Mass, a crime to be a Christian. An excellent interview exists by journalist Wlodzimierz Redzioch with Msgr. Vicente Carcel Orti, a Spanish historian and a member of the Curia who lived forty years in Rome. He said the Republicans were mere puppets in the hands of the Stalinist regime.
“Spanish bishops recognized the legitimate Republican government from the start. The problem, however, was that the Republican authorities had always been openly hostile to Catholics. After the events of the Asturias, in the summer of 1936, socialists, Communists, and anarchists started the most violent persecution in the history of Spain, aimed at the physical elimination of the Church, of both people and things; this persecution lasted until 1939.”
Today the news media and liberal academics love to malign Franco and praise the Republicans, as champions of the separation of Church and state. However, the ocean of blood was only stopped because of General Franco and his Nationalist army. That he would later become a dictator was not known by the Church.
Franco and the Nationalists fought to preserve the Church: People have a human right to freedom of religion and not butchery. However, the extreme left has always hated the Church.
Most of the Augustinians discussed here were in a community at the Escorial. They included the young in training, and others already brothers, friars, and priests. On July 18 (the date I write this column), 1936, military came to guard the monastery. And for three weeks nothing seemed to happen, and the religious carried on with their customary life. But on August 5, when they were at prayer, prior Angel Custodia Vega was told the next day they would be taken away.
With a spirit of joy, they gathered together and enjoyed a feast together. They felt almost like it was Christmas, their “last supper” together. The next morning Mass was celebrated and Confessions followed. Afterward, Communist militia appeared and took them away.
To receive an identity card, each had to state his profession. One by one the men stated, “Augustinian.” This was a crime, to be a religious. They were taken, all but one student, to a school, Colegio San Antón. There they had to sleep on the hard floor or benches or wherever for three months there. The one exception was Anthony Arriaga, a young man with them, who had an epileptic seizure and was taken away. Because he was praying with others in the hospital, he and the others were taken and shot. His last words were, “Long live Christ the King” or “Viva Cristo Rey!”
At last in November, their “trial” took place. They were asked where they lived. “The monastery.” They were asked if they were Augustinians. “Yes,” they said. And when asked if they would fight for the Republicans, they said, “Not with a gun, but the Red Cross or a hospital, yes.” That was it. They were driven away by bus. The location where they stopped November 28 is called Paracuellos de Jarama. Four hundred — including 12 Augustinians — were taken out.
The captors allowed Fr. Avelino Rodriguez, OSA, to say goodbye, and he blessed and embraced each of his brothers. His last words were: “We know that you are going to kill us because we are members of a religious order, and certainly we are. We confreres forgive you from our hearts. Long live Christ the King!”
On November 30 more prisoners were brought on the road, including 54 Augustinians, of whom three miraculously had escaped. They sang hymns together, gave one another absolution, and prayed for a good death. These, too, were shot to death by the execution squad. One of them, 23-year-old José Lopez Piteira, OSA, of Jatibonico, Camaguey, Cuba, is the first Cuban native to be beatified.
Thirty-three other Augustinians died, from seminaries or communities variously at Udes, Cuenca, at Gijon, Asturias, at Malaga and Caudete, at Albacete. Together this makes 98. Some of them were just young boys, in their teens. Others were old men, some even sick elderly friars. A part of the first group of Augustinians was driven away and imprisoned for some unknown reason near Madrid, instead of shot, and mysteriously made it through the war. But they, too, had been ready to die with their brothers.
Those who had escaped were witnesses to the death of their religious brothers. Antonio Perez, only 18, had said: “Tell my Mother not to weep for me. I’m dying for Christ!” Another, Deacon Nemesio Garcia, when asked where they were going had replied: “Look at Christ, our Master on the Cross. This is the beginning of our Cavalry!” Perhaps some of them stretched out their arms in the Sign of the Cross as they were shot to death.
“Albeit incomplete, the [martyrdom] figures are impressive: 18 bishops, 4,184 between priests and seminarians, 283 nuns and about 4,000 laymen were killed for helping or hiding priests or nuns” — Msgr. Orti.
There exists a Martyrs Cemetery at Paracuellos de Jarama, made up of several mass graves. Today it is still unknown how many thousands are buried there, but many religious are among them. One more Augustinian from this community was martyred, Blessed Anselm Polenco, but not until 1939. Prior provincial and a bishop, he stayed with his people and was also eventually executed. He was beatified earlier, October 1995, by Pope St. John Paul II.
Their feast is November 8 (Blessed Anselm is February 7) and the names of all the Augustinians are listed at the site.

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