The year 1936 marks the beginning of a horrific civil war in Spain.
Perhaps you, like me, have no memory of learning about the Spanish Civil War in high school history class. After all, the number of war victims in the Spanish Civil War seems small in comparison to the millions who died in World Wars I and II, as well as the many other bloody conflicts of the twentieth century. It’s not surprising that history textbooks focus more on wars with simpler causes and larger death tolls.
What events led to the Spanish Civil War? In 1931, the king of Spain fled to England, and the government that was established soon afterward was generally described as ineffectual. Two sides formed to try to take control of the country: the Republicans and the Nationalists. The rest of the story is complicated1 but well worth understanding.2 However, for faithful Catholics in Spain, the choice was clear.
The Republican leadership was largely an alliance of socialists, communists, and anarchists. Their primary goal was not to peacefully transition their country to a better way of life for all Spaniards, but to lead a violent revolution that would overturn the existing government and establish some form of a communist state. Whatever valid complaints one might have of Nationalist leader Francisco Franco’s later reign as the fascist dictator of Spain, for Spanish Catholics at the time of the war, there was no real alternative. The Republicans were following the same playbook used in every other communist revolution, and one of the most familiar tactics in that struggle is to kill Christians.
In Spain, that meant killing Catholics. Following the obvious strategy that it is most effective to execute the leaders of those who oppose you, rather than the rank and file, the Republicans particularly sought out anyone in a cassock or religious habit.
That’s why Blessed Joan Huguet Cardona was killed. He had only been ordained a priest for a month when Republican militiamen entered his town of Ferreries. Because he was wearing a cassock, they found him quickly, arrested him, forced him to remove his cassock, and ordered him to spit on a devotional object (a kind of rosary) that he was carrying. When he refused to do so, he was shot. This occurred on July 23, 1936.
Granted, anti-Catholic persecution had been occurring throughout the country for several years, and the poor young priest might have been expected to be better prepared. But the superior of a Passionist monastery in the city of Daimiel knew very well that the situation had become dangerous on that same date of July 23. What could he do to protect the other Passionist priests, religious brothers, and young men who were studying to become Passionists, all of whom were under his care? When that superior, Blessed Nicéforo of Jesus and Mary (born Vicente Diez Tejerina), heard armed men approaching while the Passionists were at prayer together, he warned them that they were facing their own Gethsemane and gave them absolution and Communion. Some of those twenty-six men were shot immediately; the rest were allowed to leave but were followed by the Republicans and eventually tracked down and killed. Witnesses noted that they forgave their murderers before they were executed.
Also on July 23, Republican militia arrived at a monastery of Minim Nuns in Barcelona. Blessed Mother Maria Montserrat Garcia Solanas, who was their superior, along with eight other Minim nuns and a laywoman who assisted the nuns, were all shot and killed.
Late at night on the same day, Blessed Lluis Janer Riba, a diocesan priest, was awakened by Republican militiamen outside his window who ordered him to come down to the town square. When he arrived downstairs, they shot him.
On that same day in the Toledo region, Blesseds Pedro Ruiz de los Panos and Josep Sala Pico were arrested. They were both members of the Diocesan Laborer Priests, a priestly fraternity dedicated to the fostering of vocations. They too were summarily killed by Republicans.
In the Cordoba region of Spain on this date, a group of four diocesan priests, a seminarian, a husband, and a wife (all of whom are now also honored with the title of “Blessed”) were captured by Republican militiamen and executed.
Note that in all of these cases, there was never any pretense of a trial. Simply being a Catholic priest or a faithful Catholic was sufficient cause to be shot on sight. They were not executed for political activism, for any known crime—none of them were even armed—or to achieve a tactical goal in the war. They were simply hated for their faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, this makes it relatively easy for the Church to officially recognize them as martyrs.
There are more than two thousand martyrs of the Spanish Civil War in the Church’s current calendar, dating from 1934 to 1939. Unlike previous centuries where detailed personal records may be very limited, every one of those thousands of martyrs can be identified by name, birthdate, and generally even by photos. Pope Francis beatified a group of Dominicans who died as martyrs in Almagro as recently as June of 2022, and there are many other documented martyrs of the Spanish Civil War that he could beatify as well, should he choose to do so.
What does this gruesome litany of martyrs for just one day—July 23, 1936—teach us? It teaches us respect for the heroic virtue of forty-seven individuals who did not abandon their Catholic faith even in the face of death. It also reminds us that communism and our Catholic faith are always and everywhere incompatible.
But we cannot defend our Catholic faith or our martyrs if we don’t take the time to understand our history and their stories. Once we understand some of the complexities of the Spanish Civil War (which, granted, are not only hinted at here), we will be better equipped to respond to modern day propaganda against our faith and our heroes. And when we are challenged to deny our faith in numerous lesser ways than were experienced by these martyrs, we will be more likely to imitate their fortitude and their faithfulness.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!