Sunday, 28th October 2007 is remembered as the date of the beatification of 498 people who gave their lives in witness to their Christian faith during the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936. Of those martyrs, ninety-eight were Augustinian friars: priests, brothers and seminarians. The majority of them belonged to the various Augustinian communities of The Escorial, the royal palace monastery near Madrid.
In the long history of the Order of St Augustine in Spain, since 1885 Augustinian friars have occupied the monastery in The Escorial where they staff its educational facilities and its church. In 1936 the community there included about thirty Augustinian students for religious life, training to be Augustinians. Some of them were aged only in their twenties, and others still in their late teens. On 18th July 1936, the day after the Civil War began, the police took up guard at each entrance to The Escorial. There were well over one hundred Augustinians of various ages, occupations and stages of training within the building. For almost three weeks the timetable and activities of the community were carried on as usual while the friars waited for the next move by the police.
That move came on 5th August 1936. The police ordered the friars to prepare to be moved to Madrid the following morning. The significance of that move and its possible outcome were not lost on anyone in the community. The members encouraged each other and an extraordinary atmosphere of almost joyful anticipation developed among young and old alike. Responding to that mood, and knowing the value of a festive meal in promoting a feeling of friendship and solidarity in a community, the Prior decided to give everybody a treat. When they gathered together for supper, they found the tables prepared for a great feast.
For fifty-three of those who sat down to enjoy that meal, it was their last supper together. Next morning the friars attended Mass and received Holy Communion. Three old buses, with armed communist militiamen in each of them, took them to the State Security Office in Madrid, where they were individually interviewed for a police identity card. Each Augustinian had resolved beforehand to state clearly that he was an Augustinian friar. When the issuing of identity cards was completed, the friars were placed in the police lock-up for the rest of the day. Anthony Arriaga, a young Augustinian student, suffered an epileptic seizure and was taken to a hospital. There he was befriended by a Marianist Brother with whom he began to meet at night for prayer and mutual support. On 30th August, Anthony was taken away with four other persons and all five were shot. The Marianist Brother survived the persecution. He later testified to Anthony’s martyrdom, stating how some men who were present at the shooting told him how the five died bravely, proclaiming, “Long live Christ the King!”
Late in the afternoon the Augustinians were taken from the police lock-up to a school building which had been commandeered for use as a prison. There they were housed together in a large study hall. Classroom benches and chairs offer little in the way of comfort for either the old or the young, and bare boards provide a hard bed equally for all. But this was their accommodation for several weeks. It was rumoured that the Government would release intellectuals if they identified themselves and asked to be released. At least ten of the imprisoned Augustinians were well respected professors. But there was no way that these men would abandon their community, they would neither seek nor accept any offer of release.
Great psychological pressure and even torture were brought to bear on the young students by their communist guards, to have them deny their faith in God in order to gain freedom; not one chose that kind of freedom. Their courage was inspirational. In late November 1936, the prisoners were brought before a tribunal which followed a set pattern and lasted barely five minutes. Each friar was asked his name and the same questions: “Where were you before you came here?” On answering “In the monastery of The Escorial”, he was asked “Are you an Augustinian?” When he answered “Yes”, he was asked: “Are you willing to fight to defend the Government?” The standard answer the Augustinians gave to that question was: “With a gun, no! With the Red Cross or in a Hospital, yes!”
That was it. In most cases the verdict was a death sentence, simply for remaining faithful. On 28th November some 400 prisoners, including twelve Augustinians, were taken to an isolated place, with a scattering of pine trees, called Paracuellos de Jarama. Armed assassins, standing near some deep trenches, awaited their arrival. Fr Avelino Rodriguez O.S.A. asked and was granted permission by the commander of the guards to say farewell to his confreres. He made the sign of the Cross on each one and embraced him; then he loudly proclaimed, “We know that you are going to kill us because we are members of a religious order; and certainly we are. I and my confreres forgive you from our hearts. Long live Christ the King!” Shots rang out and the victims fell or were thrown into the trenches.
The next day more bus loads of prisoners, including Augustinians, were taken away. For some unknown reason, their fate was simply imprisonment in Alcala de Henares, a town near Madrid, and they survived the persecution. Among them was Fr. Luciano Rubio O.S.A. who decades later was elected Prior General (international leader) of the Augustinians in 1959.
Photos (at right): Picture 1: One side of the Escorial Picture 2: The main monastery refectory in the Escorial Picture 3: External entrance to Escorial church courtyard
The road to Paracuellos de Jarama was the fate of many more on 30th November. Of the fifty-four Augustinians taken to the buses on that day, three young students were freed before boarding them. One was secretly freed by his brother who was among the prison officers. The second received his freedom because of some confusion about surnames. The third attributed his escape to his “guardian angel”. As he stood waiting to enter the bus, an unknown person came up behind him, cut the tie on his hands and whispered, “Don’t look back! You have been born again today. Run into the building!” All three students survived and gave accounts of the courage of their companions waiting to board the buses: how eighteen-year-old Jose Antonio Perez told a friend from his home town who was being left behind, “Tell my mother not to weep for me. I’m happy to die for Christ”. And the answer the deacon Nemesio Garcia gave a fellow student who asked him, “Where are we going?” “Look at Christ, our Master on the Cross”, he replied, “This is the beginning of our Calvary!”
On the road to Paracuellos de Jarama the prisoners prayed and sang hymns. The priests gave absolution to each other and to everyone travelling on that sad but memorable journey. Fr Juan Monedero O.S.A. led them in prayer, asking God for the gift of constancy. They emerged from the buses calm and ready to face death; it that was remarked on later by their assassins.
In two days sixty-three Augustinians were martyred at Paracuellos de Jarama. Two others had already been shot, bringing the total number of martyrs from the community of The Escorial to sixty-five. Add to that number: 10 from the seminary at Udes, Cuenca; 9 from the community in Gijon, Asturias; 4 from the community at Malaga and 10 elderly or sick friars residing at the infirmary in Caudete, Albacete and you have the ninety-eight who died in 1936. But we should also include here Blessed Anselmo Polanco O.S.A., an Augustinian who was bishop of Teruel and martyred in 1939. He was beatified by the late Pope John Paul II in 1995.
What was it that enabled those men, so different in age and attainment, to remain faithful? It seems to me that, under God, it was loyalty to their community; the support they gave to each other. Each conveyed God’s love and care to the others. Each received strength from his brothers. Augustine’s Rule tells us, “honour God in each other, because each of you has become his temple”. That admonition instructs Augustinians to serve God in people. Mutual support for people, conveyed through conversation and companionship or by just being present with each other in friendship, is as important as praying together.
Enabling that community in The Escorial to experience the happiness and solidarity in sharing a last meal together was a very Augustinian thing to do. It also gave a foretaste of the heavenly banquet awaiting them.
Photos (at left):Picture 1: An internal garden of the Escorial Picture 2: A monastery corridor in the Escorial Picture 3: Some Escorial spires in winter This material was prepared by Fr Patrick Codd O.S.A. (Ireland), and is used here with his generous consent. (AM602)
Augustinian Martyrs of Spain. Blessed Avelino Rodríguez, O.S.A. and Companions. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was a time of great difficulty for the Church in general, and for priests and friars in particular. More than 7000 priests, friars and nuns were martyred. Their crime: being a priest or religious. In addition, more than 3500 lay persons were martyred in witness to their Christian faith. This page is presented by the Midwest Augustinians, USA. http://midwestaugustinians.org/bl-avelino-rodriguez-and-martyrs-of-spain