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Marist Bulletin - Number 313


The martyr is the one who does not save his life at any price

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Juan María Laboa Gallego (Pasajes de San Juan, Guipuzcoa, 1939), diocesan priest, incardinated in the Diocese of Madrid, has degrees in Philosophy and in Theology and a doctorate in the History of the Church from the Gregorian University in Rome where he gave courses for twelve years. He was a professor for fifteen years at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Alcala of Madrid, ordinary professor at the University of Comillas for thirty-five years and invited professor in various European and American universities. Founder and director of the magazine “XX Centuries of History of the Church”, among his books we should highlight “The Long March of the Church” (1985), “Historical Atlas of Christianity” (2000), “History of the Church, Contemporary Age” (2002), “Historical Atlas of Monarchism” (2003) as well as his collaboration with the book “Church and Intolerances: The Civil War” with the chapter “Reasons for the persecution”.
We interviewed Father Juan María at the Marist Conference in Madrid.

AMEstaún. The celebration of the beatification of Brother Bernardo, murdered at Barruelo de Santillán (Palencia) in 1934 and that of Brothers Laurentino, Virgilio and forty-four other companions, murdered at Barcelona, bring back to mind the numerous episodes of violence that marked the history of the twentieth century. Have you an explanation for the institutionalised violence of the twentieth century?
Juan María Laboa.
The twentieth century was a century especially traumatised by its institutionalised violence and by its massive non-discriminated murders or by its selective murders. Let us remember the more than one million Armenian deaths, the countless deaths of the communist dictatorship in USSR and under the Stalin terror, the two world wars and the extermination of the Jews, the thirty million deaths from hunger in China from 1958 to 1962, the violence of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and the wars in Africa, the death of a third of the Chinese population, the murders in Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. All had an explanation, but the explanation was always unacceptable.

The violence that was experienced in Spain after the Second Republic had renowned protagonists among the anticlericals. Is anticlericalism a justification of the errors of the Church?
Since the apparition of numerous writings, some illustrated and since the French Revolution, a furious anticlericalism marked a good part of the politics and culture of European countries of Latin origin, who, often, became intermingled with the development of social movements that accompanied the process of industrialisation. It is not reasonable to justify without discernment this anticlericalism with the possible sins of the Church which evidently it had committed. Historical anticlericalism surpassed in all its senses these apparent causes.

What are the motivations of the antireligious activities in republican Spain?
In the twentieth century, the night was “very long and very obscure” for Christianity. Antireligious persecution was not an accidental question of the policy of a country or of its politicians, but a permanent component of liberal countries and, in a special way, of all the soviet policy in its various versions. All Christians were considered as enemies by the various communist regimes.
Anthropological, ideological and symbolic motivations nourished the root of these persecutions. For their components, the ecclesiastics and the religious communities had to disappear to make way for a new society, without “religious alienation”. Beyond the historical-political motivations that one can examine, there existed a specific antireligious and identifying motivation. A dogma more or less conscious, more or less express, in all cases operational, consisted in that religion had to be eradicated from society.
In Spain, we have the example of Alejandro Lerroux, who, during a period of time, had so much influence in a few milieux, extolling a radical aggressive anticlericalism: “There is nothing sacred on earth. The people are slaves of the Church and we need to destroy it”, was his dogma a thousand times repeated.
The events in the Asturias showed the existing anticlerical climate, as much in the social domain as in the political and cultural domains. There is no doubt that the persecutions of 1934 and 1936 are inscribed in the great chapter of the struggle against the Church. They attacked a Church whose presence they wanted to eradicate.

The Marist Brothers who were murdered: Bernardo firstly at Barruelo, Laurentino, Virgilio and forty-four other companions at Barcelona, can we say that they are martyrs because they died for their faith?
Many of these martyrs do not die directly for their faith but for the attitudes that they have assumed due to their faith, for the coherence of their life led in their apostolate. Their life, in general, was simple, hidden and passed unnoticed, but their sole existence constituted the recall of a choice. This explains that poor and unknown people and famous preachers were murdered with the same rancour. Meritorious fighters in favour of social justice as well as Carthusian monks.
For some, has happened in Russia, the religious were perceived as a threat that prevented the ideological domination of the country.
In the martyrs is frequently combined interior integrity and fragility, in the sense of interior insecurity. The Church has never approved the seeking of martyrdom and heroicity does not demand a striking valour. It can be consequent and exemplary even when the pathway to the guillotine is travelled with fear and anxiety. Apart from the one who, despite the rare occasions that one offered him to save himself if he married or renounced his vow of chastity, we do not find cases of abandonment of their ideal. Numerous priests and religious and some bishops were given the chance to escape, but nearly all decided to stay with the people to whom they had been entrusted.

Many deaths battled for a just human cause or for values not always understood by the dominant ideology. Is martyrdom a confrontation of ideas?
In the concept of martyrdom enter the expressions of solidarity and involvement in the human cause, in the defence of values such as justice, love and solidarity, not always understood in the same way by the dominant ideologies of the moment. It is revealing and clarifying to show martyrdom as an attempt to eliminate Christianity as a reserve of faith and interpretation of humanity, not shared, by the persecutors. We need to integrate these martyrs in the struggle of the twentieth century in the defence of the rights of mankind and of liberty.

Are not martyrs victims of the history caused by others, victims of the inconsistencies and sins of the Church?
It is true that all of us are accomplices in the evil existing in the world and, in this sense, martyrdom could be interpreted as the judgement of a Church. Also, one could consider that the martyrs are frequently victims of history that others have caused with their decisions and their words. This is a very beautiful subject, but which breaks down if we confront it with complexes, masochism or jugglery. In effect, despite all the attempts at rationalisation, no justification exists for the crimes committed against people who, in the immense majority of cases, were not guilty of any fault or had they indulged in any political activity.

Christians have learnt from Jesus to forgive. “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” he said on the cross. A lot of murders belonged to uncontrolled groups: were they ignorant? Didn’t they know what they were doing? Who should be pardoned?
It is true that many martyrs were executed by people out of control, but one cannot forget a prolonged and controlled campaign of negative publicity, of myths and of scandalous propaganda which accused the religious of all sorts of faults and false crimes. The absurd character of a prolonged publicity and malicious accusations at the most dramatic moments did not prevent them being believed. The hatred manifested in many of the murders can only be explained by a great ignorance and by a bombardment of negative propaganda. The pre-Revolutionary anticlerical brochures and those existing during the French Revolution, with an enormous success in these events, explain to us what happened throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Church has traditionally given the appellation of “martyr” to the one who dies for his faith. Isn’t it an audacity and a martyrdom to live faith amidst a world with a strong opposition, a disdain or a marginalisation of faith? What is the sense of a martyr for the Church today?
A martyr is also the one who perishes in his active fight so that the demands of his Christian convictions are affirmed,” Rahner wrote, convictions that are opposed to certain dominant ideologies of the contemporary period of time. The martyrdom of the contemporary period has extended its motivations and its characteristics and, naturally, cannot be understood without the illustrated or cultural evidence of the nineteenth century or without the anarchist or socialist propaganda.
Throughout the century, we find an interminable list of priests and religious murdered for their defence of the poorest, the marginalised and abandoned. They are the martyrs of charity, of those who have maintained a life consistent with their vocation, martyrs of the injustice of an established situation that cannot bear putting limits to its impunity; martyrs for their fidelity to a Church that maintains values contradictory to those that dominate a country or a region at a determined moment.
The martyr is the one who does not save his life at any price. He is someone who believes and hopes, who announces the Gospel and who loves the Church, and continues his work and his testimony, even when his life is in danger, because he overcomes his fear. It is a matter of believers who do not renounce believing and living their faith, even in circumstances of incomprehension and of rejection. Many would have saved their life if they had renounced their faith or renounced working in the educational or charity domains of the Church. The way in which they lived their faith and their Christian vocation, with which they generously worked for the common good, helps to understand their acceptance of martyrdom, not because they were seeking it but because it was consistent with their usual form of living. They persevered in their vocation until death.

In your point of view, in what way can the beatifications of our brothers be converted into a stimulant for the Marists of the whole world?
Nowadays, the dominant mentality in a comfortable and middle class world, which also includes the believers, is concerned about the final consequences of fidelity to love, to a doctrine and to ideals. We are used to coffee without caffeine, sweets without sugar, beer without alcohol, etc. The martyr introduces us to the setting of personal consistency, to that of the consequences of love and of generosity, to the demands of the vocation itself. Martyrdom puts the focus on the mystery of the cross and there is neither cross nor martyrdom without love. For each of us, the gift of life itself constitutes a strong call and a challenge.

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