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Marist Bulletin - Number 314


The gift of life - Beatification of the 47 Brothers martyred in Spain

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Message of Br. Seán D. Sammon, Superior General of the Marist Brothers, during the Marist celebration at the Sanctuary of the Maddonna del Divino Amore, Rome.

On the 20th of September 1936, a young man by the name of Julio Garcia Galarza was arrested and imprisoned in Barcelona. He was 27 years of age at the time and from the Burgos region of Spain. Taken into custody with him that same day were two other men: Santiago María Sáiz, age 23 and Félix León Ayúcar, age 24. As frightening as arrest and imprisonment might have been for these three, all were probably unaware of the fact that in just over two weeks time they would be dead.
Twenty-seven has its charm; so also does 23 and 24. At those ages the bulk of life most often still lies ahead. And so, with time to burn, we dance from one interest to another, struggle to find our place in this world, and wonder about the role of faith in the midst of all that is unfolding. Not so these men. As young people of their age, they carried with them all the joys and burdens of being in one’s twenties. But because they were also men of integrity, they had greatness thrust upon them. Not passively but because of their free acceptance of the consequences of their beliefs and actions. Jesus Christ meant more to them than life itself.
However, let us never romanticize martyrdom for the price it exacts is one’s life, and who among us seeks to die. Lord Chancellor of England Sir and Saint Thomas More, for example, imprisoned in the Tower of London because of his refusal to sign the Oath of Royal Supremacy as Henry VIII demanded, sought every legal means of resolving his dilemma. When he had exhausted his options, however, More stood ready to surrender his life for what he believed. When faced with the choice between betraying their beliefs and life, martyrs count the latter of lesser value.
Let us also remember that the men whose lives and sacrifice we mark this weekend were ordinary men, not much different than you or I. Santos, for example, was the son of farmers, while Jesús came from a family of millers. And while Santos entered the juniorate at age 12, Jesús was what in those days would have been known as a late vocation. He entered the novitiate at Les Avellanes at 27.
The youngest among our martyrs was Carlos Rafael, age 19. He was known for his optimism and candor. The oldest of the group, Epifanio, who from the beginning sensed the fate that awaited all who went aboard the ship Cabo San Agustin on October 7th, 1936, was 62 years of age. Known as an excellent teacher, he had served as Superior of several communities and Director of many schools. At the time of his death, he was a member of the Provincial Council.
Yes, they were ordinary men, but they lived extraordinary lives. And, they were able to do so because they were also men in love with God. Like our founder, Marcellin Champagnat, they had come to understand that Jesus was at the center of any life lived well, and that a passion for him and his Good News was the chief characteristic of the way of life they had chosen for their own.
Like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom many judge to have died a martyr’s death during World War II, these brothers of ours were men for whom God was real and always near. Brother Diogen, Superior General at the time reminds us that “When God asked them for their lives, in all self-knowledge and humility they acquiesced.”
On reading the account of the last hours in the life of our youngest martyr, Carlos Rafael, I could not help but think of Bonhoeffer and his final days. On Sunday, April 8th, 1945, as he was ending a worship service in the prison where he was being held, the door to the room opened and two civilians entered. They said, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.” For all present, these words had only one meaning—the gallows. They bid him farewell, but before leaving Bonhoeffer took one of them aside and said, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” He was hanged the next day.
Carlos Rafael, the Benjamin among our martyrs, on seeing that those who left San Elias prison were not returning realized that he and his fellow brothers would meet their fate. With this knowledge in mind and the innocence that only a 19 year old could have, he was moved to tell a neighbor: “We are also going to die as martyrs and we will go to heaven. What luck!”
But what lesson do the lives and deaths of these brothers of ours hold for us today. We know that they have taken their place among the Communion of Saints and are part of a long line of martyrs from Spain, including our brothers who died in Bugobe. But what lesson do their lives and death have for us? Several actually. First of all, our brothers were teachers in the best sense of that word, teaching through the example of their lives. Like our founder they had set their hearts upon making Jesus known and loved among poor children and young people. Like all martyrs, they had come to take the gospel seriously.
Second, by their lives and deaths, these brothers of ours teach us about the importance of reconciliation. For, to be martyrs they had, first of all, to forgive those who took their lives. All wars are bitter, civil wars perhaps more than most. For they set father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother. In their aftermath, the work of healing and reconciliation can be as painful as war itself.
For any nation, the wounds left by a war never seem to heal on their own. Forgiveness is the only real remedy. For forgiveness leads to healing, and healing leads to reconciliation, and reconciliation leads to new life. If the lives and deaths of the men whose witness we celebrate today are to mean anything, they must be the catalyst for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation in the lives of each of us.
Martyrs are dangerous people. Not because of their beliefs for we all have beliefs. But due to the fact that they are willing to take action because of those beliefs. They know full-well that the gospel makes little sense unless it is visible in the words and actions of those who claim it as their own.
The 20th century is often referred to as an era of extraordinary progress in science and technology. However, it will also be seen through the prism of history as a time of great killing, the mass murders of peoples simply because of who there were or what they believed. And our brothers who died in Spain in 1934 and 1936 will be numbered among those who gave their lives so for someone greater than life itself: our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot but admire them; we would do better to imitate them.
Life is a precious gift. Each of us has but one, made up of a limited number of years. And while life is freely given and ours to make of it what we will, the length of its days is not ours to determine. Some among us are taken prematurely due to accident or ill-health. The promise of our lives is perhaps not realized fully.
Others live many years beyond what might be expected; they witness great change, innovation, progress. But in every generation, there are also those few who achieve greatness through the free surrender of their lives. Cherishing God more than life itself, they leave a legacy that spans the centuries. On October 6th, 1934, Plácido Fàbrega Julià, known to us as Brother Bernardo, took his place among them. Two years later Mariano Afonso Fuente, known to us as Brother Laurentino, and 45 other confreres did the same. Let us give praise to our God for the lives and witness of Blessed Bernardo and Blessed Laurentino, as well as those of Blessed Carlos Rafael, Blessed José Federico, Blessed Ramón Alberto, Blessed Juan Crisóstomo, Blessed Gabriel Eduardo, Blessed Santiago María, Blessed Félix León, Blessed Alberto María, Blessed Ismael, Blessed Frumencio, Blessed Vulfrano, Blessed José Carmelo, Blessed Hermógenes, Blessed Victorino José, Blessed Vivencio, Blessed Santos, Blessed Gil Felipe, Blessed Dionisio Martín, Blessed Martiniano, Blessed Lino Fernando, Blessed Miguel Ireneo, Blessed Porfirio, Blessed Isaías María, Blessed Ángel Andrés, Blessed Jaime Ramón, Blessed Juan de Mata, Blessed Víctor Conrado, Blessed Fortunato Andrés, Blessed Santiago, Blessed Licarión, Blessed Gaudencio, Blessed Vito José, Blessed Virgilio, Blessed Felipe José, Blessed Antolín, Blessed Teódulo, Blessed Laureano Carlos, Blessed Prisciliano, Blessed Baudilio, Blessed Leopoldo José, Blessed Salvio, Blessed Leónides, Blessed Anselmo, Blessed Bernabé, and Blessed Epifanio. Pray for us. Amen.

Seán D. Sammon, FMS
October 27th, 2007

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