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Reflections on Blessed Salvio

When the Church beatified 522 martyrs killed in the religious persecution that raged during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, among them was Salvio Huix-Miralpeix, the Oratorian Bishop of Lerida. Salvio was 58 when he was put to death, on August 5th 1936, at the very beginning of the Civil War, when Lerida had fallen into Republican hands; over the next two months or so, some 80 % of his diocesan clergy would suffer a similar fate. Ordained in 1903, Salvio had joined the Oratory of Vic in 1907, where he remained for twenty years until appointed Bishop of Ibiza in 1927, afterwards moving to Lerida, in Catalonia, in 1935. When those 522 Catholics were beatified at Tarragona, on October 13 last year, Blessed Salvio became the protomartyr of the worldwide Oratorian Congregation.

The beatifications were inescapably controversial, for reasons it isn’t difficult to discern. We confront here perceptions of the Church’s role in twentieth century Spanish politics. The undeniably close association of Spanish Catholicism with anti-liberal, anti-republican, aristocratic and monarchic sentiments and policies, before and during the Second Republic of 1931-36, begins to put hostility to the Church among certain sectors of Spanish society in some kind of explanatory context, though doubtless not the only salient one. After the Nationalist insurgence against the Republic in 1936, leading members of the Spanish Church wrote and preached openly in support of the insurgents as Crusaders against communists, anarchists, freemasons, liberals and Jews, acting ‘at the point of the sword’ in defence of Spain, the King and the True Religion. And the Spanish Church remained supportive and closely associated with the Nationalist regime of General Franco from his victory in the Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975, when a constitutional monarchy was established under King Juan Carlos.

The Civil War itself, the scene of Blessed Salvio’s martyrdom, lies at the heart of this history. It was astonishingly violent and remains profoundly divisive, above all in Spain herself. In the three years it lasted, perhaps 500,000 people lost their lives. These included, according to a consensus of scholarly opinion, around 38,000 executed in areas under Republican control, and 100,000 executed in Nationalist areas. Under the victorious Nationalists after 1939, an estimated additional 50,000 people lost their lives, especially in Franco’s anti-republican persecutions of the 1940s. Persecution of the Church began under the Republican government of 1931, and once the Civil War was underway such persecution escalated dramatically, occurring in fact on both sides – for example in Nationalist executions of priests who were chaplains to Republican forces – though without question it was very much more intensely and viciously pursued by the Republicans. Among the victims of wartime Republican atrocities, in fact, stand an amazing 6,832 bishops, priests, male and female religious and seminarians, of whom our own Blessed Salvio is one.

Now aside from the perhaps indecipherable truth about this terrible conflict, aside from all ideological positionings lending it a spurious and irresponsible clarity, is it possible to discern the Presence and Grace of Christ? Blessed Salvio and his fellow martyrs of religious persecution assure us that it is. We just have to know what to look for and where.

I think we find Christ in the fact that, after first Lerida Cathedral and then the Episcopal Palace had been attacked, and Blessed Salvio, by what seems to have been prior arrangement, had escaped, he nonetheless soon afterwards handed himself over to the police, in order to protect those who were appointed to hide him. The words he spoke in doing so – I am the Bishop of Lerida and I place myself under your protection – one might interpret in various ways. Was he naively expecting his episcopal dignity would be respected? Was he ironically, defiantly, showing that he knew better? Or was he in fact simply speaking the truth of a martyr bishop, whose dignity lies ultimately in his configuration to Christ the Word, the One Who emptied Himself for the sake of those who would kill Him – a dignity and a destiny therefore truly, if paradoxically (with the paradox of the Gospel) protected, ensured, by placing Himself, undefended, in their hands?

We find Christ again in the fact that on the morning of August 5th 1936, when Blessed Salvio and 20 others were digging what were shortly to become their own graves, he asked only one favour of his captors, which was granted him, that he should be the last to be shot, so that he could stay alive to bless his companions as each, in turn, was killed. Here again Salvio chose His share in the redemptive solitude embraced by Christ Himself. Here again He showed the authentic meaning of martyrdom, which is nothing other than participatory imitation in the Passion and Death of Christ. What the martyr shows, witnesses to, in other words, is the love of Christ, in both senses of those words: his love for Christ, certainly, but, most importantly, the martyr witnesses to Christ’s love for us.

The classical understanding of martyrs like Blessed Salvio is that they are killed out of hatred for the Faith. The martyr is someone practising his Faith, or perhaps attempting to convert others, and who is put to death out of opposition to the Faith itself, for no other reason than to prevent it – as far as possible – from being adhered to or communicated to others.

But these expressions – hatred of the Faith, ‘opposition to the Faith itself’ – inescapably plunge us into the complexities of real history, and never more so than in the case of the Spanish Civil War. To hate the Faith, to oppose the Faith itself, a person would have to have a more or less adequate understanding of what the Faith actually is. Is it clear that those who have put the martyrs to death have always had such an understanding? Or have they sometimes, at least in part, seriously misconceived the Faith, and acted according to their misconceptions?

Such misconceptions might of course be entirely their own fault. But sometimes they might have been caused, or at least assisted, by people of Faith themselves. The Church recognizes quite generally that believers frequently bear some responsibility for others rejecting what they believe. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, [to] the extent that they neglect their own training in the Faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, [believers] may be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion. Now contrary to what some of us might be tempted to think, this teaching isn’t an unprecedented and faint-hearted concession to contemporary secularism. Here is St Augustine, for example: The saints themselves are not free of daily sins. The Church as a whole says, ‘Forgive us our trespasses!’ She thus possesses spots and wrinkles. But through confession the wrinkles are smoothed out, the spots washed away. The Church stands in need of prayer, in order, through confession, to be purified, and as long as men live on earth, [it is in need of confession and purification that] she stands….St Thomas Aquinas also says as much: To be ‘a glorious Church not having spot or wrinkle’ is the ultimate end to which we are brought by the Passion of Christ. Hence this will be in Heaven and not on earth, in which, ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’, as it is written. If anything, the words of Augustine and Aquinas are more emphatic than the text of the Second Vatican Council. For the Council speaks only of believers, whereas Augustine and Aquinas speak of the Church. It would be perfectly consistent with their teaching to say that the Church herself on earth can sometimes, in the Council’s words, conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion. In the context of the Spanish Civil War, this thought is worth bearing in mind.

But in a given time and place the failures of the Church, if such they be, are never the final word about her. This is what the martyrs show. They are both the seed of the Church and the highest expression of her Faith. As the Catechism says, martyrdom is witnessing to Christ even unto death, which means witnessing to Him by dying in union with the death He died. It doesn’t ultimately matter, from this perspective of redemptive suffering, whether, in the concrete historical circumstances which produces the martyr’s witness, there existed true hatred of the Faith or something more ambiguous, an ambiguity for which the Church herself may have a share of responsibility. Martyrs cut through all this. As Pope Francis said, in his message at Blessed Salvio’s beatification, the martyrs [imitate Christ] in love until the very end, which is why, in the Pope’s words, beyond all human conflict, they nourish hope and foster brotherhood and solidarity.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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