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Beatifications lay bare an old divide

Vatican recognizes 498 priests and nuns slain in Spain's civil war, seen as an affront to today's leftist leaders in Madrid.

October 29, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — Bitter memories of Spain's civil war were on center stage here Sunday as the Vatican put 498 slain Spanish priests and nuns from that divisive era on the path to sainthood.

The Mass recognizing the Catholic men and women killed around the time of the 1936-39 civil war was the largest beatification ceremony in church history. Thousands of pilgrims who traveled from Spain filled St. Peter's Square, waving yellow and red national flags and pictures of the newly beatified, whom the church considers to be martyrs.

"For a Catholic Spain, they died," read one huge banner.

However, the beatifications have stirred controversy in Spain, where critics accuse the Vatican of playing politics by recognizing one side of the war's protagonists.

Moreover, the timing of the ceremony, and the fact it was held at the Vatican with an appearance by Pope Benedict XVI, was seen by many as an ideologically motivated gesture of support for a Catholic Church at loggerheads with the current leftist Spanish government.

The church says the priests and nuns, as well as a handful of lay religious, were killed by pro-leftist forces because of their Catholicism -- "heroic witnesses of the faith," as the pope called them Sunday.

Many in Spain's Catholic Church sided with the Fascists led by Gen. Francisco Franco, who overthrew the elected leftist government, won the war and ruled as a dictator for nearly four decades, granting wide power and influence to the church.

Spain remains deeply polarized, and is struggling tortuously to come to terms with its past. This week, a hard-fought "historical memory" law goes before the Spanish parliament, acknowledging in the most comprehensive form yet the atrocities of the Franco regime while also giving a nod to those killed for their religious beliefs. It would finance exhumation of Franco-era mass graves, pay reparations to his victims and cancel summary court judgments against opponents of the regime.

The Vatican and organizers contended that Sunday's ceremony was not political.

"To beatify a martyr, or a group of martyrs, has no political meaning, but only exclusively a religious one," Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, a member of the ultraconservative Opus Dei organization, which is especially dominant in Spain, told an Italian newspaper.

Later Sunday, protesters scuffled with Catholic adherents outside a church known for its association with Opus Dei. The protesters displayed a banner that repeated graffiti that has popped up in Spain: "Those who have killed, tortured and exploited cannot be beatified."

They accompanied the banner with a replica of Picasso's Guernica, his famous painting inspired by the Spanish Civil War. The churchgoers tore up the image portraying the horrors of war as the two groups brawled, Italian television reported.

Benedict, unlike his predecessor, John Paul II, rarely presides over beatifications, so his choice to appear Sunday was significant. He did not attend Sunday's Mass, but as it concluded, he stepped onto his balcony above St. Peter's Square to bless the audience and salute the martyrs and their followers.

Martyrdom, he said, "is a testimony as important as ever in today's secularized societies."

"The beatifications today remind us of the importance of humbly following our Lord even to the point of offering our lives for the faith," Benedict added.

Spain was once one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. The current government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has trimmed Catholic Church budgets in public schools and pushed a liberal social agenda that includes the recent legalization of same-sex marriage and steps to make it easier to obtain abortions and divorces.

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, a Portuguese prelate who heads the Vatican department that oversees the making of saints, led Sunday's beatification and used it to emphasize Catholic teachings he said were being challenged in today's Spain, including the need to honor life "from conception" and marriage as solely the union of man and woman.

"We live in an era in which Christians are threatened in their very identity," he later told Vatican Radio, alluding to the struggle in Spain and adding that the faithful cannot live a "lukewarm Christianity."

The crowd in St. Peter's Square turned ecstatic at the pope's appearance. Many said they felt vindication for their histories.

"I have waited for this day for years," said Eulalia Caldes, a Spaniard in her 60s whose aunt, Catalina Caldes, was a nun killed in Barcelona on July 23, 1936. A family hid Caldes from militias for a while, then, fearing their own safety, turned her out.

"This is a huge support for our church, which has been a little down lately," said Aurora Serrano, 60, who came from Toledo, Spain, in support of Liberio Gonzalez, a priest killed in August 1936 at age 40. He was pulled from his home in front of his horrified mother, and his body was eventually riddled with more than 100 bullets, Serrano said.

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