Mass beatification revives memories of Spain's War

MADRID (Reuters) - The Catholic Church is preparing to beatify 498 of its members killed during the Spanish Civil War, putting them on the path to possible sainthood but reviving memories of a conflict that still divides Spain.

Most of those to be honored at Sunday’s ceremony in Rome, the biggest mass beatification ever and to be attended by thousands of Spanish pilgrims, were priests or nuns killed by left-wing militias at the outbreak of the 1936-39 war.

Many Catholic clergy and Church leaders sided with Francisco Franco in the conflict, which began when the general led a military coup against the left-wing government of the then Spanish Republic and ended with his installation as a dictator.

Over decades, the Church in Spain has gathered evidence that hundreds of its members died during the conflict for their faith, making them eligible for beatification. If the devout report miracles linked to praying to them, some could be considered for sainthood, a process which takes many more years.

But the beatification process has reawakened bitter memories of the Church’s role in the Civil War. The conflict is still a regular subject of furious debate in Spain and the Socialist government is promoting a law, opposed by the Church, to officially condemn the rule of Franco, who died in 1975.

“The Catholic Church hierarchy is missing an opportunity to publicly recognize its responsibility for supporting Franco’s military coup and helping the dictatorship,” said the Association for Historic Memory, which searches for mass graves of people killed by Franco’s forces.

The Church insists it does not wish a religious ceremony to be confused with a political statement.


“What will be celebrated is the memory of people who chose remaining true to their faith and the love of Jesus Christ over their own lives,” said Maria Encarnacion Gonzalez, a historian who oversees the Church’s Office for the Causes of Saints.

The hold of the Church is loosening on a country once overwhelmingly Catholic but now permits gay marriage. Yet anti-clericism, which spilled over into violence in the 1930s when thousands of members of religious orders were killed, still runs deep in part of the population.

Writing about the beatification, Spain’s biggest-selling newspaper, left-leaning El Pais, reminded readers of the Church’s opposition to the draft law to condemn Franco and recognize his victims, which the Church says could “reopen old wounds”.

El Pais also wrote that priests and seminarians “armed with pistols” had sometimes actively helped Franco’s men hunt their opponents.

Yet the Church had little choice but to back Franco during the Civil War, according to Gonzalez.

“It’s true the Church took sides in this fratricidal war, because it had been attacked so badly,” she said. “It’s also true that the Church criticized the (Franco) regime during the 1960s.”

She quoted from a letter sent by Bartolome Blanco to his family shortly before he was executed at the age of 21 in October 1936 for spreading Catholic propaganda:

“I know all those who accuse me .... Let this be my last wish: forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness,” wrote Blanco, one of the few laymen included among those to be beatified.