Most Americans know very little about the Spanish Civil War. During this violent time in Spain’s history, the anti-Catholic government openly persecuted Catholic churches, religious orders, and individuals. (For more information, see volume 6 of Warren Carroll’s excellent series, A History of Christendom) In August of 1936, this persecution was particularly brutal, which is why the Church’s calendar is particularly full of Spanish martyrs during that month.
On August 3, 1936, Blessed Salvador Ferrandis Segui* was arrested and shot because he was a Catholic priest. On August 8, 1936, Blessed Zephyrinus Jimenez Malla, a businessman and Dominican tertiary, was executed for hiding priests from the authorities. On August 19, 1936, nine Carmelite sisters were martyred together. On August 20, 1936, Blessed Maria Climent Mateu, a laywoman who was active in her church through the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and the Catholic Women’s Trade Union, was stabbed to death. The charges against these individuals had nothing to do with committing any serious crimes, but everything to do with their Catholic faith.
The Spanish Civil War and its persecution of Catholics lasted from 1934 to 1939, and it certainly was not limited August of 1936, although hatred of the faith was particularly virulent then. For example, the Church also celebrates Blessed Henry Morant Pellicer (a priest) on October 4, Blessed Joseph Llosa Balaguer (a layman) on October 7, Blessed Joaquin Pina Piazuelo (a religious brother) on November 10, and Blessed Jose Aparicio Sanz (a priest) on December 29, among many others.
Since some estimate that more than six thousand Catholic priests and religious were executed during the Spanish Civil War, along with many members of the laity, this list of blesseds is both too long (even one martyr is a tragedy) and too short (there are many more than can be listed here). But in the month of August we can remember that less than a century ago, it was a brutal time for the faithful Catholics of Spain.
* All the blesseds described in this post are included in my book, “Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year.”
Should the people who have died during recent violent protests be considered martyrs of Marxism? To answer that question, it’s important to first define some terms.
Since riots began occurring—and recurring—in our country, the word “Marxist” has often popped up in the news. At least one prominent leader involved in these violent, destructive protests has described herself as a “trained Marxist.” But what is a Marxist?
What is a Marxist?
For those of us who are not experts in this field, I would recommend two books that have helped me understand the economic systems of Marxism, Communism, and Socialism. For an excellent but easy-to-read explanation of the topic, see Can a Catholic be a Socialist? [The Answer is No—Here’s Why] by Trent Horn and Catherine R. Pakaluk. For a detailed understanding of the history of Communism from a Catholic perspective, see the always brilliant Dr. Warren Carroll’s The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution. What is the bottom line? While the individuals promoting these economic systems may have lofty goals about eliminating poverty and helping those in need, the methods they use—abolishing private property and giving the government control over the economy (as described in the first book)—inevitably result in a brutal, dehumanizing way of life for those who live in such states (as described in the second book), particularly Christians.
What is a martyr?
The Church currently has a careful, detailed process by which someone is declared a martyr and/or a saint. That process involves documentation, testimony, and careful research into the life of the individual to ensure that the person truly lived a holy, heroic life of virtue, and in the case of most martyrs, died specifically because of “hatred of the Catholic faith.”
An exception proves the point: Saint Maria Goretti is considered a martyr of purity. She was not killed by Alessandro Serenelli because he hated her Catholic faith, but her Catholic faith inspired her to fight back when he attempted to rape her. To be declared a martyr by the Church today, it must be clear that the person was killed specifically because he or she was a faithful Catholic, typically because of a refusal to deny a personal faith in God through some physical and/or verbal act.
Martyrs under Marxism
In my book about saints, I only included three men who have been formally beatified and declared to be martyrs under Communism by the Church. Blesseds Aloysius Stepanic, Nicholas Tsehelsky, and Roman Lysko were all Catholic priests living in eastern European countries when they were arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately executed by the Soviets, precisely because they were faithful Catholics and faithful priests.
It is indisputable that many thousands (perhaps even millions) of Christian men, women, and children in the twentieth century suffered pain, starvation, exile, imprisonment, torture, and death at the hands of Communist governments because of their faith. The true number of these faithful followers of Christ will never be known by us because totalitarian governments are so effective at hiding the evidence, though even mass graves cannot be hidden forever. For example, almost a hundred years ago, those who were sympathetic to Communism—most notably a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New York Times—successfully hid the fact that the Soviet Union intentionally starved three million Ukrainian men, women, and children to death. Fake news is not a recent invention.
Because of the large numbers of Christians who have suffered and died under Communism because of their faith, it would be impossible for the Catholic Church for formally investigate them all. So while these men and women may not fit the formal definition of martyrdom, that doesn’t mean their sufferings are unimportant or that their faithfulness should be overlooked. Ultimately, the Church is the Bride of Christ, and she cares for all her members as children. She is particularly devoted to presenting examples of holiness to them, hoping that they too will be inspired by the martyrs and other saints to follow in the footsteps of Christ and live holy lives, even in times of persecution. The saints, blesseds, venerables, and servants of God are held up to us by the Church, not because we can add anything to their happiness in Heaven, but because we can benefit by their examples.
What we can learn from them
Therefore, while the Church may not be able to precisely identify every person martyred under Marxism and while it may be a stretch to give the title of martyr to victims of recent riots, that doesn’t mean we should forget them. We can honor the Christians who lived in fear, died in labor camps, or were executed outright for keeping the faith, now and in the past, by learning what Marxism, Socialism, and Communism really are, rather than just the slogans they use, and finding out how these systems treat people of faith. Then we can pray for all the martyrs to show us how to do what Jesus would do.
All you martyrs under Communism, show us how to respond to violence with the peace and truth of Jesus Christ.
Note: On July 31, the date on which this post is being published, the Church commemorates Blessed Cecilia Schelingova, a religious sister who endured arrest and torture and who ultimately died because of the mistreatment inflicted upon her by the Soviets. Her crime? As a nurse, she helped priests who were being persecuted by the government. See her story here.