-Jose Felix Valderrabano cmf
1. WITNESSES OF THE WORD BY VOCATION
When we speak of the Martyrs of Barbastro, we are always struck by the valor and heroism of these brothers of ours who, despite their youth, showed a human maturity, a coherence of life and a fidelity to vocation that seems to elude us.
We feel that going so far as to suffer a violent death is something reserved for a privileged few. We certainly don’t feel called to achieve this goal of martyrdom. We are content to follow a sober way of life and decently fulfil our ministerial or community responsibilities. Life has made us realists, and we’re not accustomed to ask of it or of ourselves anything that experience has shown us to be a youthful utopian fancy. The drive toward radicalism that we felt in our novitiate and first profession keeps lessening to the point that we always feel troubled when we hear the warning of the Angel of the Apocalypse to “return to our first love.” Our eagerness to conquer the world for Christ or our desire to touch human hearts with the Gospel and the theology we have studied begins to boil down to cultivating those persons who frequent our little circle. In fact, it seems as if the power of Christ keeps weakening in us under the impact of our powerlessness and sinfulness, or under the weight and influence of society and its values.
As we look at our Martyrs and venerate them, we acknowledge that although they were flesh of our flesh, the power of God flamed forth brilliantly in them. Martyrdom is a gift of God, we say, because that is what we believe. We can see clearly that if it were not for God’s grace, they would not have been able to resist the first overtures of the militiamen, either their offers of freedom or their threats of violence. If we can’t even call on God without the help of the Spirit, if we can’t begin the way of following Christ unless He first calls us, still less could we accept martyrdom, which is a gift from God. As Francisco Castán confessed, “I never thought I’d be worthy of such a singular grace.”
This explains why they all felt happy and privileged to be able to show our Lord their love by shedding their blood for Him. Blasco told his father that the day of his first profession was a happy day, and that the day of his ordination would be even happier, but that “the happiest day of all would still be lacking.” Astonished, his father asked him, “What would that be?” “The day of my martyrdom.” That day would be seven years in coming. We could easily multiply such quotations from the writings of the Martyrs: “I die content, and I count myself happy, like the apostles, because the Lord has allowed me to suffer something for his love before I die” (Casadevall). “With a heart overflowing with holy joy,” Sánchez Munárriz begins his farewell. And this alone explains the way they console their families and try to share their joy with them. Agustin Viela tells his mother. “Rejoice at seeing a son of yours persecuted for the sake of God.” And Salvador Pigem told his mother, “Do not weep for me; I am a martyr of Jesus Christ…Mama, don’t cry for me. Jesus is asking me to shed my blood; I will shed it for love of Him. I will be a martyr.”
But in desiring Martyrdom, a grace for which we are told they used to pray an Our Father every day, they were not really asking for anything more than what they aspired to by their religious profession: to commit their life completely to God as an expression of their love, of their gratitude to Jesus Christ and of their utter fascination with Him. For them, martyrdom simply meant carrying to its fullness the gift of self they had made to our Lord. “I have often thought,” writes Javier Luis Bandrés, “that the greatest happiness I could have would be to be able to show our Lord how much I love Him with my life’s blood. It would be the most glorious end that my life could achieve. Doesn’t it seem so to you?” Not in vain did patristic tradition regard the religious life as a second baptism and a substitute for martyrdom. To reach the point that the Martyrs reached, namely, to pray for and accept martyrdom, is not more than having a clear idea of the vocation to which we have been called, to carry our consecration to its ultimate consequences. In contrast, our re]igious life decreases whenever the inspiration of the Spirit leading us to martyrdom ‑‑that is, to become detached from self and to die radically with Christ‑‑ grows weaker within us, and whenever we begin to lose the longing and will to entrust ourselves totally and exclusively to God.
Martyrdom, as a culmination of the religious life, is a gift of God. It is not enough just to acknowledge or even receive our vocation, “which is both a grace and a commitment” (SW 13). We must cultivate it, responding to its grace day by day, in all circumstances.
We are, by vocation, “missionaries,” men sent, not as preacher to religious verities, but as witnesses to the saving power of God, which we have experienced in ourselves, which we treasure and want to offer to others. “Our consecration becomes for us our first and primordial form of evangelizing” (MCT 149). It is our personal life, the response we make to the Lord, our dying to this passing world and our living for God; in the long run, it is the joy and peace we radiate that makes us convincing, that makes us true witnesses of Jesus.
To be a martyr is not something that is improvised; it is not some fruit that springs forth spontaneously. It is impossible to think of martyrdom as something gladly accepted as an undeserved and unexpected gift, unless it is based on a religious life lived with total intensity and depth. Knowing Jesus, relating intimately with Him, is the only thing that gives us the power to follow Him to the height of the Cross: “If we passionately love God, Mary and our brothers and sisters, we will perceive within us a power that will make us overcome our timidity, our fear, our complexes, our temptations to remain silent when we ought to speak out” (SW 17).
In the rite of profession and of ordination, we hear the words, “the Lord who has begun a good work in us, will bring it to fulfilment.” The Constitutions remind us to “take heart at the thought that it has always been God’s way to choose weak and frail instruments in order to shame the strong,” and that He will give us “the ability to accomplish our mission well” (CC 63). But we should not forget the recommendation that the Constitutions make a few numbers later: “They should strive to respond gladly and generously to God’s fidelity towards them, by their own fidelity towards God” (CC 67). Along with the enlightening example of the Martyrs, we will always have the maternal and heartfelt help of the Virgin Mary to rely on.
2. WITNESSES AND APOSTLES OF THE WORD
The young missionaries of the martyr‑Community of Barbastro were enthusiasts. They kept many dreams in their hearts. The intensity with which they lived their last days burst into bloom in their letters, exclamations, songs, offerings, prayers, confidences, etc. Some hoped to be sent to the Orient, others saw themselves giving popular missions
others devoted to ecclesiastical studies or attending to social problems… Their one charism appeared in the many‑splendored harmony of various personal charisms. They understood that mission is not only action, but is also ‑‑sometimes pre-eminently‑‑ passion. Not even the apostolate or the priesthood, though they were so important in their missionary life, was more relevant for them than what God was asking of them.
“I would not exchange my jail,” said Ramón Illa, “for the gift of working miracles, or my martyrdom for the apostolate, which was my lifelong dream.” “I would like to be a priest and missionary by offering the sacrifice of my life for souls,” wrote Luis Javier Bandrés. Luis Lladó said, “I die in peace, fulfilling my duty.” The absolute primacy of God in one’s heart makes everything else relative. For this reason, “all were content and, like the apostles, cheered one another for having been found worthy to suffer something for the name of Jesus.”
Thus says Father General in his Circular Letter.
Apostolic witness and serving the Word spring from our distinctive identity. It is not just a resolution that we formulate or a profession we have gone after and carried out like any other official assignment. The apostolic zeal of our Holy Founder sprang from his inner life, from his impassioned love for Jesus Christ and his heartfelt concern for the salvation of others. If he had not preached, if he had not sought the glory of God and the salvation of souls by all means possible, he wouldn’t have been himself.
A true apostle doesn’t have to impose some special burden on himself, though his vocation and mission demand that he give up many things and accept not a few sacrifices. An apostle knows that he is in the service of the Word, a Word that will carry him to martyrdom, to be a witness and to bear witness to the God he preaches, and that he will therefore be subject to rejection by some and at the service of others, or rather, of all. In any case, it will always presuppose sacrifice and commitment. Not always a commitment of blood, such as the Martyrs made, but indeed, a commitment of apostolic sufferings.
Our martyred Brothers do not teach us techniques for the apostolate, but rather, how to be true apostles. They set before our eyes the fundamental keys of the life of an apostle, and above all they teach us how an apostle gives his life in his mission and the kind of mettle he shows in facing suffering and death.
How was it possible for the Martyrs to sing on their way to Martyrdom and to regard themselves happy to be Martyrs and privileged to be able to suffer something for the love of Christ? Wouldn’t it rather have been normal for them to seek ways to escape and means to carry out their apostolic plans for converting many to Jesus Christ?
They knew that their blood, shed as Christ’s was shed, would be fruitful for the Kingdom of God. Several of them made a commitment, in virtue of their vocation, to spend their heaven praying for their brethren on earth and doing good for them, convinced as they were of the value of prayer and of the Communion of Saints.
But above all they knew that their death, like all apostolic sufferings, was not for their own sake but rather for bearing witness to Jesus. If the Martyrs had cast off their cassocks, denied their faith or renounced their profession, they could have saved their lives. The militiamen did not hate them personally, but rather, what they stood for: God, religion, the Church. When anyone rejects an apostle, he is rejecting God. An apostle’s sufferings do not come to him because of his personal characteristics, but rather because of his being a witness and envoy of God.
In this sense, every hardship that an apostle suffers is a reflection of the passion and cross of the Lord; it is the same hardship that the Lord underwent and an invitation to join oneself with Him. Our cross is the same cross of Jesus. Through it the apostle’s renunciations and sacrifices make sense and can be borne with love, joy and hope. That is why the Constitutions recommend, in the words of the Apostle, that we should not “boast at all, except in the cross of Christ” (CC 44), just after they have invited us to “rejoice in all sorts of hardships: hunger, thirst, nakedness, hard work, slander, persecution and every tribulation” (Ibid.).
May the Heart of Mary fill us with the ardour and fortitude that animated our brothers, so that we, today, may be witnesses and servants of the Word among all peoples on earth.
3. WITNESSES OF THE WORD IN COMMUNlTY
We Claretians form a community called together by the Spirit for the missionary proclamation of the Word. Word and community are essential and complementary terms of our vocation, of our charismatic identity in the Church. “We are a community called together in the Spirit for the missionary proclamation of the Word. In our charism, the Word of God is as essential to community, as community is to the Word (CC 13). Without the primacy of the Word, the primacy of the Word, the Claretian community would lose its reason for being. When marred by individualistic attitudes, our proclamation looses the community imprint which Claret stamped on us” (SW 7).
The Word should dwell in the community as it dwelt in Mary’s Heart: the Word welcomed and well assimilated unites us, it opens us up to the needs of human beings who suffer and hope in God, and it is light and salvation for the whole world.
Although this teaching is so clear and has been stressed so insistently, the
diagnoses of our situation during recent Chapters denounce a strong component of individualism in our communities and in our behaviour. We have still not managed to live, celebrate and proclaim the Word in solidarity. And it costs us to open ourselves effectively to the needs of the people and of other Organisms, because we are so self-centred.
Oddly enough, our Martyrs lived at a time when community values were seldom proclaimed, or at least not as much as they are today, at a time when community was almost identified with common life and when the value of personal responsibility was stressed above all, gave us a surprising and admirable example of fraternity and community feeling. Perhaps this was because they were holy and because the values of the Kingdom shone brightly in them. For us, the community of the Martyrs of Barbastro has become a model of missionary community. Community is not identified merely with the structure of community life, and fraternity is more than community organization.
Like all Christian communities, the Martyrs’ community arose through an initiative of God. Our Constitutions tells us that “Love for God and for our brothers and sisters has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit and builds up our communion” (CC 10). The deep love that each of us feels for the Lord is the most potent reason and the strongest bond for fraternity and community life. The leading role played by the Spirit is undeniable, His community building action is effectual, more effectual than our efforts to replace Him with methods, plans or relational systems. In the measure that love for God decays or obedience to His Word fails, our community life is weakened. Only the Word of God and love for God can bring cohesion and growth to our community.
Our Constitutions tell us that along with the Word, the Eucharist nourishes and expresses our fraternity (CC 12). We are struck by the Martyr’s eagerness to receive Communion and the high value that they attached to the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in their midst. Just think of the artful way in which they passed the consecrated hosts around in a bread basket, and of the way in which those who did not have the privilege of receiving Communion drew near to those who had done so, as if, or rather, because they were, living tabernacles.
The Martyrs’ community was a community nourished on faith and prayer. But we still have to add two further observations:
I) It was a community whose fraternity was expressed in manifold ways, always in keeping with the needs of each person and in the most opportune way.
2) If the Word led them to fraternity, mutual love drove them to help one another to be faithful to the Word.
Perhaps the best way to show this would be to understand Jose María Blasco in his moment of weakness and in his temptation to desert, and to respect the outcome of his decision. It would have been far easier or less committed of him not to interfere in the troubles of Casadevall, who was being pestered by a prostitute. Salvador Pigem could have looked to his own interests and could have sought his own freedom instead of remaining with his companions and facing certain death.
But that is not the way the Martyrs acted: “When we talk, it is to encourage one another to die as martyrs,” wrote Faustino Pérez on the underside of the piano footstool. They rallied around a brother who was weakening, in order to encourage him. They protected those who were tempted. They didn’t take an indifferent or distant posture, “respecting” their privacy or decisions. They acted decisively on behalf of their brother and his vocation,. and committed themselves to his fidelity. They were all responsible for the vocation of the rest because they had been personally called, and called together.
“The fact that they were in their initial formation,” writes Father General in his Circu]ar Letter, “did not prevent them from offering us even from jail an example of admirable maturity in the living of fraternity and the mystery of community.”
As we savor the warmth of their example, let us ask the Lord to open our hearts to others, to help us feel co‑responsible for one another and to find in our community the encouragement and stimulus to grow in fidelity to the Word that saves us.