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Teens, priests, pastoral workers and nun among martyrs beatified in Spain

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CÓRDOBA, Spain — More than 100 victims of Spain's 1936-1939 civil war moved a step closer to sainthood after being beatified as martyrs for the faith. They included two teenage boys as well as an 88-yar-old nun who died of bullet wounds after being tied to a window as a human shield.

More than 3,000 people gathered Oct. 16 for the beatification Mass in Córdoba's sixth-century cathedral for Father Juan Elías Medina and 126 fellow martyrs, all killed by anti-clerical forces at the start of the four-year conflict.

The Mass brought to more than 2,000 the number beatified or canonized from the Spanish conflict, during which 2,000 churches were destroyed and up to 8,000 Catholic clergy and religious order members killed, along with a dozen bishops and tens of thousands of lay Catholics. Father Medina, from Castro del Río, was arrested in July 1936 while serving as rector of his home parish and was shot with 14 others at the town's cemetery, after assuring his mother in a letter, found in his breviary, that he was "dying content."

The Córdoba Diocese said the 33-year-old priest had been noted for work among the poor and sick and had refused to deny his priesthood while held in a town hall basement. It added that the "brutal executions" had formed "part of a climate of persecution imposed by republican militia against all those daring to profess membership of the church."

A Córdoba-born teenager, Francisco García León, president of a newly founded Catholic youth organization, was thrown in jail at Montoro with his father for refusing to remove his scapular. The 15-year-old was killed alongside dozens of other prisoners with dynamite and axes, when nationalist troops attacked the town.

Another 15-year-old, Antonio Gaitán Perabad of El Carpio, was arrested with his father and cousins and shot with them at the town cemetery after rejecting an invitation to flee from republican guards.

The beatified included six female pastoral workers, ages 26 to 77, from the Santa María de las Flores Parish at Posadas, who were taken overnight to a farm near the town and thrown down a well after being tortured.

"It is difficult to draw up a biographical profile of these six women as there is no ecclesiastical documentation on them, since the Posadas parish archive was burned at their deaths," the diocese said.

"But none had any known political affiliation or was registered with any political party. They died only because they were Christians, and because of their closeness to the Catholic Church."

The only religious sister beatified, Mother María Josefa González Rodríguez, was 88. She chose to stay in Baena when republican forces occupied the town, looting and burning its church, and died from bullet wounds after being tied with two priests to a convent window as a human shield against attacking nationalists.

Two brothers, Antonio Montilla Cañete and Manuel Montilla Cañete, ages 22 and 17, both studying at Córdoba's San Pelagio Seminary, fled Puente Genil during fierce street fighting, but returned to help their elderly parents and were arrested during a house-to-house search for "bourgeoisie, rightists and church people."

The diocese said the remains of the brothers, who were shot against the town's train station, were desecrated and burned before being thrown in a mass grave.

Another seminarian from the same town, José Ruiz Montero, had been noted as a "brilliant academic" during studies at nearby Seville, the diocese said, and was shot repeatedly in his arms and stomach while refusing to shout "Long live communism."

Pope Francis, who recognized the Córdoba martyrs in a November 2020 decree, requested applause for them in his Oct. 17 Angelus message, adding he hoped their fidelity would give strength to all, "especially persecuted Christians in various parts of the world."

Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Saints' Causes, celebrated the beatification Mass.

In a pastoral letter ahead of the beatification, Bishop Demetrio Fernández González of Córdoba said the 1930s "anti-religious fury" in Spain had been "like corrosive acid rain, gravely contaminating the whole society, and turning feelings of goodness, humanity and brotherhood arid in the hearts of many."

He added that none of the martyrs had "taken up arms or joined the field of battle," but had "distinguished themselves by doing good to others."

"After 85 years, it isn't those horrors which now reach us, but the precious perfume of a greater love, the eloquent testimony of forgiveness offered to persecutors," the bishop told Catholics.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021