Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Strange Case of the Communist Soldier Whose Image Is Venerated as That of a Martyr

Yesterday was the feast of Bl. Martín Martínez Pascual, a priest who was one of the first victims of the ferocious religious persecution that took place during the Spanish Civil War. He was born in 1910 in an Aragonese town called Valdealgorfa, about 140 miles to the west of Barcelona; this region was one the main Republican strongholds during the war, and the scene of many atrocities perpetrated against the Church and its members. After completing his studies at the seminary of Saragossa, he was ordained in 1935, at the minimum canonical age of 25, and assigned to teach at the seminary and a high school in Murcia.

The civil war began the following year, with a military coup on July 17, 1936, while he was visiting his native place during the summer vacations. The town was occupied by militants on July 26th, who soon ordered the arrest of all priests; six were captured, but Fr Pascual was successfully hidden by the locals for over three weeks. On August 18th, his own father was arrested, but not before sending a message to his son to flee, even though he would certainly have been killed if his son was not taken. Instead, the young priest presented himself to the “citizens’ committee”, bringing with him the Blessed Sacrament which he had previously rescued from a local church. One of the militants tried to save him, claiming to the others that the man they had before them was a local student, but Fr Pascual voluntarily revealed his own identity, and thus saved his father’s life. Embracing the man who had tried to save him, he asked him to bear a message to his relatives, requesting that they forgive his murderers, and saying “I wish to die as a martyr with my companions.” He then gave his fellow priests Holy Communion.

In the evening, they were taken to the local cemetery. Fr Pascual refused to turn his back to his executioners, and when they asked him if he had any last wishes, he answered, “I wish only to give you my blessing, so that God may not impute to you the madness you are about to commit”, and then, after blessing them, “Now let me shout with all my strength: viva Cristo Re!”, at which he was shot. He was beatified on October 1, 1995, together with 44 other victims of the same persecution, and 64 of the French revolution.

Since at least 2006, the following has been identified as a photograph of the martyr, because of what was written on the back of the original by the photographer, a German named Hans Gutmann who later became a Spanish citizen and called himself Juan Guzmán. “Priest captured by Republican forces, moments before he was shot. ... August 1936.”

Some very nice articles have been written over the last few years, to the effect that this is a beautifully peaceful expression, and indeed a kindly one, for a man who knows that he is about to be killed and is almost certainly in the presence of his killers. Given what we know of Fr Pascual’s actions before death, and those of countless other martyrs like him, this is not per se at all surprising. But I remember seeing such an article last year, having never heard of him before, and thinking that something did not quite add up. Before Vatican II, the clergy were subject to detailed dress-codes, and secular priests were generally required to be close-cropped and clean shaven. At first, it occurred to me that he might look like this after being held prisoner for a while, but as noted above, he was killed barely a month into the war and the concomitant persecution.

Today I learned from our long-time contributor Fr Lawrence Lew of this brief documentary from the BBC, which explains that the man in the photo above is certainly not Fr Pascual, and is in fact most likely a member of one of the Republican militias. (Ignore the silly tabloid-style headline, the kind of thing that Auntie Beeb used to disdain, and rightfully so...)

It turns out that this same person, whose name is unknown, is also seen alive and well in images taken after August 1936 by a British man named Alec Wainman, whose photographic archive was rediscovered in 2013. Wainman went to Spain to serve in an ambulance corps just after the outbreak of the civil war, and the man in question is unmistakably present at the end of a long series of photographs which he took of Republican soldiers, and wearing a Republican uniform. Evidently, Juan Guzmán, who died in 1982, had identified his own photograph incorrectly, whether from the fog of war, a lapse of memory, or some other reason. His archive was acquired by the Spanish press agency EFE, and in 2006, the photograph was published in the newspaper El País with his own original description of it as the caption.

After seeing the documentary linked on Fr Lew’s Facebook and watching it, it occurred to me to write this not for the sake of debunking a legend, and only partly as a matter of historical interest, although the story is certainly an intriguing one.

Last month, I published an article about the 4th century anti-pope Felix II, who through a particularly murky hagiographical confusion, was long venerated as a Saint, and his feast kept on the general calendar. (This article got a surprising amount of positive feedback, for which I am most grateful!) My purpose in writing it was to point out a case in which modern scholars of hagiography (in that particular case, Fr Herbert Thurston SJ and Donald Attwater, the revisers of Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints) were unduly harsh in their criticism of their predecessor in the field, Cardinal Cesare Baronio, for keeping this Saint in the liturgy when he revised the Martyrology in the 1580s. Whether rightly or wrongly, Baronius had excellent reasons for believing that the traditional story upon which the veneration of Felix II was based was true, and acted in good faith. Thurston and Attwater were gravely remiss in not explaining what those reasons actually were, and simply wrote that the retention of St Felix was a “sad memorial to the still backward state of critical scholarship” at the time. I believe this disdain for the past, and the carelessness that results from it, do a grave disservice to the Church.

Here we have a similar case. The photo is mislabelled, and this has led to its being “misused”, so to speak; there are even holy cards of Bl. Pascual which include it. But although this is a mistake, it was made entirely in good faith and for very good reasons. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that Juan Guzmán, whose sympathies were entirely with the Republicans, deliberately mislabelled the photograph. As explained in part in the video, Alec Wainman’s archive, the crucial piece in the puzzle, was lost for almost 40 years; it might well have been lost definitively, in which case, there would be no reason to think that the photograph was not of Fr Pascual. Of course, now that the truth is known, it would be inappropriate to continue using the image as if it were that of the Blessed, but this does not in any way impinge upon his status as a martyr (as this particularly foolish article imagines it does), or his future canonization. Nothing about the Blessed himself has changed.

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