Nearly five hundred victims of religious persecution before and during the Spanish Civil War were beatified Sunday, making it the largest mass beatification in history.
The crowd gathered for the ceremony included seventy-one Spanish bishops, 1,500 priests, 2,500 relatives of the martyrs, Spanish politicians and 4,000 Spanish pilgrims. St. Peter’s square was filled with pilgrims waving Spanish flags and showing their thanks for the beatification of the 498 martyrs. When Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, proclaimed the 498 martyrs beatified, the square erupted with applause.
After the beatification Mass, Pope Benedict XVI greeted the pilgrims from his studio window. He said the beatification of so many ordinary Catholics showed that martyrdom wasn't reserved for a few but is "a realistic possibility for the entire Christian people."
"This martyrdom in ordinary life is an important witness in today's secularized society," he said.
The beatified were killed in the years 1934, 1936, and 1937. They include two bishops, 24 priests, 462 members of religious orders, a deacon, a sub-deacon, a seminarian, and seven lay Catholics. The breadth of the persecution was also reflected in the range of their ages with the youngest being 16 and the oldest 71.
Seven thousand clergy are estimated to have died in the persecutions.
The violence came from leftist groups who saw the Church as a symbol of wealth, repression, and inequality. Their continual attacks helped provoke General Francisco Franco into rebellion against the elected left-wing government. The civil war lasted from 1936 to 1939, after which the victorious Franco ruled as dictator for forty years.
Franco's legacy is very controversial in Spain. The Spanish Parliament is about to pass a Socialist-backed bill seeking to make symbolic reparations to victims of the war and of the Church-supported Franco dictatorship.
Relations between the Holy See and Spain's present socialist government have been strained since the latter took power in 2004. The government has supported easy divorce, gay marriage, and abortion. It has also disrupted its preceding conservative government's plans to mandate religious education in schools.
Some Spanish critics of the beatifications interpreted them as a political rebuke to the socialists.
To read the story of one of the Spanish martyrs click here.