In a move that could destroy the largest cross in the world, Spain’s government wants to turn the world’s longest basilica into a “museum of the horrors of Franco.”
The Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen lies at the center of a memorial site, about 45 km (28 miles) northwest of Madrid.
The landmark under the towering cross includes an abbey and the basilica. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco ordered its construction to honor the fallen of both sides during the Spanish Civil War. The bodies of more than 30,000 victims are buried in the complex.
A new law aimed at "the removal of Francoist symbols" could not only result in the removal of the cross at the memorial site — other public crosses in Spain have already been removed — but also force the Benedictine monks, the site’s custodians since 1958, out of the basilica’s adjacent abbey.
The final resting place of martyrs and victims of both sides of the Spanish Civil War is equally at risk: Their graves are expected to be exhumed as part of the government’s plans.
The Catholic Church has already recognized 66 of the dead buried at the memorial site as martyrs and will recognize three more in November.
There are also over 40 Servants of God whose beatification process is underway. The walls of the basilica’s side chapels, leading up to the main altar, hold relics of numerous saints.
In an interview with CNA, the prior administrator of the Valley’s Benedictine community, Father Santiago Cantera, said that “the problem is people’s great indifference and ignorance, but I think there are more people who are opposed to destroying this place than people who favor such a move.”
“Many people are fed up with [the government] stirring up issues about the war because what we really have in Spain are economic, social, and employment concerns,” he added on Aug. 3.
According to the prior, a former university professor with a Ph.D. in medieval history and author of 21 books, society needs to become aware of the Valley of the Fallen’s artistic, cultural, and religious values. To Father Cantera, these values are more important than political agendas.
“We cannot continue to use the Civil War of almost a century ago to argue in favor of political groups that do not have a project for the future and want to use the past to back up a Constitution for a new Republic,” the Benedictine said.
The ‘Democratic Memory Law’ was approved in July by the Congress of Deputies. It will be debated by the Senate this September.
The new law would enable the exhumation of the more than 33,000 victims from both sides of the Civil War. Some estimates believe the numbers to be as high as 50,000-70,000. The exhumation would also mean the destruction of about half of the basilica.
The Asociación para la Defensa del Valle de los Caídos (Association for the Defense of the Valley of the Fallen) is composed of 212 families who have relatives buried at the site. They come from both sides of the Civil War. Still, they are united in their firm opposition to any exhumation of their deceased family members.
The Association’s president and fierce defender of the Valley, Pablo Linares, hails from the family of a Communist who worked at the Valley under Franco after the Civil War.
The father, sister, and uncle of the monastery’s abbot emeritus, Father Anselmo Álvarez Navarrete, are also buried there.
The law will mandate the creation of a ‘National DNA data bank of victims of the Civil War’ and the eradication of foundations that “exalt” Franco’s regime – including the Foundation of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen.
The law will prohibit teachers from speaking positively about Franco.
The site’s name will also be changed from “Valley of the Fallen” to “Cuelgamuros Valley,” the area’s geographic name.
About the Valley of the Fallen
The basilica is an underground church carved inside a mountain within a precinct that covers 3,360 acres of woodland. The site also contains a Benedictine abbey and guesthouse adjacent to the basilica.
Franco ordered the construction of the basilica and the abbey to heal the wounds of the Civil War. The monks offer daily Masses at the basilica for the souls buried there and for Spain’s unity.
The services are accompanied by the Gregorian chants of the Escolanía, a boarding choir school for boys operated by the Benedictines.
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The Escolanía is the only place in the world that teaches children how to read Gregorian chant in its oldest form, Gregorian paleography. They learn to sing by reading the tetragram and two even older pneumatic scripts. It currently has about 50 students aged between 8 and 18.
According to historian Alberto Bárcena Pérez, Franco wanted to bury as many victims as possible within the basilica and obtained the help of town halls and written authorization from the victims’ families.
Franco was buried behind the altar, although he is said to have never requested it. The government exhumed his body, despite opposition from Franco’s family and the monks, on 24 October 2019. Bárcena claims the exhumation was part of a Freemasonic Scottish rite due to how the authorities positioned themselves at the event. The monks privately celebrated numerous Masses and acts of reparation afterward.
Once the law is passed, the government would exhume the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange, who is buried in front of the altar. He was shot to death by the Republicans, aged 33.
Franco and Primo de Rivera died on November 20, though decades apart.
Earlier this year, the Guinness World Records recognized the basilica’s cross as the world’s largest free-standing cross. It was measured to be 152.4 meters (500 ft) tall.
The book of records also features the basilica, 260 meters (853 ft) in length, the world’s longest. Built between 1940 and 1958, the church cost about $229 million to complete. Under Pope John XXIII, the church was elevated “to the honor and dignity of a minor basilica” in April 1960.
Due to the area’s excellent geological stability and isolation, it also has an underground laboratory of gravimetry and tides in two of its basements. Researchers from around the world use it to study earth tides, gravimetry, and absolute gravity.
The whole precinct operates through the Fundación de la Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos (Foundation of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen). The Foundation is owned by both the Government of Spain, managed previously by the Head of State but now by the government’s Patrimonio Nacional (National Patrimony) — and the Benedictine monks.
Patrimonio is in charge of obtaining finance, mainly by selling entrance tickets at the main entrance gate at the bottom of the Valley. The law states that it has to give part of this money to the monks to maintain the employees of the Escolanía and the guesthouse.
However, Patrimonio stopped paying the monks four years ago, creating economic pressure on the abbey, which is now maintaining the precinct with the help of private donations and other funds.
Architects have estimated the damages to the abbey and basilica would cost several million dollars to repair.
Patrimonio also blocks any maintenance works paid through private donations. The complex is entirely run down.
Fifteen years of “ferocious harassment”
Ever since the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed the ‘Historical Memory Law’ in 2007, tensions have been rising between the government and the religious community.
“We've been ferociously harassed,” said Fr Cantera.
“I had a tough time four years ago, but I took it as a purification from which I came out strengthened,” he said.
“It was all because of the media harassment, the attempt to make a public mockery of me in the Senate when they summoned me on the subject of exhumations.”
“Since there were families who opposed the exhumation of the remains of other fallen, as is currently the case, at that time, we (the monks) were forced to intervene and present an appeal, and the courts decreed a series of precautionary measures suspending the procedure,” he continued.
“From then on, as they had judicially lost the first battle, they began harassing me in the media and denigrating me as a person.”
Despite the struggles, the community has been receiving numerous young vocations. There are six monks under 30 years of age: three who have professed temporary vows, two with solemn vows, and one postulant soon joining.
The Benedictines take a vow of stability added to those of poverty, chastity, and obedience. When they go to a place, they usually remain there for life. Many have been martyred for this very reason throughout history.