Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France


[Cette lettre en français]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Deze brief in het Nederlands]
[Esta carta en español]
[Aquesta carta en català]
[Questa lettera in italiano]
December 1, 2004
Advent Season


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King! These were the last words of a young twenty-two-year-old Spaniard who died for the faith during the Spanish Civil War, on September 29, 1936. Pope John Paul II would say of him: «Realizing the gravity of the situation, [young Francisco Castelló Aleu] did not want to hide but to offer his youth as a loving sacrifice to God and his brethren» (Homily for the beatification of 233 Spanish martyrs, March 11, 2001).

On April 19, 1914, a third child was born into a modest family living near Alicante, Spain. At Baptism, he received the name Francisco. Some weeks later, illness carried off his father. His mother decided to move to Lleida, in the northern part of the peninsula. Francisco was passionate, spirited and even stubborn. But his mother opened the boy's youthful understanding to the mysteries of the faith. From his First Communion on, Francisco received Communion every Sunday and sometimes during the week. He drew from it the strength to fight against intense self-love and to subdue his difficult temper. Around the age of thirteen, when he was a student at a school run by the Marist congregation, he experienced a period of spiritual crisis which went unnoticed by most. His spiritual director would note: «He stopped receiving the sacraments, but never stopped attending Sunday Mass.»

A great benefit from a few days

In 1929, the Lord suddenly called Francisco's mother to Himself. In their distress, the adolescent and his two sisters consecrated themselves to the Blessed Virgin. Francisco was not quite sixteen when he received his high school diploma with distinction on April 14, 1930. In November of that same year, he wrote, «I took advantage of some vacation to do the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius under the direction of Father Galán, S.J. I didn't miss an idea or even a word from them. They were days of great spiritual joy and I thank Jesus for the consolations granted and for the beneficial conversion He brought about in my soul.» He placed himself under Father Galán's direction, who made an apostle of him and taught him that one «wins souls only through sacrifice and prayer.»

Inflamed with apostolic zeal, Francisco worked to make known the Parochial Cooperators of Christ the King, created by a young Jesuit, Father Francis de Paul Vallet. Begun in Cervera, Lleida, in 1923, this work had already made a notable change in the religious climate in Catalonia—men, at whom this work was directed, returned to practicing their faith. This renewal was the fruit of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, which Father Vallet had the idea of synthesizing into five days (instead of thirty) to make them accessible to the greatest possible number of lay people. Regenerated by these five days of retreat, Christians are invited to assist their parish priest in the field of parish work. Manresa, the Spanish Jesuit magazine, said in its June 1927 edition, «The great fruit that is clearly derived from the Spiritual Exercises of our holy Father Ignatius, and the enthusiasm stirred up across Catalonia, is owed in great part to the fact that Father Vallet has been able to interpret Saint Ignatius' thought in terms of the practical method of giving his Exercises. The Saint himself, at the beginning of his book, indicates various forms of adaptation.»

«By itself, the famous meditation on man's end [proposed by Saint Ignatius at the beginning of the Exercises] is enough to completely set the State right again» (Leo XIII). As a result, the retreatants become fully aware of God's plan for mankind and the world, absolutely opposed to sin and to all injustice, and ready to follow Christ to the Cross, and so exercise, in the sphere of their socio-professional responsibilities, a salutary influence. This was Father Vallet's explicit aim—to establish bases for the complete re-Christianization of society, so as to influence the solution of social and economic problems.

In Lleida, starting in 1931, many young people joined the new «Federation of Christian Youth of Catalonia,» created in the wake of the retreats. Catholic Action and the new «Federation» worked in concert for the doctrinal formation of youth, whose task it was to bring the entire society back to Christ through the family, work, culture, leisure, etc. Francisco gave himself unreservedly to this work, and organized retreats that bore unexpected fruit—the number of young Christians involved in the province of Lleida went from 140 to 645 in three years!

Francisco obtained his bachelor's degree in chemistry on February 6, 1934. «I mixed with him often,» testified one of his friends, «but I never saw him show abruptness. On the contrary, he was able to show gentleness and kindness, all the while remaining open and outgoing.» Another would write, «He shared the restless university life with his friends. He mixed with companions who were perhaps bogged down in lust and materialism... Wherever he was, there was joy. He was lively and enterprising, and loved everything that was beautiful. He had a big influence on the hearts of all his friends.» Francisco was hired as an engineer in a chemical fertilizer company in Lleida. Every evening, he gave free courses to the factory workers and to the inhabitants of a poor neighborhood in Lleida, a seat of anticlericalism.

A work too often neglected

At the beginning of 1936, the political climate was deteriorating. On February 16, election day, Francisco stayed at home (he had not yet reached the legal voting age). To his sister who was amazed at his idleness while many others were agitating, he replied, «For three years, the people who are fighting today to maintain order have neglected to promote the works that would have been able to elevate minds to religion and the restoration of Christian values. Let them get worked up. Tomorrow will be my day: I will go from house to house to get people, one by one, to sign up for the Exercises (of Saint Ignatius).» And he added with conviction: «If the work of the Exercises hadn't been so neglected, politics today would look completely different!» Indeed, the Exercises are, according to Pope Pius XI, a «most valuable means of both personal and social restoration,» and they train «true apostles for every condition of life... interested solely in spreading everywhere the Kingdom of Christ» (Encyclical Quadragesimo anno, 1931).

A storm of unusual violence broke out in Spain. On April 14, 1931, the Spanish government had ceased to be a Catholic monarchy and became a republic. Although the Church had recognized the legitimacy of the new government, it saw itself gradually placed under a regime of legislative persecution. In February 1936, the «Popular Front» took power and anticlericalism loomed. During the summer, the murder of priests, seminarians, men and women religious, and lay people began. The Spanish episcopate would later denounce this religious persecution as the most violent in the history of Spain.

In May 1936, on the Feast of Mary Help of Christians, Francisco became engaged to María Pelegri, a young woman whose piety was on a level with his own. Their relationship remained chaste: «We never had anything to confess in that area,» María would be able to affirm. Francisco's mother had jealously maintained the virtue of chastity in his heart, and his sisters would declare: «As far as purity, he was rightly uncompromising... He did not hesitate to protest verbally, even in a bus or a waiting room. He advised us, especially concerning dress, by showing us that we could be an occasion of sin.»

On the following July 1st, Francisco, who had been drafted, was sent to the fortress in Lleida. On the evening of the following day, the fortress fell to a Marxist «Military Committee». On the night of July 20-21, Francisco was rudely awakened by the new commander of the fortress who accused him of being a «fascist.» The label «fascist» was only a pretext—the revolutionaries didn't want any martyrs (witnesses to the Faith), but accused those who were believed to be anti-patriots and enemies of freedom. Beaten with a riding crop, the young man was locked up with twenty-some prisoners in a former chapel—no opening but for a tiny ventilator, no hygienic facilities. One of the prisoners would declare: «Even the bravest were losing courage. Francisco was always in good spirits—he had placed all his hope in God. He imagined a sort of humorous magazine to help the time pass more quickly. At night, he would give us a little talk on the meaning of our Christian life.» His constant concern was to not disturb his family's peace—the short notes that he was able to send them always expressed the same idea: «I am doing very well. I have everything. Don't worry about me.»

I will always do for them all the good I can

Francisco requested a testimony in his favor from his former coworkers in the factory. Paralyzed by fear, they declared that there was no point in worrying about the fate of a «wretch,» meaning a practicing Catholic... Deeply wounded by their reaction, he replied, «If they think of me as an enemy, I don't think of them as enemies at all, and I will always do for them all the good I can... May God enlighten them all and open them to the light of truth!» One of his cousins, a member of the «Marxist Worker's Party» and the «Public Health Committee,» suggested to him that he sign a document in which he would hide his belief and renounce his participation in the Catholic movements, pleading his lack of maturity. Through this method, he affirmed, others had already obtained their freedom without trial... «If you have come here for me to take this step backward,» Francisco firmly replied to him, «you are wasting your time.» But the cousin returned several times and became more insistent. «The prisoner refused quite clearly,» a witness would declare, «saying ever more firmly that he was willing to die for his faith.»

On Saturday, September 12, the feast of the Holy Name of Mary, the young soldier for Christ was transferred to the provincial prison. He went from cell to cell, looking for any discouraged prisoner, created a choir and encouraged recreation—chess, checkers, etc. He could not bear that, to mock them, the members of the militia forced the priests to carry out the most repugnant duties, and so he took responsibility for cleaning the latrines and the garbage dumps. A friend said, «He introduced into our cell the recitation of the Rosary, with Eucharistic chants and the hymn of the Federation of Christian Youth. He insisted on many prisoners' confessing to Father V., a prisoner like us.» On September 23, after a severe interrogation, Francisco confided, «We will always be 'fascist' prisoners... Let's give up even the glory of martyrdom in the eyes of the world, because since our sacrifice is pleasing to God, nothing else matters!»

Tuesday, September 29, 1936 was a morning of farewells and encouragement to confidence and serenity... Francisco made a fervent general confession (a confession of all the sins committed in one's life) to Father V. «You could see the fruit of his intimacy with the Lord,» related a companion in captivity. «As he left, he waved farewell to us, with a smile on his lips... At night, locked in our cells, we recited the daily Rosary for those who had left us.» Taken to the town hall, the defendant Castelló climbed its stairs, determined, his head held high. The chamber, which had become the headquarters of the People's Court of Lleida, was filled to the rafters.

I am Catholic!

The President spoke to Francisco: «How do you respond to the documents that accuse you of being a 'fascist'?»—«I am not a 'fascist.' I have never been a member of a political party.»—«We have evidence. At your home and in the office of the factory where you work, we found books that prove your contacts with two fascist countries.»—«In my home and in the factory laboratories, you have not been able to find anything but textbooks. As a chemist, I studied Italian and German, which are useful in chemistry. I had no other ambition than to improve in my profession.»—«Let's put an end to this. Are you Catholic?»—«Yes, of course yes. I am Catholic!» Our hero pronounced these words with a clear and calm voice. His courage and his integrity caused an indescribable ripple in the great chamber. Many exclaimed: «Innocent... freedom... pardon!»

The public prosecutor asked for the death sentence. Francisco heard, his eyes illuminated with joy, as if the glory of Heaven had been foretold to him. The President having given him the floor to defend himself, he replied, «If being Catholic is an offense, I am very glad to be an offender, because the greatest happiness that anyone can find in this life is to die for Christ. And if I had a thousand lives, I would give them all for Him, without a moment's hesitation. I thank you therefore for the opportunity you are offering me to ensure my eternal salvation.» The verdict came without delay!

The prisoners for that day were led to a gloomy underground passage that served as the municipal dungeon. As he entered, Francisco let out a robust and stirring «Courage, my brothers!», then started singing the Hymn of Perseverance from the Parochial Cooperators of Christ the King. «Every person was shouting his anger and despair,» reported a man condemned to death who was pardoned before execution. «Only Francisco remained calm. He told us, 'Come on, lads... Each of us must prepare ourselves and recommend his soul to God... We still have to make our farewells to our families.' He then pulled out a pencil and some paper, sat on a stone bench and began to write.»

Be proud!

His first letter was addressed to his sisters and his aunt: «My dearest ones, they have just told me I have been condemned to death, and I have never felt as peaceful as I do now. I am sure that this night I will be in Heaven with my parents... Divine Providence has willed to choose me as a victim for the errors and sins that we have committed. I am going to death willingly. I will never have as much of an opportunity to ensure my Salvation as I do now... I offer to God the sufferings of this hour.» After several lines to his spiritual father, he wrote to his fiancée: «Dear Mariona, our lives were united and it is God's will to separate them. I offer Him, with all possible sincerity, the love I have for you, a love that is strong, pure, and sincere. Your misfortune hurts me, but mine doesn't. Be proud—two brothers and your fiancé!» Indeed, two of the young woman's brothers had been victims of the revolution a few weeks earlier.

The evening of September 29th, the six prisoners were taken away in a truck. Francisco started to sing the Credo, and the others joined in. To a militia member who slapped him to make him be quiet, he replied, «I forgive you, because you do not know what you are doing.» The prisoners continued to sing, «On the third day, He rose from the dead... I believe in the Holy Catholic Church... I believe in eternal life!» In front of the cemetery, they got out of the truck. Close to them stood a group of onlookers in which Francisco, smiling and filled with emotion, recognized a friend of his sister Teresa. They exchanged an expressive farewell glance. At the end of a path, a portal led to a little closed-off space, the stage for the executions, where an altar and a stone cross stand today... Facing the firing squad, Francisco shouted: «One moment, please! I forgive you all, and I'll meet you in eternity!» His hands clasped, his eyes fixed on the sky and a prayer on his lips, he stood facing the executioners. A voice ordered, «Fire!» Francisco let out a last shout: «Long live Christ the King!» and the reports rang out. Shortly thereafter, his sister's friend went down to the grave and bent over—his young heart was still beating. His head, tilted to the right, rested on the ground; his eyes were half-open, and his face expressed an angelic gentleness.

The young martyr's final profession of faith echoed the words of Pope Pius XI, who instituted the liturgical feast of Christ the King to remedy the great social ills of modern times: «God and Jesus Christ [have been] excluded from political life» (Encyclical Quas primas, 1925). Some years later, the Second World War broke out. Pius XII discerned its root causes in the efforts aimed at eliminating Christ's influence and authority from public life: «In the recognition of the royal prerogatives of Christ and in the return of individuals and of society to the law of His truth and of His love lies the only way to salvation» (Encyclical Summi pontificatus, 1939). Indeed, every institution is inspired by a vision of man and his destiny, from which the institution draws its references for judgment, its scale of social values, its guiding principles. This is true, at the highest level, of the State: at that level, an erroneous vision of man brings with it serious consequences in all areas of social life. For «[o]nly the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man's origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer. The Church invites political authorities to measure their judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 2244).

The Church has always taught the difference between the spiritual order and the temporal order. She recognizes a healthy secularism, that is, the State's true autonomy in its order. However, the State is bound to respect the natural moral law, which affects all men and women, regardless of their religious beliefs. «The natural law,» teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church, «is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid [to reach our end, the promised beatitude]... Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue... It provides the necessary basis for civil law» (CCC, 1950-1959). Following Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pope John Paul II affirms, «Every law made by man can be called a law insofar as it derives from the natural law. But if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not really a law but rather a corruption of the law... It becomes instead an act of violence» (Encyclical Evangelium Vitæ, no. 72).

An inescapable relationship

Inscribed into our nature, the natural law can be discerned by all people, even non-Christians. But this law cannot be durably imposed if one does not recognize its foundation in God, the all-powerful Creator, infinitely good and Father of all, just judge and the One who rewards human actions. «It cannot be forgotten,» writes John Paul II, «that it was the denial of God and His commandments which led in the last century to the tyranny of idols. A race, a class, the state, the nation and the party were glorified instead of the true and living God» (Letter, December 14, 2000, on the occasion of the 1,200th anniversary of the imperial coronation of Charlemagne). Thus, «the future of societies depends on the inescapable relationship between God and the Earthly City» (Speech to the Diplomatic Corps, January 11, 1999). Moreover, wherever the Religion revealed in Christ is not recognized as true, the natural law grows dim in minds. «Without the true religion, no respect for the moral law: this is a demonstrated fact, a fact of history» (Saint Pius X, Letter on «Le Sillon»).

In our day, one may observe with the Holy Father a «resistance to giving God and the Christian faith their rightful place in the public order» among many political leaders (Letter to Cardinal Schönborn, June 11, 2003). The New Evangelization is therefore an urgent necessity for public life itself, which, according to the divine plan, must promote the good of people and their eternal salvation. Let us ask Blessed Francisco Castelló to intercede before Christ, the King of nations, that lawmakers and government leaders might be inspired by His law of truth and love.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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