Remembering a martyr; celebrating new ministry

Gathered around the altar

Fr. Jim Walters, SCJ (pictured at the top of the page), was the main celebrant and homilist at today’s bilingual Mass at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology. The Mass was dedicated to the memory of Blessed Juan María de la Cruz Garcia Mendez, SCJ. A martyr during the Spanish Civil War, Juan María was beatified by Pope John Paul II on March 11, 2001. His memorial is celebrated by the Church on September 22.

“Fr. Juan’s life and those many who were martyred with him challenge each of us to ask ourselves the question: what is really of value and of substance in our lives?” said Fr. Jim during his homily. “What is the truth that supports my “witness of faith” in the “household of the living God’? Martyrs are ordinary men and women like us who are so convinced and deeply moved by the message of the gospel that they are willing to put their lives on the line.  They are the ones who challenge us to reexamine our values in light of the gospel.  They are the ones willing to risk their reputations and public opinion to speak and live the truth.”

Click here to read Fr. Jim’s full homily.

Click here to view photos from the Mass.

Bl. Juan María de la Cruz

Blessed Juan Maria de la Cruz Garcia Mendez was born on September 25, 1891 in San Esteban de los Patos (Avila), Spain. His family looked after the local church. Because there was no priest in the small community, his father, after a day of working in the fields, led novenas and rosary prayers. It came as no surprise when the father’s eldest, the boy called Marianito, felt called to the priesthood at the age of 10. He eventually pursued that call and was ordained a priest for the diocese of Avila. Fr. Juan Maria served in parish ministry and later as a school chaplain.

He often found himself in Madrid, where he went to the church of the Religiosas Reparadoras (Sisters of Reparation). During one such visit, he met Fr. William Zicke, SCJ, one of the founding members of the Spanish Province. They struck up a friendship and Fr. Juan Maria told him of his desire for religious life. In turn, Fr. Zicke told him about the Priests of the Sacred Heart and its founder, Fr. Leo John Dehon.

In the Dehonians, Fr. Juan Maria found what he had been searching for and on October 31, 1926, he made his first profession. He took the religious name by which he is now known: “Juan María de la Cruz.” The name honored his two great loves: Holy Mary and St. John of the Cross, who like himself was from Avila.

A martyr

In the midst of the turbulent years of civil strife in Spain from 1931-36, the Catholic Church in Spain suffered one of the most difficult persecutions in its history. Churches, seminaries, rectories, monasteries and convents, were sacked and destroyed. Thirteen bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 religious brothers, 283 nuns and thousands of lay Catholics were killed.

On July 23, 1936, Fr. Juan traveled to Valencia seeking refuge with one of the congregation’s benefactors during the Spanish Civil War. To hide his identity as a priest he dressed in a large, secondhand jacket. The oversized garment eventually earned him the nickname “Fr. Chaquet” (Fr. Big-Jacket).

Walking from the train station he passed the church of “los Santos Juanes” in the center of the city. There he witnessed men desecrating and burning the church. Fr. Juan shouted in protest. When the men heard his shouting, they said to each other: “He is a reactionary.”

“No, I am a priest!” said Fr. Juan.

That was all that was needed to arrest him and take him to the Modelo jail in Valencia. On the night of August 23, 1936, Fr. Juan, together with nine other prisoners, was taken south of Valencia to be shot. The next day the bodies of the victims were thrown into a common grave in the cemetery of Silla.

Seminarians during the Rite of Commissioning

Rite of Commissioning

Following the homily about Blessed Juan María, there was a Rite of Commissioning for six SHSST seminarians involved in pastoral service this semester. Among them were two members of the Dehonian formation program: Frater Paul Phong Hoang, SCJ, and Candidate Kenneth Anyanwu. Each appeared before the seminary community with their ministry supervisors. Both Paul and Kenneth will work with Catholic Charities of Milwaukee.

Prayer for the intercession of Blessed Juan Maria de La Cruz

God our Father, rich in goodness and mercy.
You have given your Church the gift of the testimony of your children.
Grant us through the intercession of your servant
Blessed Juan Maria de La Cruz and his fellow martyrs,
that we may imitate his life and offer our entire selves to you.
Grant us your abundant grace in the service of vocations,
and in charity for the poor and simple.
May we always witness your love.