Speaking Truth to Power: The Witness of Saint Jaime Hilario Barbal, F.S.C.

At Tarragona in Spain, saint Jaime Hilario (Manuel) Barbal Cosán, religious of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, martyr, who, with the outbreak of persecution, was condemned to death in hatred against the Church (Roman Martyrology, July 28).

 Political turmoil in Spain after the First World War led eventually to civil war from 1936 to 1939. Beginning in 1934, in various locations under the control of regional leftist governments, almost 7,000 Catholic priests, Brothers, and Sisters were executed. Among them were 165 Christian Brothers. The Church remembers the Spanish martyrs collectively on November 6 and honors the first eight Brothers, killed in Turón, Asturias, on October 9, the anniversary of their martyrdom in 1934. Yet another Brother, Saint Jaime Hilario, is singled out by the Church on July 28.

Manuel 30 años
Brother Jaime Hilario at age 30

Civilians suffered horrible acts of violence at the hands of both sides of the struggle. The Brothers who fell victim were arrested indiscriminately, tried, and executed for the crime of providing a human and Christian education. Brother Jaime had the opportunity to escape condemnation, if only he had agreed with the plea of his lawyer to profess to being nothing more than a gardener, which was his occupation at the time of his arrest. He was thirty-eight years old and had retired from the classroom two years prior due to a severe hearing loss. The prosecutor condemned him with the following words.

“Either we kill these people, or they will kill us. If we condemn to death those who fight against our comrades in the front lines, how much more should we condemn those who dedicate themselves to educating fascists” (Quoted in Luke Salm, F.S.C., The Martyrs of Turón and Tarragona: The De La Salle Brothers in Spain, 1934-1939, Romeoville, IL, 1990, p. 82)

He received the sentence with equanimity and was able to write to several family members, with words of comfort and hope in the resurrection, before the sentence was carried out. The execution took place in a cemetery. On his way there, he told the soldiers,

“God be blessed! In heaven I shall pray a great deal for all of you. What more could I ask for than to die when my only crime is that I am a religious and that I have worked for the Christian education of youth?” (Luke Salm, p. 83).

His words before the firing squad were “To die for Christ is to live, my friends” (p. 83). Twice the volleys missed him, such was the impression that he made of authentic human goodness on those who were ordered to murder him. Finally, the commander shot him five times.

Map of Catalonia
Map of northeastern Spain, with the birthplace of Brother Jaime (Manuel Barbal Cosán) at La Seu d’Urgell and the place of his martyrdom at Tarragona, by the sea.

Brother Jaime and the other civilian victims of the Civil War fell to forces that accepted violence in service of political ideologies. Christian vocation carries with it the inherent danger of provoking worldly hatred and its witnesses are often seen as weak. More than 4,000 Christians die annually at the hands of persecutors. Brother Jaime’s holiness and the holiness of every Christian who dies holding to their faith bear witness to the act of putting love in the face of fear. The court that condemned Saint Jaime Hilario would have been content with his silence. Instead, he responded by speaking truth to power. He had nothing to fear in being a Christian, in being a Christian Brother, even in the face of the violent who could not bear it.

“He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong” (St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, 12:9-10).

“We grow in numbers as often as you mow us down; the blood of Christians is the seed” (Tertullian, Apology, 49:13).

photo credits: Lasalle.org & Luke Salm, The Martyrs of Turón and Tarragona

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