MADRID, Spain, MAR. 9, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Father Eugenio Laguarda might well have been among the 233 martyrs of the Spanish religious persecution whom John Paul II will beatify this Sunday.
His would-be murderers in the 1930s abandoned him, shot and bleeding, in a ravine. But a bus arrived in time to save his life.
Today, at age 90, Father Laguarda celebrates Mass daily at 7 a.m. in the Basilica of the Virgin of the Forsaken of Valencia, the diocese from which most of the martyrs come. After Mass, Father Laguarda spends most of the day hearing confessions.
Following is his account of the atmosphere in Spain during the civil war. According to Church data, between July 18, 1936, and April 1, 1937, no fewer than 6,832 priests, men and women religious, and 12 bishops were killed. The attack Father Laguarda recounts here occurred June 17, 1938.
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I was very young. As I was already a priest, they sent me to a village of the province of Castellón. Fifteen months after I arrived in the village of Zucaina, the war began.
I kept abreast of the news, and hid all the parish images, in straw lofts, in private homes. I would leave my house [in the morning] and go to the church, but not ring the bell; many village priests had been killed.
One day a gang that went from village to village killing, came to kill me. When they arrived in Zucaina, they found some children playing in the square and asked them: “Have you seen the priest?” They answered that they did not know where he was, so they went to a bar thinking that the priest was no longer there. The owner of the bar got angry with them. “Why do you have to kill the priest? This priest is very good.” They replied: “Suffice it he is a priest for us to kill him!” And they left.
They sent me a message, so that I would know what happened, and I prepared to hide that night in a farmhouse, which was over an hour and a half´s walk from the village. The owner of the farm was Uncle Bernabé, an elderly man. It was dawn when I arrived, and I said to Uncle Bernabé: “You know why I have come, to hide.” He answered me: “It is a very great risk to have you here, they could kill us all.” I said: “Look, Uncle Bernabé, I have not told anyone that I was coming here. So, if you don´t say anything to anyone, nothing will happen.”
It was already daylight. Then, having heard us, the woman called out to her husband from her bed: “Bernabé, Bernabé, who is it? He said: “The priest.” His wife asked: “The priest? But all of them have been killed. What does the priest want?”
Uncle Bernabé replied: “That we keep him hidden here until all this is over. I have told him he can stay seven or eight days, but no more, because it is a very great risk.” She said: “Not just a few days … but as long as necessary!” And as women had more say at home than men, they let me stay.
Nobody knew I was there but, as they were thinking of stationing two companies of soldiers on that farm, I left through the mountains, headed for Valencia. When I was near Segorbe, two soldiers caught me. They were looking for an escaped prisoner, and asked me: “Where are you going?” I said, “To Valencia.” They immediately thought ill of me. “Tell us the truth! Who are you?” Then I told them I was a priest.
They took me by the arms, searched me, and found my breviary. One of them kicked me in the face, broke my nose, and left me with no sight out of my left eye for three months. I fell to the earth. They struck me and would make me get up again, until I could no longer move. Then, one of them shot me in the head. The bullet penetrated under my left eye, went through my palate, tongue, neck, and lodged in my lung.
The other told him to shoot me again, because I was alive, but he didn´t. They threw me in a little ravine near the road. I could hear them going, laughing at me because I was praying to the Virgin.
When their voices faded, I tried to climb up to the road but when I stood up, I fell down. I was very ill, and said to myself: “I must climb up to the road.” I crawled up, holding on to the grass, little by little, and finally I reached the road. Immediately, there was a pool of blood.
People went by and finally a bus arrived. It was midnight. As the road was somewhat narrow and the bus was wide, they stopped and got down. I told them I was a priest and that they had martyred me. They didn´t know what to do; finally they put me on the bus and took me to Castellón to leave me in a hospital. I was seriously wounded.
As we passed through Naquera, at 1 o´clock in the morning, the two assailants were sitting on the road. They stopped the bus and spoke with the driver. I was in a passenger seat, dying. “Where are you going now?” they asked the driver. “I am going to the hospital to take someone who is wounded, whom I collected up there. A priest.” They cried: “He is the priest we killed! Is he still alive? We must finish him off.” However, the driver finally prevailed, and the two assailants stayed there. He took me to Castellón; I was received immediately by the hospital.
When the war ended, those two assailants were tried and condemned to death. Then, having returned to Zucaina, the father of one of them and the mother of the other came to see me, they knelt down and made the sign of the cross before me, saying: “Father, have compassion on our sons, who are in prison and are going to be killed for what they did to you.”
I immediately took pen and paper in hand and wrote the judge, telling him that I was all right, and that I would like the death penalty lifted from them. When they saw the document with my signature, they commuted the sentence. I don´t know if they are still living, much time has gone by. I am very grateful to Jesus because he saved my life. Now I am called the resurrected dead one.