ROME, MAR. 6, 2001 ( John Paul II will proclaim the greatest number of beatifications in history, when he raises 233 Spanish martyrs to the altars next Sunday.

That the martyrs died during the religious persecution of the 1930s, especially during the first months of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), might lead to a political or ideological reading of Sunday´s solemn event.

Yet the cause of beatification itself, which necessitated an enormous amount of documentation to be justified, reveals the exact opposite.

Bishop Vicente Carcel Orti, writer and one of the experts on the subject, and chancellor of the Roman Rota in Rome, explained: "These were ordinary people, priests, men and women religious, and 43 lay people who had nothing to do with the civil war or with that ideological confrontation."

Bishop Carcel Orti has just published the book, "Martyrs of the 20th Century: One Hundred Questions and Answers" (Edicep C.B. ) in which he addresses the history of the 233 martyrs who will be beatified. The bishop played an important part in the process of beatification, because he is the episcopal vicar in Rome of the Archdiocese of Valencia. In fact, 226 of the martyrs are from that archdiocese.

--Q: First, please tell us who they are and why they are martyrs.

--Bishop Carcel Orti: They were peaceful people who became martyrs because of a religious persecution. They were not victims of political repression, they did not fall on the battlefield; they were killed because of their faith, because they were Catholics.

The Church is not beatifying them because they were of the right or left, Fascists or Communists, but because they were persons who lived their Christian life with consistence, fidelity to the Gospel, and absolute obedience to the magisterium and the teaching of the Church. They crowned this Christian life with the supreme sacrifice of blood.

Theirs are moving stories, like the one of a 32-year-old father, who left his 2-month-old daughter and said to his wife: "Give me my best suit, because I am going to the greatest celebration of my life, I am going to martyrdom."

"But, what will happen to our little girl?" his wife asked him. "Don´t worry. Our Lord will take care of her, and I will be with you from heaven," he answered his wife.

--Q: The list of new blesseds speaks for itself: raped nuns, tortured priests, Catholic Action youths brutally killed. What was the reason for all this horror?

--Bishop Carcel Orti: It is the story of hatred inculcated by an ideology called Marxism-Leninism, which is translated into practical Communism. Famous historians, in no way Catholic, have given evidence of the excesses to which such an ideology can lead. St. G. Payne wrote: "The persecution of the Catholic Church has been the greatest in Western Europe, even greater than the cruelest moments of the French Revolution."

--Q: How do you explain such a barbaric situation in a Western European country?

--Bishop Carcel Orti: Eirik Pierre Labonne, France´s ambassador to Madrid, gave a good response, when he described the situation thus: "Republican Spain says it is democratic. Its government wishes to honestly develop democratic principles in Spain. It declares itself respectful of freedom of thought, conscience and expression. It has accepted Jewish and Protestant worship. However, it does not tolerate Catholicism at all, which does not enjoy freedom of conscience, much less so, free exercise of worship. [...] After the mass massacres of members of the clergy, no one wants to go near Catholic churches. The churches are devastated; the streets are full of people but religious buildings seem to be places of the plague."

--Q: A description that reminds one of the barbarities committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in recent days, including the destruction of artworks, such as statues of Buddha. In Spain, churches of universal artistic value were demolished.

--Bishop Carcel Orti: On Feb. 5, 1938, "L´Illustration," a well-known French magazine, wrote: "The religious character of this persecution has unleashed a destructive vandalism against works of art. The degradation, mutilation, profanation were not the result of war action. These were works of art that in their totality were willfully and systematically turned into rubble, despite the fact they were not military targets."

--Q: What is the message for today of the martyrs who will be beatified this Sunday?

--Bishop Carcel Orti: The beatification of the 233 martyrs attempts to recall to men of today these wonderful examples of fidelity to the love of God even to the point of death. For Sunday´s ceremony, which will be held in St. Peter´s Square, there will be no reproduction of photographs of the 233 martyrs, but a common symbol, the [letter] "P," which stands for peace, together with a cross and a crown of laurels. It is the symbol on the sarcophagus of the martyr, Vincent, patron of Valencia.

St. Vincent, together with St. Lawrence and St. Stephen, is one of the deacons of the early Church. He was very famous; in fact, St. Augustine dedicated beautiful sermons to him. It is significant that Valencia, the diocese to which the greatest number of the martyrs belong, was established in the fourth century, precisely with Vincent´s martyrdom. The third millennium is now beginning with the beatification of 233 martyrs. Martyrdom is always present and is part of the life of the Church.