Father Ricardo Atanes Castro (1875-1936)

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Gracious God, out of love for the human race you became incarnated in the womb of the Virgin Mary where you were nourished. Through the intercession of your priest, Ricardo, who had a great devotion to the sacred mysteries of the Incarnation and the Eucharist, make us sharers in your love. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Lord. Amen.

Infancy and early childhood

It was the time of the restoration of the monarchy when Ricardo was born in Cualedro (Orense) on August 5, 1875. The nation as a whole smiled at the thought of a more promising future now that the downfall of the first Republic

no longer cast its shadows over the face of Spain. Fearing that their son would die, he was immediately baptized in the parish church of Santa María and was given the name Ricardo.

Ricardo grew up in Cualedro under the protection of his parents who were small farmers and who raised some animals. His parents taught him to pray and to work with determination and with a lively spirit. In future years, when he would take up residence far removed from this place, he would continue to remember with fondness the days he spent in that village. He would never lose his Galican accent and even when he spoke English, his accent was evident … and yes, he was proud of his origins.

In May of 1882, just before his seventh birthday, he received his first communion. He then continued his studies in the apostolic school of the Vincentian Missionaries, a school that had been established and that was located next to the shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. In the midst of this Marian Center, Ricardo and many other young men became steeped in their devotion, in their studies, and in their vocation … they were preparing themselves a life-long mission.

Notice that there was a Marian dimension to their formation and this dimension would be internalized more and more as these men advanced in their priestly and missionary career. Pope Pius X approved the Miraculous Medal Association in 1909 and this created in Ricardo Atanes a desire to deepen his love for the Blessed Virgin and he wanted all people to do the same. The feast of the apparitions of Mary to the Daughter of Charity, Catherine Laboure, (apparitions that took place in Paris on November 27, 1830) was solemnly celebrated in all the community houses and the feast of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal was celebrated in the same manner. Ricardo spontaneously and devoutly prayed the words, O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you, and he taught people everywhere to pray those same words in time of difficulty and trial.

When he concluded his studies in the apostolic school, Ricardo entered the Internal Seminary of the Congregation of the Mission on May 11, 1891. Ricardo was fifteen years old and despite his youthful years, his superiors judged that he was prepared to be admitted into the Congregation. Leopoldo Rodríguez Álvarez, a classmate who would be ordained with Ricardo, was a little younger. According to the judgment of the Director of the seminary, Ramón Arana Echevarría, Ricardo manifested maturity and was thus allowed to profess vows on August 6, 1893. Since the Visitor, Father Eladio Araiz was unable to be present at this ceremony, the famous provincial econome, Father Aquilino Valdivielso, presided at that ceremony which took place in the same house in which the Internal Seminary was located (García de Paredes, Madrid).

Happy and content with the steps that he had taken, he now assumed new rights and obligations as a professed member of the Congregation. He dreamed of being able to give public testimony as a Missionary. He would confront various moments of crisis but, with the grace of God, he was able to overcome those difficulties. He stated that for him performing acts of humble manual labor (sweeping the floor, gardening, etc.) were sources of blessings and grace and he viewed that labor as pleasing to God as the time he spent kneeling in chapel at prayer. Similar behavior deepened the devotion of the other young men who were studying philosophy and yet at the same time these young men enjoyed participating in the fun and games so common to students.

He rendered fervent devotion to the great mysteries of our faith

In the Casa Central in Madrid, where during the time of the Internal Seminary Ricardo had spent hours in prayer and in studying about the spirituality of the Missionary, now he began his philosophical and theological studies which would come to an end on May 27, 1899. On that day he was ordained a priest in the chapel of the Casa Central. During his years of study he had made every effort to clothe himself in the spirit of Christ, the evangelizer and participated in those devotions that were suggested by Vincent de Paul and put into writing in the Common Rules. The advice that he received from his spiritual director rooted him in the mystery of the Incarnate Christ, the Redeemer.

His companions viewed him as a true mystic who entered deeper and deeper into the mystery of God whose Word was sent into the world and became incarnated in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Those mysteries were the center of his spiritual and apostolic life. There are many testimonies like the following one that appears in the positio super martyrio: He rendered fervent devotion to the great mysteries of our faith, mysteries such as the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist. With great joy he celebrated the feasts of the Blessed Virgin and professed his love for her … he was very devout and entrusted himself to Divine Providence … with patience and resignation he confronted the trials that God placed before him.

Throughout his life he stated that he had a special devotion to those sacred mysteries that had been inculcated in him by his formators. His companions confirmed that fact when they spoke about the manner in which he would speak (in public or privately) about his faith and his experience of God. Indeed, he imitated Saint Vincent from whom he had learned to say: Such is my belief and such is my experience (CCD:II:316). At times another young man similar to Ricard would appear, one who was distinguished for his docility to the Spirit of God, but such individuals were not common among the students.

I am in this place because I am an obedience son

Willing to follow the paths and the plans of Providence, Ricardo viewed his various assignments as orders and commands from the Lord and therefore he was never hesitant to obey his superiors. In fact, he felt that he had entered and been received into the Community in order to obey promptly and with joy; he entered the community to serve and not to command others or to be served; he was a member of the Congregation in order to evangelize the poor and not to idle away his time. We have before us a Missionary who was filled with the spirit of the gospel. No one would have thought that a young man of twenty-five years would have been able to have developed such a rich and profound experience of God.

In October of 1899 he was assigned to Mérida on the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) where for ten years he taught in the Diocesan Seminary that had been entrusted to the Congregation. It goes without saying that the seminarians admired him and thought he was a saint. When classes were ended he would preach popular missions in the neighboring towns during the time of vacation (although he had been warned to take care of his health). He was enflamed by zeal and listened to the voice of the Spirit rather than the suggestive promptings of the flesh that told him to rest and relax. Ricardo would often say that in the Kingdom we have a place reserved for us where we will be able to enjoy eternal rest, but here on earth one must continue to work for as long as one is able to do so.

In Mérida he contracted yellow fever and suffered for a while until he became acclimatized to the environment. Even so he would still from time to time become afflicted with fever. In 1909 he left the seminary and the ministry of formation in order to dedicate his time to the evangelization of the Mayan Indians. Then, in 1914 his superiors assigned him to ministry in the United States. It was at this time that he wrote a letter to his brother Álvaro and stated: I must tell you the truth, I am in this place (the United States) because I am a son of obedience … no amount of money could have made me come here.

Thus in 1914 we find Ricardo in Fort Worth, Texas where he would minister for the next ten years (1914-1924) to the people living in the Mexican colony that had been established in that city and to other Spanish speaking people. He provided for their spiritual and material needs and did so with a spirit of simplicity and charity. The Mexican people and the people in the United States and Ricardo’s ministry of catechesis, preaching missions, caring for the poor and infirm immigrants … all of these realities enlarged the extent of his outreach and enriched his experience of God, things that he would not exchange for all the money in the world.

Ricardo was obliged by his superiors to return to Spain in 1924 in order to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a priest and also to take some rest from the difficult tasks that had been entrusted to him. Once he recovered his strength he intended to return to Fort Worth. That, however, was Ricardo’s plan but his superiors in Spain thought differently and they sent him to the residence in Orense (a place that had not entered his mind as an assignment since he had made a formal promise to not return to the place of his origins). Once again though, he was able to calm himself when he considered the fact that obedience was more important than any sacrifice or promise. In the Galician capital he acted quietly but efficiently in the various house ministries. Very soon the people on the street became aware of the fact that this was a different kind of priest who was ministering in the church.

Even though he was most happy to live together with his confreres, he rejoiced when he was given the opportunity to visit the shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and thus after being absent from Spain for so many years he was now able to kneel before her in that place where he had learned his first lessons with regard to the love of the Mother of God, that place where he had laid the foundation for his Christian and Vincentian formation that was centered on Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor. In light of his responsibility with regard to his community commitments, the major superiors decided in 1928 to appoint him superior of the community house there. The community was composed of six confreres: five priests and one brother. It was noted that Father had great self-control. On one occasion, a disturbed person was in the midst of some practical joke and slapped Ricardo on the face … Father Ricardo did not say a word.

I believe that something serious is going to happen to me in Asturias

He was quite happy and content in Orense when, in 1935, he received an appointment to Gijón. The bloody events that took place in Oviedo during the month of October, 1934 were still fresh in the minds of all the Missionaries. Oviedo, the place of martyrdom for many individuals still smelled of blood. A resident in Orense gave the following testimony about Father’s appointment to Gijón: I know that Father admired the plans of Providence and this was especially so during the tragic events that unfolded during his stay in Asturias. I remember that when he was told by his superiors to go to Asturias he spoke to me in confidence and stated: “I believe that something serious is going to happen to me in Asturias!” I attempted to encourage and to strengthen him and then he added: “May God’s will prevail!” At the height of those dangers, when the other priests were nervous and concerned, Ricardo remained calm and exhorted the others to place their trust in God and with serenity to continue to fulfill their duties as they entrusted themselves to the designs of God’s Providence.

Father Ricardo wrote to one of his nieces, the daughter of his brother Álvaro, about the situation in Gijón: Here there are many workers and every day there is talk of revolution. Even the children, when they finish their classes, become involved in this turmoil. They raise their clenched fists at us and shout, “Long live communism!” We have in our possession the clothing of lay persons but we have not yet used those clothes. Pray for us so that, so that out of our love for Jesus, we might obtain the crown that he has prepared for us!

It took some time for his niece to respond to his letter but when she did she told him that (if his superiors allowed it) he was most welcome to stay with them and should travel there as soon as possible since there was greater security there. On May 27, 1936 he responded to this most generous offer: I thank you for your concern and interest. But we are not allowed to act in that way … Our Lord knew everything that was going to happen to him: that he would be crucified and put to death on the cross … and he remained in the place where he was. We are about the Lord’s service and he can use us as he will. I ask that you pray for us and that you take care of your father and your brothers and sisters and some day we will be together again in heaven.

That letter can be viewed as a profession of faith and a profession of Ricardo’s trust in God’s Providence, in God who watches over all men and women in good times and in bad times, during times of victory and during times of defeat. It would have been difficult to find someone with a better disposition toward martyrdom. He had received many petitions from friends and family that he should seek out a more secure place in order to defend himself from pending danger. Ultimately, he opted to absent himself from the community house on the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul (at that time celebrated on July 19th). It was the first time in his life as a Vincentian that he did not celebrate the feast of Saint Vincent in community with his confreres.

Dressed as layman and with his head covered in order to better hide his clerical status, he went out into the street and stopped at the house of a family that was very grateful for the service that they had received from the Vincentian community. He remained there for a short time because insults and blasphemies and confusion reigned in that area … people were coming and going and all of this made it impossible for him to remain there. As he might have supposed, there would be another month of many such serious and grave dangers.

Once again he was on the street and he found refuge in the home of one of his old friends. He looked out the window to see what was happening and suddenly, someone recognized him and denounced his presence there. The discovery of Father Ricardo in that place was enough to stir up the passions of the enemies of the clergy and religion who wanted to execute him in the presence of all those who lived in that house and who were gathered together outside the house. For the time being they decided not to execute him there but handcuffed him and led him to a nearby jail. During that time they cursed at him and beat him with iron chains. His body was badly bruised and scared from the beating that he had received. Inside the prison, he breathed sighs of pain but he did not lose his serenity. He lacked, however, the energy and the strength to speak … blood was pouring out of his head and mouth and flowing down his beard.

Martyred in Gijón

Father was led from that jail to the church of Sagrado Corazón (a Jesuit parish that had been converted into a prison) and from there to the church of San José. At 4:00pm on August 14th all the prisoners in the parish church of San Jose were removed from … they were to be executed. The crowd was enraged and was seeking blood and vengeance … they cried out for the heads of the priests who had been imprisoned. The good and charitable Father Ricardo Atanes was among those prisoners and so Father Ricardo with his calm and peaceful appearance, along with some other three hundred companions, was thrown (like an old and useless sack) into one of “pickup trucks of death”. Even though he would have liked to have been able to defend himself from the treatment that he received, his weakened condition did not allow him to do so.

On the eve of the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Begoña in Gijón, the executioners found another excuse to justify the death of some many enemies of liberty. Therefore on the eve of this important feast day, priests and men and women religious and lay people were put to death because they were viewed as having deceived people (they were referred to as useless beasts and hypocrites). The trucks, now filled with the prisoners, sped off, leaving a cloud of dust behind them. They reached a pine forest located on one of the hills that surrounds Gijón (not far from the reservoirs of water which gave this place the name crying tears). There the prisoners were pulled from the trucks with ropes, lined up and then riddled with bullets. This occurred on August 14th, the evening before the feast of the Assumption. The Queen of Heaven gathered her children under her cloak and led them to heaven to live there with her and with her Son. Father Ricardo was sixty-one years old and had always remained faithful to the Lord.

[This biography, which can be found in Spanish on the website of the Madrid Province (http://www.paulesmadrid.org/), is an adaptation of the work done by Antonio Orcajo, CM and published by Editorial La Milagrosa, Madrid in the year 2012 under the title Misioneros Paúles Mártires de la Revolución Religiosa en España: 1934-1936 and translated into English by Charles T. Plock, CM].