Sunday, April 29, 2012

Father Francisco Esquembre: The Patriot Priest

On this day, in 1870, Father [José] Francisco Esquembre y Guzmán (1838-70), parish priest of the church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, in Yaguaramas, was shot by firing squad at Cienfuegos, by order of the military governor of Las Villas, for the "crime" of blessing the Cuban flag and preaching a sermon to the rebel troops in support of independence. Before his execution, and as the result of a canonical trial where the accused was not present nor a defense permitted on his behalf, Father Esquembre was ordered defrocked and thus deprived of the Church's protection. This was no mere formality: a notarized account exists of the actual ceremony, conducted in his jail cell, where the now former priest was stripped of his vestments and handed over to the secular authorities, which had already determined his fate.

If Cuba's Catholic Church today were a church militant it would honor the memory of the patriot-priest who acted as Father Varela would have if he had lived to see the dawn of Cuban independence. But the Cuban Church has never embraced Esquembre's example and prefers rather to forget it. The regime's official historians also see nothing to exalt in the conduct of a priest who defied his archbishop and the pope's pro-Spanish position to lend aid and comfort to his country's defenders. 

In 1868 and again in 1895, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Cuba as well as most of the clergy were in complete sympathy with the upholders of despotism on the island: priests received authorization to break the seal of the confessional whenever they suspected sedition against the Spanish Crown; funds collected in churches for charitable purposes were redirected to the prosecution of a war of extinction against Cubans;  the churches themselves were turned into forts and arms depots superintended by the resident priests; and some clerics, the most bellicose and reactionary, raised their own regiments and went into battle themselves. All that can be said on their behalf is that that they were following orders, not just from Madrid but Rome.

Pius IX (1846-1878) and his successor Leo XIII (1878-1903), who called themselves "the prisoners of the Vatican" because a resurrected Italy had annexed the Papal States and circumscribed their Lebensraum ("living space") from 41,440 sq km to less than half of 1 sq km, did not see any parallel (not that there really was any)  between their situation and that of hundreds of thousands of Cubans forcibly removed from their lands and imprisoned in campos de reconcentración. On the contrary, both pontiffs extended the papal blessing to the Spanish troops that were being sent to "pacify" the island. The Bishop of Santander personally conveyed the pope's message to the "new crusaders" (who included Fidel Castro's father): "You are the defenders of a just cause, a holy cause, the cause of right against wrong, of civilization against barbarism ... Since yours is a just cause, the Lord of Hosts is with you. His Vicar on Earth [the pope] blesses you, his bishops cheer you, and all true believers pray for you."

In 1898, after the sinking of the USS Maine, Pope Leo XIII offered himself as mediator between Spain and the U.S. to "avoid war." He was obviously oblivious to the fact that Cubans had been fighting a war with Spain for the last three years in which one-third of the island's population had already been decimated. His "good offices," which eventually proved ineffectual and unnecessary, had as their object the peaceful transfer of Cuba from Spanish to U.S. jurisdiction, thereby preventing a "barbarian" [i.e. Cuban] victory.

Both Pius IX and Leo XIII were beatified by Pope John Paul II and will likely be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. One of the staunchest defenders of Spanish despotism in Cuba, Cardinal Ciríaco Sancha Hervá, Archbishop-Primate of Toledo and Patriarch of the West Indies, was beatified by this pope in 2007. Heaven, apparently, is filled with  enemies of Cuban freedom; and among living hierarchs, especially in Cuba -- but also in the Vatican -- it has no friends.

We do not doubt that Cardinal Ortega has already set up the statues of these "worthies" in Havana's Cathedral. There is an altar to them, anyhow, in what he is pleased to call his heart. But the Catholic Church has not erected even a plaque to honor the memory of the patriot-priest, whose example it would prefer to confine to oblivion.

On the "Paseo de Independencia," in Cienfuegos, a modest column was raised by public subscription to the memory of the patriots killed at the Campos de Marsillán. Father Esquembre's name appears there. This collective monument is the only one that commemorates his martyrdom.

But stone is not the only material for monuments, nor is it the most indestructible. Perhaps Martí was thinking of Francisco Esquembre, the priest whose last church was the woods where he offered his life for the redemption of his country, when he wrote in Versos sencillos:

Busca el obispo de España
Pilares para su altar;
¡En mi templo, en la montaña,
El álamo es el pilar!

Y la alfombra es puro helecho,
Y los muros abedul,
Y la luz viene del techo,
Del techo de cielo azul.

The sightless bishop of Spain
Wants pillars to hold his altar:
In my temple, on the mountain,
My pillars are made of poplar!

Of purest fern are the carpets,
And the walls are of birch tree,
And a brilliant light it gets
From a sky-blue canopy.

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