Why Spain’s largest cross and its guardians are in danger

The Cross of the Valley of the Fallen is erected on a granite outcrop, 150 meters above the basilica. / Estefania Aguirre

Madrid, Spain, August 12, 2022 / 1:32 a.m. (CNA).

In a move that could destroy the world’s largest cross, the Spanish government wants to turn the world’s longest basilica into a “museum of Franco’s horrors”.

The Basilica of the Holy Cross in the Valley of the Dead sits at the center of a memorial site, about 45 km (28 miles) northwest of Madrid.

The landmark under the imposing cross includes an abbey and the basilica. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco ordered its construction to honor the dead on both sides during the Spanish Civil War. The bodies of more than 30,000 victims are buried in the complex.

A new law aimed at “the removal of Francoist symbols” could not only remove the cross from the memorial site – other public crosses in Spain have already been removed – but also compel the Benedictine monks, guardians of the site since 1958, looking outside the abbey adjacent to the basilica.

The final resting place of martyrs and victims on both sides of the Spanish Civil War is also at risk: their graves are expected to be exhumed under government plans.

The Catholic Church has already recognized 66 of the dead buried at the memorial site as martyrs and will recognize three more in November.

There are also more than 40 Servants of God whose process for beatification is in progress. The walls of the side chapels of the basilica, leading to the high altar, house the relics of many saints.

The Underground Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen in Spain.  Estefania Aguirre
The Underground Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen in Spain. Estefania Aguirre

In an interview with CNA, the former administrator of the Benedictine community in the valley, Father Santiago Cantera, said that “the problem is the great indifference and ignorance of the people, but I think there are more people who oppose the destruction of this place than people who are in favor of such a movement.”

“A lot of people are fed up [the government] stir up the problems of the war because what we really have in Spain are economic, social and employment problems,” he added on August 3.

According to the prior, a former university professor with a doctorate. in medieval history and author of 21 books, society must become aware of the artistic, cultural and religious values ​​of the Valley of the Dead. For Father Cantera, these values ​​are more important than political agendas.

“We cannot continue to use the Civil War of nearly a century ago to argue for political groups that have no plans for the future and want to use the past to buttress a Constitution for a new Republic,” said the Benedictine. .

The “Law of Democratic Memory” was approved in July by the Congress of Deputies. It will be debated in the Senate next September.

The new law would allow for the exhumation of more than 33,000 victims on both sides of the civil war. Some estimates put the numbers at 50,000-70,000. The exhumation would also mean the destruction of around half of the basilica.

The Association for the Defense of the Valle de los Caídos (Association for the Defense of the Valley of the Dead) is made up of 212 families who have relatives buried on the site. They come from both sides of the civil war. Yet they are united in their strong opposition to any exhumation of their deceased family members.

The president of the Association and fierce defender of the Valley, Pablo Linares, comes from the family of a communist who worked in the Valley under Franco after the civil war.

The father, sister and uncle of the abbot emeritus of the monastery, Father Anselmo Álvarez Navarrete, are also buried there.

The law will require the creation of a “National DNA Data Bank of Civil War Victims” and the eradication of foundations that “exalted” the Franco regime – including the Valley of the Fallen Holy Cross Foundation.

The law will prohibit teachers from speaking positively about Franco.

The name of the site will also be changed from “Valley of the Dead” to “Valley of Cuelgamuros”, the geographical name of the region.

About the Valley of the Dead

The basilica is an underground church carved into the interior of a mountain within an enclosure that covers 3,360 acres of woods. The site also contains a Benedictine abbey and a guest house adjacent to the basilica.

Franco ordered the construction of the basilica and the abbey to heal the wounds of the civil war. The monks offer daily masses at the basilica for the souls buried there and for the unity of Spain.

The services are accompanied by Gregorian chants from the Escolaniaa boys’ choir boarding school run by the Benedictines.

The Escolania is the only place in the world that teaches children how to read Gregorian chant in its oldest form, Gregorian palaeography. They learn to sing by reading the Tetragrammaton and two even older pneumatic scriptures. It currently has about fifty students aged 8 to 18.

According to historian Alberto Bárcena Pérez, Franco wanted to bury as many victims as possible in the basilica and obtained help from town halls and written permission from the families of the victims.

The main altar of the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen in Spain during the mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 2019. Estefanía Aguirre
The main altar of the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen in Spain during the mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 2019. Estefanía Aguirre

Franco was buried behind the altar, although he never asked for it. The government exhumed his body, despite opposition from Franco’s family and monks, on October 24, 2019. Bárcena claims the exhumation was part of a Scottish Freemasonic rite due to the way authorities are positioned during the event. The monks privately celebrated many masses and acts of reparation afterwards.

Once the law is passed, the government would exhume the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange, which is buried in front of the altar. He was shot dead by Republicans, aged 33.

Franco and Primo de Rivera died on November 20, decades apart.

Earlier this year, Guinness World Records recognized the Basilica Cross as the largest free-standing cross in the world. It was measured at 152.4 meters (500 feet) high.

The record books also include the basilica, 260 meters (853 feet) long, the longest in the world. Built between 1940 and 1958, the church cost around $229 million. Under Pope John XXIII, the church was elevated “to the honor and dignity of a minor basilica” in April 1960.

Due to the excellent geological stability and isolation of the area, it also has an underground gravimetry and tidal laboratory in two of its basements. Researchers around the world use it to study Earth’s tides, gravimetry and absolute gravity.

The entire enclosure works through the Fundación de la Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos (Foundation of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Dead). The Foundation is both owned by the Spanish government, previously managed by the head of state, but now by the government national heritage (National Heritage) — and the Benedictine monks.

Patrimonio takes care of obtaining financing, mainly by selling entrance tickets at the main entrance gate at the bottom of the valley. The law stipulates that he must give part of this money to the monks to maintain the employees of the Escolania and the guesthouse.

However, Patrimonio stopped paying the monks four years ago, putting economic pressure on the abbey, which now maintains the compound with the help of private donations and other funds.

The architects estimated that the damage to the Valley of the Fallen site would cost several million dollars to repair.  Estefania Aguirre
The architects estimated that the damage to the Valley of the Fallen site would cost several million dollars to repair. Estefania Aguirre

The architects estimated that the damage to the abbey and basilica would cost several million dollars to repair.

Patrimonio also blocks maintenance work paid for by private donations. The complex is completely run down.

Fifteen years of “ferocious harassment”

Since the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero adopted the Historical Memory Act’ in 2007, tensions rose between the government and the religious community.

“We were fiercely harassed,” said Father Cantera.

“I had a tough time four years ago, but I took it as a purification from which I came out stronger,” he said.

“All because of the media harassment, the attempt to publicly mock me in the Senate when they called me in about the exhumations.”

“As there were families who objected to the exhumation of the remains of other dead, as is currently the case, at that time we (the monks) were forced to intervene and present an appeal, and the courts have decreed a series of precautionary measures suspending the procedure”, he continued.

“From then on, as they had judicially lost the first battle, they started harassing me in the media and denigrating me as a person.”

Despite the struggles, the community welcomes many young vocations. There are six monks under the age of 30: three who have made profession of temporary vows, two of solemn vows and a soon-to-be admitted postulant.

The Benedictines make a vow of stability added to those of poverty, chastity and obedience. When they go to a place, they usually stay there for life. Many have been martyred for this reason throughout history.