Benedictines vow to stay at Spanish civil war site despite bill's provisions

OXFORD, England (CNS) -- A community of Benedictine monks has vowed to continue ministering at a Spanish civil war memorial marked by a 460-foot cross despite a bill pending in parliament that would ban expressions of support for Gen. Francisco Franco's 20th-century dictatorship.

The Benedictines have long overseen the site, located in the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid.

Spain's Socialist-led government's Cabinet July 20 approved a final draft of the bill, called the Democratic Memory Law. The measure would redesignate the valley as a "place of democratic memory" and require the removal of fixtures deemed to extol Franco, who portrayed himself as a fervent Catholic.

"Although this draft law provides for the extinction of our foundation, the text says nothing about our community's disappearance," Father Santiago Cantera Montenegro, prior of the Valley of the Fallen, said after the cabinet's action.

"So we'll continue our life tranquilly and normally, knowing God and our heavenly mother are watching over us," he said.

In a July 22 letter to fellow monks, Father Cantera said Spanish media had spread "disturbing news" about the bill, reported the online Spanish language news site Religion Digital. He added that he hoped the Benedictine order could continue running its hostel and music school at the site.

Franco's remains were exhumed from a pontifical basilica at the site and reinterred at a family crypt north of Madrid in October 2019.

Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra of Madrid also criticized the bill.

"We don't know in detail what the government wants to do in the Valley," the cardinal said in a July 21 tweet. "But we must remember the church, and particularly the Benedictine community present there, has always stood for reconciliation and for all victims. The cross is a symbol of love and dedication."

In addition, the Association to Defend the Valley has called on Christians to resist the changes, while more than 56,000 Spaniards also urged church leaders and the Vatican in a September 2020 petition to oppose them as an assault on religious freedom.

The legislation includes provisions to annul Franco-era trials and offer reparation to "victims of fascism." The Valley of the Fallen would be redesignated a civil cemetery and heritage site under a transitional supervisory board.

Presenting the draft law July 20, Félix Bolaños, the minister overseeing the bill, said it reflected international standards of truth, justice, reparation and the "duty of memory," and would facilitate further investigation of Franco-era crimes.

He added that the law would require closure of the Benedictines' Holy Cross Foundation, created in 1957, and the exhumation of other right-wing figures, but said the pontifical basilica could remain open if it reflected "democratic values."

However, Father Cantera said in his letter it would take "months, even years" for the law to secure parliamentary enactment and royal assent after constitutional appeals, and urged fellow-monks to "remain serene, keeping peace and trusting in God."