December 18, 1996

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


December 18, 1996
Advent Season

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Within a few days we will celebrate Christmas, a feast which is intensely experienced by all the children in each family.... Christmas is the feast of a child. Jesus, who wished to share the experience of childhood, always showed an extraordinary affection for children. He is pleased to give them His choicest graces, as He did for the servant of God, María del Carmen González-Valerio y Sáenz de Heredia. On January 12, 1996, the Holy Father Pope John Paul II proclaimed the heroism of virtues of this child, bestowing upon her the title of "Venerable." She had only spent nine years and four months on earth.

A source of strength

Mari Carmen was born in Madrid on March 14, 1930, the second of five children. She fell gravely ill immediately after her birth, and she was quickly baptized, without delay. The good Lord did not wish to delay in removing original sin from her soul, to enrich her with His grace and thus make her His child. Following completely unforeseen circumstances, she was confirmed at the age of two, on April 16, 1932, thanks to the action of Msgr. Tedeschini, the nuncio in Spain and a friend of the family. The Holy Spirit had hastened to give her the courage that she was going to need.

At the age of six she made her First Communion. The date had been moved up by request of her mother. She said: "I was convinced that Spain and in particular our family were going to go through a very difficult period. We saw that a religious persecution was in the making, and I wanted Mari Carmen to make her First Communion beforehand." "First Communion is without a doubt an unforgettable encounter with Jesus; it is a day that one must recall as one of the most beautiful of one's life. The Eucharist, instituted by Christ on the night of His Passion, in the course of the Last Supper, is a sacrament of the New Covenant, and it is really the greatest of the sacraments. In it the Lord gives Himself as nourishment for souls in the form of bread and wine. Children receive it solemnly for the first time-specifically at First Communion- and they are invited to receive it after that as often as possible, in order to remain in a state of intimate friendship with Jesus.... In the history of the Church, the Eucharist has been for quite a number of children a source of spiritual strength, sometimes even of heroism" (John Paul II, Letter to Children, November 21, 1994). That is why Pope Saint Pius X permitted and encouraged the reception of Holy Communion right from the dawn of the age of reason. Mari Carmen was the happy beneficiary of that. Her mother said: "She really started to become holy after her First Communion." And it was during one of her Communions that she offered herself completely to God.

On August 15, 1936, the communist militia arrested her father. He said to his wife: "The children are too small, they don't understand. Tell them later that their father gave his life for God and Spain so that they can be raised in a Catholic Spain, where the crucifix is present in the schools." Shortly thereafter he was murdered. After the death of her husband, Mrs. González-Valerio found her own life in great danger on account of her Christian faith. She took refuge in the Belgian embassy, while her children were taken in by one of their aunts. One day she learned that the five children were going to be sent away to the USSR, like so many others, to be brought up under Marxism. The ambassador then decided to take the children into the embassy, even though there was no place for them. It was February 11, 1937.

Man's proper dignity

Mari Carmen, who was six years old, was very attentive to helping her mother a lot while remaining "a child, very much a child." And nevertheless she stood out by a modesty which she practiced even in what may seem to be insignificant details. Her mother retold: "One day she had to go to a children's party. I had dressed her in a small, sleeveless, low-necked dress, and I told her not to wrinkle it. Then I noticed that she had slipped on a jacket. I became angry and scolded her. She told me tearfully that she would not go out in this dress. My mother, who was present during this tragic affair, took me aside and told me that I didn't have the right to stifle these feelings of modesty that she had already noticed in the child, and that I would have to be accountable to God for the upbringing I was giving her. So Mari Carmen went to the party with her jacket on." Her grandmother was right: "This instinctive modesty comes from God."

This special delicacy, inspired by God, explains the attitude of Mari Carmen in circumstances which wouldn't matter much to other children. When she was two years old, she wouldn't let herself be undressed in front of her brother, who was a year older than she, who happened to be in the room but wasn't paying attention to her. In the summer, she really hated going to the beach, and would have preferred playing in the garden at home. Her mother said: "It was at that moment that I began to understand that there was something exceptional in my daughter's behavior."

This strong love for modesty proceeds from the intense enlightenment that God had given her concerning the grandeur and fragility of the virtue of chastity. Divine Providence thus wished to give a lofty example to our "let yourself go" era. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gets our attention in the same sense when it speaks of modesty: "Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity. Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.

"There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements.... Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies. The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person."(2521-2524). In an instruction on December 8, 1995, the Pontifical Council for the Family speaks up against certain tendencies to immodesty in contemporary society: "Even if they are socially acceptable, there are ways of speaking and dressing which are morally incorrect and which represent a vulgarization of sexuality, reducing it to an object to be consumed. Parents should teach their children the value of Christian modesty, of sober dressing, of the necessary liberty concerning fashions, which are all characteristics of a mature masculine or feminine personality" (97).

A night at the hotel

Mari Carmen also excelled in charity to the poor. When a poor man knocked at the door and she answered, first she gave him some small change, and then said to him: "Now, knock again so that Mama will give you something." She showed a delicacy beyond her age to the people who helped out her mother: "Mother, treat the servants well. They are already taking care of us quite a bit. Remember that you too are a servant, since you serve the Good Lord." Her grandmother told the following story: "We gave money to Mari Carmen so that she could buy some toys, but she gave it to her governess so that she could buy toys for her children, and told her not to say anything about it to her mother or myself."

Mari Carmen's piety could be seen very early on. From the age of four or five she liked leading the family Rosary and recited by heart the Litany of the Most Blessed Virgin. Like Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, she made herself a "chaplet of sacrificial acts" on which she counted her acts of virtue. In the same way, she also gave herself over to the "particular examen" of virtues and faults proposed by Saint Ignatius. In the same spirit, she kept a notebook of "Acts," in order to see virtues and obligations of each day: obedience, mortification, recreation, classes, study, Rosary, Communion, Mass, ejaculatory prayers, etc. One day, when she saw her mother overwhelmed by household responsibilities, she said to her: "Mom, you are too worried about the things of this earth. You should pray more. We are only in a brief passage on the earth." - "My dear child, I have to take care of the house." - "Mom, your house is in Heaven. Mom, when you are on a trip, and you spend the night in a hotel, you don't worry about tidying up the room, nor do you put papa's photo out. You just get through the night. Really, Mom, life is like that, and that's how we should pass our time in this world."

Mari Carmen loved to offer small sacrifices to the Heart of Jesus. Her religion teacher related: "When I was preparing the children for confession, I could see in her face her horror of sin and her efforts to make a good act of contrition." All of these acts, despite her young age, sprung forth, as from a deep well, from her intimacy with God.

A secret and an offering

Mari Carmen had her secrets. On her notebook, she wrote three times : "Personal." She often looked for her satchel, where she kept a diary in which she wrote these words understood only by herself: "I gave myself to God in the parish of the Good Shepherd on April 6, 1939." She noted as well: "They have killed my poor father." And on one of the last pages: "Long live Spain. Long live Christ the King!!!" the cry shouted out by the martyrs of the war at the moment of their deaths. And also: "For Papa, May 7, 1939, totally personal." She said to her nurse: "My father died a martyr, poor Mama, and I die a victim."

Her uncle Xavier explained: "Mari Carmen sought the conversion of sinners, as proved by the fact that she offered the sufferings of her illness and death for Azaña, the President of the Republic, who was the symbol incarnate of religious persecutions, the instruments of whom were her father's murderers." "Mama, will Azaña go to Heaven?" she asked. - "If you sacrifice and pray for him, yes, he will be saved." Mari Carmen understood well. Sometimes she said to her aunt: "Aunt Fifa, let us pray for Papa and for all of those who killed him." The prayer of children has a particular effectiveness on the Heart of Our Lord: "The Redeemer of humanity seems to share with them their care for others, for parents and for their friends, boys and girls. He really is waiting for their prayers! What immense power the prayer of children has! It becomes a model for adults themselves: to pray with a simple and total confidence means to pray as children know how to pray" (John Paul II, Letter to Children, November 21, 1994).

On November 3, 1940, Azaña died at Montauban. According to the written testimony of Bishop Theas, who gave him spiritual aid at this time, Azaña, in spite of the friends who surrounded him, received in a clear state of mind the Sacrament of Penance as well as Extreme Unction and the Plenary Indulgence, dying quietly in the love of God and the hope of seeing Him. He didn't realize that he had crossed paths with a little girl of nine years who prayed and suffered for him.

"Jesus, Mary Joseph..."

Shortly after the "offering" of April 6, 1939, her Calvary began: she had to remain in bed. At first, an otitis appeared, then complications which deteriorated into a septicemia (blood infection). On May 27, she was taken in a car to Madrid where she was operated on. But since it was clear that her illness was going to be long term, she was brought back home. On some days she received more than twenty injections. A very strong continuous diarrhea was particularly troublesome for her. She had to take in a kind of repugnant puree of acorns every two hours. Sometimes her disgust was such that she could not prevent herself from vomiting, but a half-hour later she was ready to take it again without protesting.

The disease attacked an ear, and she lost the other one for having lain on it too long. After this a double phlebitis set in. Gangrenous wounds formed. She passed out from pain when her bedding was changed. Only the name of Jesus permitted her to put up with all of this, for no one thought of giving her tranquillizers. "Mari Carmen, ask the Child Jesus to cure you," her mother told her. "No, Mama, I do not ask that, I ask that His will be done." Often, she wished that the prayers for the dying be read to her, and her spirit was more in Heaven than in this world.

July 17, 1939. She had predicted several times that she would die on July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was also her own feast day: Carmen. But having learned that her Aunt Sophie was to be married on that day, she announced that she would not die until the next day. Indeed, on the 17th, about 1:00 P.M., she found herself in the presence of the angels whose singing she could hear. "I die a martyr.... Let me go now, Doctor, don't you realize that the Blessed Virgin comes looking for me with the angels?" Indeed, to the amazement of all, joining her small hands, she said; "Jesus, Mary, Joseph, assist me in my last agony: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, let me breathe forth my soul in peace with you." These were her last words. Then lifting herself up slightly, as if to take something, she fell back on the pillow and breathed her last sigh, without agony, without a grimace on her face. Her body, disfigured by illness, completely transformed itself and exuded a sweet odor. The coroner confirmed that the child was dead, but that her body did not have the appearance of a cadaver.

A touchstone

The example of Mari Carmen shows us what the grace of God and a good upbringing can produce by way of sanctifying children. The task of education requires loving and delicate attention towards children, as St. Benedict recommends: "Their weakness must always be taken into account... and they should be treated with kindly consideration" (Rule, ch. 37). But sound firmness is equally necessary, according to the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment and self-mastery-the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the `material and instinctual dimensions to the interior and spiritual ones.' Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them.... Through the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage, parents receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children.... Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith of which they are the `first heralds' for their children. They should associate them from their tenderest years with the life of the Church.... Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God" (2223-2226).

An electronic babysitter

In our audiovisual era, it is fundamentally important that parents protect their children from the influence of a "culture of death" based on pornography and violence. In his message on the family and television, Pope John Paul II was precise: "Parents must actively participate in the formation of their childrens' habits of using television so that they lead them to a healthy moral and religious human development. Parents must themselves be informed in advance of the content of programs and make a conscientious choice for the good of the family in choosing to watch or not to watch.... Parents should also discuss television with their children, urging them to control the quantity and quality of what they watch, and urging them to notice and judge the ethical underpinnings of certain programs....

"Forming the usage habits of children will sometimes quite simply mean turning off the television set: because there is something better to do, because it shows respect for other members of the family, or because indiscriminate use of the television can be dangerous. Parents who use the television regularly and on a long term basis as a sort of electronic babysitter abdicate their role as the first teachers of their children. Such a dependence on the television can prevent members of the family from being in contact with one another for conversation, sharing activities and praying together. Wise parents also know that even good programs can be replaced by other sources of information, entertainment, education and culture" (January 24, 1994).

Mari Carmen's parents did not have to face the problem of television, as does contemporary society. But, in every age, the Holy Spirit enlightens fathers and mothers of families to help them discern what is proper for the education of their children and what is conducive to the eternal salvation of their souls. Let us beseech Venerable Mari Carmen to intercede in a special manner for families as we prepare for Christmas. We pray for you and for all those who are dear to you, living and deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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