Vatican will force prior to allow Franco’s exhumation from the Valley of the Fallen

The pope’s right-hand man Pietro Parolin has sent a letter saying the Holy See will ensure Santiago Cantera does not stop the government’s plans to remove the dictator’s remains

The Valley of the Fallen, where Franco is buried.
The Valley of the Fallen, where Franco is buried.Susana Vera / REUTERS

The Vatican has reiterated its support for the exhumation of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from the controversial Valley of the Fallen monument, located northwest of Madrid, and said it will ensure religious authorities at the site do not impede the plans of the Socialist Party (PSOE) government.

The prior refused to grant the government authorization to access Franco’s tomb in January

In a letter to Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo, Pietro Parolin, the pope’s right-hand man and the Vatican secretary of state, said that “the Church does not oppose the exhumation of the mortal remains of General Franco, if it is ordered by the relevant authorities. The Order of Saint Benedict of the Santa Cruz Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen was reminded and will continue to be reminded of its civic duty to fully observe the order and respect civilian authorities.”

This is the second time Parolin has publicly written in support of the exhumation but the first time he has specifically mentioned the order that controls the basilica where Franco is buried.

The letter was sent on February 14 after the deputy prime minister alerted him to the objections of the prior of the Valley of the Fallen, Santiago Cantera, who refused to grant the government authorization to access Franco’s tomb in January. Cantera, who was a former candidate for the neo-fascist party Falange, denied the government’s request, citing the strong opposition of the Franco family and the legal dispute over the exhumation in the courts.

Parolin’s letter clarifies confusion over the Church’s position and provides the government with clear written approval to go ahead with the exhumation with the support of the Vatican.

The letter comes just days after Spanish Cabinet approved an agreement to give the final green light for the exhumation of Franco’s remains. The agreement outlines that the government has the “legal mandate” to remove the dictator’s tomb from a place of worship.

The Franco family – which is strongly opposed to their grandfather being exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen – has promised to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court.

Meeting with the Vatican

Last year on October 29, Calvo traveled to the Holy See to meet with Parolin and secure support for the exhumation from the Vatican. The Vatican made it clear it did not oppose the government’s plans but refused to wade in on where the dictator should be reburied.

The Franco family wanted the dictator be laid to rest in La Almudena cathedral in downtown Madrid, where his daughter Carmen Polo is buried. But this would have undermined the purpose of the exhumation and risk turning the cathedral, which is frequently visited by tourists, into a new and more accessible pilgrimage site for the dictator’s supporters.

The Church does not oppose the exhumation of the mortal remains of General Franco

Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin

While the Vatican was uncomfortable with the idea, it issued an unexpected statement to clarify that it accepted the exhumation but had no comment on the new resting place. The Church indicated that the government needed a legal reform or administrative order to show why Franco could not be buried in La Almudena.

To stop the Franco family from reburying the dictator’s remain in La Almudena, the central government’s delegate in Madrid published a report at the end of December concluding that the body must not be interred in the cathedral on reasons of public order, the risk of terrorist threats, and the possibility of confrontations between supporters and detractors in the crypt itself, a holy site where the police would not be able to enter.

Valley of the Fallen

The 13.6-square kilometer Valley of the Fallen site remains hotly contested in a country still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the dictatorship of Franco, who was the Spanish head of state from the end of the Civil War in 1939 to his death in 1975.

The site was ostensibly built to commemorate all of the victims on both sides of Spain’s bitter and bloody Civil War, and the remains of more than 33,000 victims of the conflict lie there. But critics point out that the Valley of the Fallen, which features a basilica and a 150-meter-high cross that dominates the surrounding countryside, contains just two marked graves: those of Franco himself and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange, Spain’s fascist-inspired political party. At the same time, thousands of prisoners of war who fought against Franco in the civil conflict were among the workforce used in its construction.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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