Father Christopher Hartley, diocesan priest of Toledo and missionary in Ethiopia, tells in the prologue of a book about Garabandal his relationship with this place and how it influenced his priestly vocation:
The Blessed Virgin appeared in the town of San Sebastian of Garabandal to four girls from that hidden and cramped town, on the slopes of the impressive Cantabrian mountain range, in the municipality of Rionansa.
Four girls, village teenagers: Mari Loli, Jacinta, Mari Cruz and Conchita.
A beautiful love story between a mother and her daughters. Between the Blessed Virgin Mary and – through these daughters of hers – with all of us, with all humanity.
From 1961 to 1965, on the side of the mountain, in the shade and the cool breeze of the pine trees, the Mother of God visited that town, as if She were one more neighbour, her own village. She, with those four girls, the good people of the town and – with the passing of time – thousands of pilgrims, went through its streets, its humble stone houses, about eighty at the time of the apparitions … There the Mother of God lived with her people, as the daughter of the town and at the same time as Lady and Queen of its people … As she did in those hidden years of Nazareth.
I went to Garabandal as a pilgrim for the first time when I was just a child, it would be mid-1969, along with my mother and other pilgrims coming from Madrid … I was 10 years old at that time, nothing more, but I remember it perfectly as if it had been this morning.
The memory of the heart fills me with tears and endearing memories, of indescribable emotions that squeeze in the small heart of just a child.
I firmly believed in the veracity of the apparitions, from the first moment, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, because I believed everything my mother told me with blind faith and absolute certainty.
I remember climbing up to the pine trees, climbing the elusive slopes and the uneven cobbles covered with mosses and ferns, with the innocent joy of those who know that the grass, those branches, had been stepped on by my Blessed Mother. There I knew everything about Her … I remember Marichu’s house in which I stayed, the kitchen in the basement and the elderly sitting around the walnut table talking about the apparitions with a choked voice and full of emotion.
I do not know how much I would understand, but there I was, sitting on the stairs and looking excitedly through the wooden bars of the railing; I would not understand much, but I was fascinated. With open eyes and even more open heart.
I remember that while the elders climbed slowly and fatigued to the pines, watching where they stepped while they prayed the Hail Marys panting, I climbed like a deer up the slopes, I had to get to the pines first … From there, I looked down triumphantly, like the one who has arrived first, while the older ones, with their heads down, slowly walked up and sat on the meadow next to the apparition pine tree.
We visited the village church … everything seemed so old … so old, so cramped … I saw that my mother sat with the women, and they sent me to the back of the church where the men sat … After mass we greeted the parish priest, Don Valentin Marichalar, who climbed on horseback from Cosío. I remember his silhouette, with the cassock of a frayed and solemn black at the same time, and it made a huge impression on me.
We greeted the seers in their homes, I remember perfectly the morning we visited Conchita, it was a sunny and cool day, although it was already in June. There was a low wooden bench attached to the wall of the house next to his door. I was sitting next to his mother, Aniceta, a wonderful village woman, strong and straight, tanned with suns and rains, of the thousand inclemencies of a hard and worked life.
I had my priestly vocation at age fifteen, it was March 8, 1974. I asked my parents for permission to go alone to Garabandal on the Saint Joseph holiday weekend, with my climber’s backpack and my tent. I remember leaving the Northern Station of Madrid towards Torrelavega, from there, through Puentenansa and Cosío, I climbed the last five kilometers to Garabandal. I camped in the pines, lying in my sleeping bag, I cooked and I was going to wash in the river … I had two weeks of vocation and almost nobody knew it yet! The secret of a fifteen-year-old kid.
And there, kneeling under the shade of the pines, I prayed the rosary and read the Bible … such was the emotion and awe I felt, that two weeks later – it was Holy Week – I came back with my backpack full of teenage dreams, I was going to be a priest !
On Holy Thursday I went to the religious services with the rest of the town and many pilgrims and foreigners … I saw that there was a priest confessing, they told me that the bishop had sent him those days to celebrate the holy triduum and that he was staying at Maximina’s house, Conchita’s aunt.
I confessed with him. I do not remember the sins of a kid that I would confess to him, what I do remember was that I told him that “I wanted to be a priest”.
His name was Father Luis Martinez.
I owe to this priest that I found in the church of Garabandal almost everything that I am today. I did not have much more dealings with him, but his influence was going to be decisive for my future:
He was the one who encouraged my parents to give me permission to enter the seminary in September of that same year.
It was he who told my parents to send me to the Toledo seminary … If I had not entered the Toledo seminary, what would have happened to me …?
That “vocational confession” was so long in that tiny and ramshackle confessional, that the people of the town, years later, said “look, that’s the kid who made that so long confession”. I was on my knees all the time while I entrusted this magnificent pastor of souls my vocational concerns, but I spent time as if nothing …
Garabandal – with its simple message, its austere call to conversion, to prayer, to fasting, to penance, to think more about the Passion of the Lord and to grow in devotion to the Holy Eucharist … with its cry of warning before the priests, bishops and cardinals who go down the path of perdition, dragging with them many souls … – remains a place of grace and salvation, a privileged place of the Spanish Marian geography.
Our Lady went through every little corner of that village, as if it were her own town, as if She were one more woman of that land, starting with “the alley (la calleja)” at the foot of the apple tree. From there, with the help of the Archangel Saint Michael she continues to call us all, to a life of conversion and penance, of repentance and new life.
The years have passed since the last time the Blessed Virgin appeared to these four girls, now teenagers. But She is still there, as a guide and teacher of pilgrims, inviting us all to look at Jesus Christ in his Blessed Catholic Church, moving gently, tenderly as a mother, to the sacraments of Confession and the Holy Eucharist.
May this book help you discover a simple story, of a simple town, where Our Lady Saint Mary, under the invocation of Our Lady of Carmen, walked with her people, the people of her Son.
May the Good God, discover what I discovered, what a fifteen-year-old boy discovered through its narrow streets.
What God wants from you.
Father Christopher Hartley
Diocesan priest of Toledo (Spain)
Missionary in Ethiopia
Comment: I love this writing by Father Christopher Hartley, a Spanish-British priest, a brave missionary in Africa and South America, who was also with Mother Theresa. I am trying to find the book about Garabandal where this introduction was published and it is now remembered by Infovaticana.