The episcopal history of Barcelona is extremely well-documented for such an ancient see. The diocese was originally a suffragan of the very ancient Archdiocese of Tarragona, in southern Catalonia. St. Paul mentioned in his Epistle to the Romans (15:24, 28) that he was on his way to Spain, and St. Jerome asserted that St. Paul founded the first Christian community in the city of Tarraco (the modern-day city of Tarragona, south of Barcelona).
At the time of the Apostles, Tarragona was the capital of the large Roman province of Tarraconensis, which encompassed all of northern, central, and eastern Spain, and Barcelona was a small city on the road to Gaul. Over time, Tarragona shrank in size and was supplanted by Barcelona both in size and importance. However it was only in 1964 the Diocese of Barcelona separated from Tarragona, and was made a Metropolitan Archdiocese by Pope Paul VI.
Church tradition in Barcelona says the arrival of Christianity goes back to Apostolic Times, specifically to Saint Aetherius, a disciple of St. James the Apostle, who supposedly brought Christianity to Barcelona in 37 A.D., although it is more likely he was born in 37 A.D. Tradition also says he was succeeded by Saint Theodosius, who ruled until 94 A.D. After a series of bishops whose names we know, but whose words and works are known to God alone, the next notable bishop was Saint Severus, who was born in Barcelona in the third century.
St. Severus served as bishop of Barcelona from about 290 to 304 A.D., when he was martyred by use of the cat-of-nine-tails under the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian. His shrine is located in a Baroque church not far from Barcelona’s Cathedral. However, there are also relics of him at the Monastery of Sant Cugat, just outside the city, where he had fled to escape the persecutions.
The first extant documentation of the diocese begins with Bishop Praetextatus, who is mentioned as being in attendance at the Church Council of Sardica (now the city of Sofia, capital of Bulgaria) in 347 A.D., which was called to address the Arian heresy. He was succeeded as bishop in 360 A.D. by Saint Pacian, a married priest, who is considered one of the Early Church Fathers. Some of his writings have been preserved. St. Pacian was one of those lauded by St. Jerome in his book, “De viris illustribus” written in 392 A.D., about a year after St. Pacian’s death, and dedicated to St. Pacian’s son Dexter.
Some other noteworthy bishops include Saint Nebridius, who ruled from 540 to 547 A.D., and whose three brothers were all saints and bishops in Catalonia. Saint Olegarius ruled from 1116 to 1137, and his shrine is located in Barcelona Cathedral. Despite the long list of bishops, 120 to date, there have not been many Bishops of Barcelona who managed to become canonized saints.
At present the cause of Bishop Manuel Irurita, who ruled the Diocese of Barcelona from 1930 to 1936, is being investigated for possible beatification. Bishop Irurita opposed some of the steps taken by the Leftist government in Barcelona, and was targeted for assassination at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. One of the militiamen who executed the Bishop said that, when the Bishop was brought before the firing squad, he stated, “I bless all of those who are in my presence, as I also bless the bullets that will occasion my death, since they will be the keys that will open the gates of heaven for me.”
Today the Archdiocese continues to struggle against creeping secularism which has decimated the Church in many quarters of the city. Recently Cardinal Sistach, the present Metropolitan Archbishop, had to issue the following press release on April 29, 2009. Although there is no question that Catholic practice has declined in Barcelona, it has not disappeared:
“THERE ARE 845 PLACES OF WORSHIP IN THE CITY OF BARCELONA
Clarification of the Archbishopric of Barcelona with relation to the memo made public by the Office for Religious Affairs, entitled “Catholicism recedes in Barcelona”.
In response to the memo made public by the Office of Religious Affairs of the Barcelona City Government, entitled “Catholicism recedes in Barcelona”, which states that in the city of Barcelona the only existing places of Catholic worship are 141 parishes, this Archbishopric wishes to clarify the following: in the city of Barcelona, there are not just parishes as mentioned in the said memo, but rather the total number of Catholic places of worship, just within the city limits itself, is 845. This figure includes 139 parishes, 121 non-parochial churches, 421 active religious communities with chapels, 23 Catholic cultural centers with chapels, and 141 primary and secondary schools with Catholic chapels.”
The arms of the Metropolitan Archdiocese feature a patriarchal or archdiocesan cross, a lozenge with the arms of Catalonia (four red stripes on a gold background), an x-shaped cross and a Greek Cross – the former for St. Eulalia, indicating the instrument of her martyrdom, and the latter for the Holy Cross, as Barcelona’s Cathedral is named for both.
The present archbishop is Lluís Cardinal Martínez Sistach. Cardinal Sistach was born in Barcelona in 1937, ordained a priest in 1961, and became Auxiliary Bishop of Barcelona in 1987. He later served as Bishop of the city of Alegciras in Andalusia, near Gibraltar, then of the city of Tortosa in southern Catalonia.
In 1997 he was appointed Archbishop of Tarragona, and in 2004 he was appointed Archbishop of Barcelona. He was created a Cardinal at the Consistory of 2007. Cardinal Sistach’s title is Cardinal of St. Sebastian at the Catacombs, and his titular church in Rome is the Basilica of St. Sebastian’s Outside the Walls, one of the original Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome. He is also a member of several departments of the Curia, including most recently being named by Pope Benedict XVI as a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.
Cardinal Sistach’s coat-of-arms is surmounted by his Cardinal’s hat, and features a patriarchal cross. In the upper left corner is an “X” cross with a palm branch, for St. Eulalia of Barcelona. In the upper right corner is a Tau cross, to reflect his former post as Archbishop of Tarragona. At the bottom we see the arms of Montserrat, showing the jagged mountain being hewn with a golden saw. Below this appears the pallium Cardinal Sistach received as a Metropolitan Archbishop. His motto is, “Charitas Christi urget nos”.