The Vatican on Sunday staged its largest mass beatification ceremony ever, putting 498 victims of religious persecution before and during Spain's civil war on the path to possible sainthood.

Seventy-one bishops from Spain, a host of Spanish politicians and Spanish pilgrims massed in St. Peter's Square for the ceremony, which came at a particularly delicate time for Spain as it takes an unprecedented look at its past.

Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, declared the 498 beatified after reading out their names from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica at the start of the Mass.

Spanish flags waved in the piazza as the crowd broke into applause.

Spain's 1936-69 civil war pitted an elected, leftist government against rightwing forces that rose up under Gen. Francisco Franco, who went on to win and presided over a nearly 40-year dictatorship staunchly supported by the Roman Catholic Church.

Violence against clergy had been simmering since 1931, with leftist forces targeting the institution they saw as a symbol of wealth, repression and inequality. Their attacks against the clergy gave Franco a pretext for launching his rebellion.

The church estimates that nearly 7,000 clergy were killed in Spain from 1931 to 1939.

The 498 people beatified on Sunday were killed in 1934, 1936 and 1937. They are comprised of two bishops, 24 priests and 462 members of religious orders, as well as a deacon, a subdeacon, a seminary student and seven lay Catholics.

By declaring the 498 martyrs, the Vatican could proceed with beatification without having to confirm a miracle attributed to the intercession of each of the victims. A miracle is necessary for any of them to be declared a saint.

Some in Spain have questioned the timing of the ceremony, coming three days before Parliament is to pass a Socialist-sponsored law seeking to make symbolic amends to victims of the war and of the Franco dictatorship.

The bill mentions people persecuted for their religious beliefs, but for the most part it is an unprecedented, formal condemnation of the Franco regime.

Critics say the Vatican, which since the late 1980s has beatified nearly 500 other clergy killed in the war, is acting with political motivation and is hitting back at the government by choosing now to beatify nearly another 500 all at once.

The church says the ceremony is being held now because Pope Benedict XVI finished signing the decrees only two months ago.