Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Mexico - The Cristiada

Once Upon a Time
in Mexico –

The Cristiada

Note:  Some changes were made to this article.  Most notably, President Calles had been referred to throughout as head of the Mexican government though his term officially ended in 1928.  Also, it was not previously noted that President Carranza did not support the anti-Catholic articles of the 1917 Constitution.

     Arc Entertainment’s “For Greater Glory” comes out in theaters this Friday, June 1. It is a film about the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico in the 1920s and the Cristero uprising that produced many martyrs but eventually put an end to it.

Many people in the United States, of course, have no idea what took place in Mexico nearly 100 years ago, or who the Cristeros were. The persecution the Church faced in Mexico may be unparalleled in the history of the Western Hemisphere, and the brutality suffered by lay and religious Catholics is almost unfathomable. How did the country where Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego become the site of so many martyrdoms?

The persecutions in Mexico had their root in the middle of the nineteenth century with the rise of Masonic influence in the government, particularly with the presidency of Benito Juarez, in 1861. Though the government was at times hostile to the Church over the next 50 years, there were many years of peace and nothing like the persecution that was to come.

The Constitution of 1917 had many anti-Catholic articles, but they were not enforced with consistency. That would all change with the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, beginning in 1924.

The persecutions would begin in 1924 and reach an intolerable level by 1926. Calles shut down all Catholic schools. All children were required to attend public schools, where atheism was one of the mandated subjects. In 1926 the “Calles Law” was passed. Calles took the most anti-Catholic articles of the Constitution, strengthened them, and demanded that they be enforced to the fullest.

Some of the immediate effects of the Calles Law were: 1) The Church lost all its property and clerics were not allowed to administer parishes; 2) Religious orders were outlawed, seminaries were closed and foreign religious were expelled; 3) Priests were required to register with the government and were forbidden to minister to the faithful outside of church grounds; 4) The phrase “Adios” was banned because of its inclusion of “Dios,” the Spanish word for “God;" and much more. Questioning these laws carried the risk of five years’ imprisonment. The government even went as far as to set up a schismatic “patriotic church.”

The Church, of course, could not accept these regulations or abide by these laws, and the result was that as of August 1, 1926, all public worship was to be shut down. The government took over many of the churches and turned them into stables or eating halls. More than one church became a cock fighting arena. At one such church, 14 year-old Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio, outraged by the sacrilege, snuck in at night and slashed the necks of the fighting cocks. He was later captured, in a battle in which he was a Cristero flag bearer, had the soles of his feet slashed, and was forced to march to the cemetery, where he was stabbed and shot to death by government soldiers.

The Church spent six months trying, legally, to regain control of the churches, but to no avail. On January 1, 1927, Mexican Catholics began to fight back with force. The freedom fighters were known as “Cristeros,” after their rallying cry “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long Live Christ the King!)

Over the next three years the struggle between the Catholic citizens and the Mexican government was fought on the battle field. Mexican Catholics who didn’t fight joined in boycotts.

During this period the atrocities continued. Non-combatants were routinely tortured and killed. One man, returning home from work, admitted to being a Knight of Columbus, for which he was murdered, and his body was delivered to his widow in a wheelbarrow. Priests and lay people were executed for having secret Masses, people were murdered during Confessions by government officials posing as priests, the heads of victims were put on stakes in public squares, and the bodies of priests were hung at train stations as a warning to visitors not to try and practice their Faith.

People often had their ears and hands cut off before being executed, and had their tongues cut out if they proclaimed, “Viva Cristo Rey.” Despite the persecution and the Cristeros’ inferiority in terms of weapons, they continued to fight, and the government could not defeat them. In fact, after three years the Cristeros had suffered 30,000 casualties, compared to the government’s 60,000.

Finally, with the assistance of the United States, both sides agreed to peace terms. The bishops had never sponsored the war and the Vatican was working for peace, so in obedience the Cristeros agreed, and laid their weapons down at the altars of reopened churches.

Unfortunately, the Mexican government was no more respectable in peace. Though pardons for the surviving Cristeros were part of the truce, the government did not honor them, and spent the next few years hunting down Cristero leaders and having them executed.

The lessons of the persecution in Mexico should be powerful to us today. The many martyrs should be an inspiration, and we should be reminded that we must be ever-vigilant as our freedoms are slowly being eroded now in our own country. If we do not fight with passion for Truth and our liberties now, peacefully, we will be destined to face the same choice our Mexican brothers and sisters faced in the last century.

Viva Cristo Rey!