Mexico has had a tumultuous history with colonization by Spain, conflicts with California and its own internal wars. Today the drug wars have devastated the population most who are peace-loving and family oriented. Poverty and corruption have played their part in the troubles of this culturally-rich country.
Mexico in the 19th Century
In the 19th century the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment, after the French Revolution, had its effect on many countries. Some wanted to throw off what they thought were the shackles of monarchy and Church and promote the new gods of state and science. One of those was Benito Juarez.
Benito Juarez is considered one of the founding fathers of Mexico. Juarez was born on March 21, 1806, in a small village in Oaxaca state to native Indian parents. His parents died when he was only three and Juarez was brought up by relatives. He later worked at various jobs on farms to support himself. When he was 12 years old, he left for the city of Oaxaca hoping to get an education, but he could not even speak Spanish, only Zapotec, the indigenous language of his parents.
While Juarez was working as a domestic servant, a lay Franciscan, Antonio Salanueva, recognized the young boy’s gifts and helped him enter the Seminary. He later decided to study law rather than become a priest and after graduation from the Seminary, he earned a law degree at the Instituto de Ciencias y Artes.
After working in government posts, Juarez was elected President of Mexico in 1857. Napoleon III launched an intervention in Mexico in 1862, but the Mexicans defeated the French forces at Pueblo. This victory is still celebrated each year as Cinqo de Mayo. Juarez was eventually forced into exile in the north of Mexico. In the meantime, Maximilian von Habsburg, a younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, was proclaimed Emperor of Mexico on the 20th April 1864 with the backing of Napoleon III and a group of Mexican conservatives. The Pope also backed Maximilian. Juarez eventually returned victorious and had Maximilian executed on June 1, 1867. Juarez’ first official act was to confiscate Church property and turn it over to the Masons of which he was a member. His aim was to curtail the power of the Catholic Church in Mexico and establish a Republic modeled after the United States. Juarez died of a heart attack on18 July 1872.
The Beginnings of Revolution
Various leaders brought Mexico into the 19th century which would prove to be devastating to the country.
President Venustiano Carranza (1914-1920) was an arch-foe of the Catholic Church. In 1915, he had 116 priests shot and curtailed the activities of all Catholic priests in Mexico. He was an atheist and a 33rd degree Mason. In spite of his atheism, he supported Protestant missionaries and schools as he thought they would help to annihilate the Catholic Church in Mexico
In 1924, President Plutarco Calles closed all Catholic schools and atheism was taught in the public schools. Then in1926 the Mexican government outlawed the Catholic Church and Catholics were openly persecuted. Priests were not allowed to administer the sacraments, churches, seminaries and convents were shut down, and Catholic charitable works were halted. All religious orders were outlawed, and foreign priests and sisters were sent home.
At first, the people resisted peacefully but eventually the peasants, known as Cristeros, took up arms and fought the government forces. Not all were holy or good people, but many were. The rebellion began in 1927, and the battle cry of the Cristeros was, ‘Viva Cristo Rey’ or ‘Long live Christ, the King’. Their Patron Saint was Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary, who had appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. Many women took part in the revolution by smuggling arms and supplies to the soldiers and treating the wounded.
Most priests did not fight, but a few did, and all supported the Cristeros in some way. Father Pro, a Jesuit priest, did not take up arms but would dress up as a policeman and enter jails to give Communion to the prisoners. Once, when dressed as a policeman, he demanded to know why the police hadn’t caught ‘that priest Pro’ yet and they hurried off to pursue him. Another time, when being chased by the police, he jumped out of the taxi that was being followed. He lit a cigar and took the arm of a surprised young woman walking down the street. He told her he was in danger and the police car sped by not suspecting the ‘happy couple'. Finally, Father Pro was caught and shot by a firing squad without trial on November 23, 1927. He was falsely implicated in an attempted assassination of a government official. His last cry before being shot was, 'Viva Cristo Rey!'
Before the rebellion began there were 4,500 priests in Mexico but by 1934, there were only 334 licensed priests. They had been either killed or had escaped to other countries. Graeme Greene’s book, ‘The Power and the Glory’ (published in 1940) is about a disillusioned priest, who was one of the few left in the country.
The Cristeros had many victories even though the government had more men and supplies. In 1929 a truce was negotiated but even after the fighting stopped 6,000 Cristeros were killed by a government-led firing squad.
Father Pro was beatified in 1988. Pope John Paul II canonized another twenty-five martyrs, both laymen and clergy, in May 2000.
Today, over 90% of Mexico’s population considers itself Catholic - the Church could not be extinguished, and Tertullian’s statement once again proved true, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Pope John Paul II visited Mexico five times during his pontificate. Pope Benedict visited in March 2012,
‘For Greater Glory’, a film starring Andy Garcia, Peter O’Toole, and Eduardo Verastegui and produced by Pablo Barroso, tells the story of those who fought in the Cristeros War.
Martyrs and Saints
The Catholic Church has recognized some of those killed in the Cristero rebellion as martyrs including Blessed Miguel Pro. In may 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 martyrs: 22 clergy and three laymen. They had not taken part in the fighting but were shot or hung for offering the sacraments. On November 20 2005 thirteen victims were declared martyrs. Among this groups ws 14 year old Jose Sanchez del Rio. He was canonized in 2016 by Pope Francis.
Madrid, Patrick. The Battle for the Faith in Mexico. CD by Lighthouse Catholic Media. (www.lighthouse catholicmedia.org)
Catholic Online website accessed March 28, 2012 (www.catholic.org)