The anti-Catholic persecutions in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s are long forgotten, it seems.
The reality is hard to believe. Just a generation ago, not far from our borders, thousands of men, women and even children were imprisoned, exiled, tortured and murdered — all for the “crime” of believing in Jesus Christ and wanting to live by their faith in him.
So I welcome the new film For Greater Glory. It tells the dramatic story of this unknown war against religion and our Church’s heroic resistance. It’s a strong film with a timely message. It reminds us that our religious liberties are won by blood, and we can never take them for granted.
That such repression could happen in a nation so deeply Catholic as Mexico should make everybody stop and think.
Mexico was the original cradle of Christianity in the New World. It was the missionary base from which most of North America and South America and parts of Asia were first evangelized.
Yet, following the revolution in 1917, the new atheist-socialist regime vowed to free the people from all “fanaticism and prejudices.”
Churches, seminaries and convents were seized and desecrated, and many were destroyed. Public displays of piety and devotion were outlawed. Catholic schools and newspapers were shut down; Catholic political parties and labor unions banned. Priests were tortured and killed, many of them shot while celebrating Mass.
The dictator, Plutarco Elías Calles, used to boast about the numbers of priests he had executed. His hatred of organized religion ran deep. He really believed his reign of terror could exterminate the Church and wipe the memory of Christ from Mexico within a single generation.
He was wrong. In the forge of his persecution, saints were made.
It became a time of international Catholic solidarity. Catholics in the United States opened their doors to refugees fleeing the violence. My predecessor, Archbishop John Cantwell, welcomed many here to Los Angeles — including Venerable Maria Luisa Josefa de la Peña and Blessed María Inés Teresa Arias.
Ordinary Catholics became Cristeros, courageous defenders of Jesus Christ. Many felt compelled to take up arms to defend their rights in what became known as the Cristero War. Others chose nonviolent means to bear witness to Christ.
“I die, but God does not die,” Blessed Anacleto González Flores said before his execution. His words were prophetic.
Martyrs are not defined by their dying, but by what they choose to live for. And the Cristeros’ blood became the seed for the Church of future generations in Mexico.
I hope For Greater Glory will bring more people to know the stories of the Cristero martyrs.
We need to know about the beautiful young catechist Venerable María de la Luz Camacho. When the army came to burn her church down, she stood in front of the door and blocked their way. They shot her dead. But the church was somehow spared.
We need to know about all the heroic priests who risked their lives to celebrate Mass and hear confessions.
Growing up, we had prayer cards made from a grainy photograph of one of these priests, Blessed Miguel Pro. He is standing before a firing squad without a blindfold, his arms stretched wide like Jesus on the cross as he cries out his last words: ¡Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!)
We need to learn from the examples of all the Cristeros who have been canonized and beatified by the Church. And today especially, we need to pray for their intercession.
As it always has been, today our Catholic religion is under attack in places all over the world. In Mexico and America, we don’t face suffering and death for practicing our faith. But we do confront “softer” forms of secularist bullying. And our societies are growing more aggressively secularized.
Already, sadly, we’ve accepted the “rules” and restrictions of our secular society. We keep our faith to ourselves. We’re cautious about “imposing” our beliefs on others — especially when it comes to politics.
In recent months, our government has started demanding even more — trying to coerce our consciences so that we deny our religious identity and values.
We need to ask for the strength to be Cristeros. By their dying, they show us what we should be living for. We need to make that our prayer: that like the Cristeros we might be always ready to love and sacrifice in order to stand up for Jesus and his Church.
And may Our Lady of Guadalupe — Mother of Mexico and the Americas and the bright star of the New Evangelization — pray for us.
Archbishop Jose Gomez, who was born in Mexico, is archbishop of Los Angeles. Follow him at www.facebook.com/ArchbishopGomez