Mexican child-saint José Sánchez del Río “is not only a martyr of the Christian faith, but is a martyr of the fundamental rights of the person.”
In an interview with the Register at the Vatican on Saturday, the newly proclaimed saint’s postulator, Father Fidel Gonzáles, stressed this as he spoke about St. José Sánchez del Río.
Born in 1913, José Sánchez del Río was a Mexican Cristero who was put to death by government officials because he refused to renounce his Catholic faith. During the Cristero War, the Mexican government was determined to eliminate the Christian roots of the country, in the process killing some 50,000 people.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II declared the young Mexican a martyr; in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI beatified him; and, yesterday, Oct. 16, Pope Francis proclaimed him a canonized saint.
Speaking to the Register, Father Gonzalez stressed how young José’s faith was not for sale and no one, no “offer” — not even his parents’ intervention — would convince him to negate his faith, even if it cost him his life.
The Vatican official also addressed how there are many Christian martyr saints that exist, even if they have not been formally recognized by the Church, and reflected on how important it is, in the midst of today’s world, full of ambiguities, relativism and religious persecution, to not abandon our faith, as St. José teaches us.
It’s always a little surprising to hear about saints as young as José Sánchez del Río, only 14 years old. But can a child, someone so young, really be a saint as much as an adult or an elderly person?
Of course. There is a theological sanctity that belongs to every baptized person, even if baptized even a few hours after birth, because it is a grace of the Holy Spirit. Instead, the moral holiness grows like a tree, which comes and develops from a small seed and then spreads throughout the course of a lifetime. In the specific case of St. José Sánchez del Río, we are facing a martyr of nearly age 15, but he had a clear awareness of the ideas that led him to proclaim his faith with martyrdom. I can say that he really is an exceptional figure.
First, because he showed a psychological maturity much higher than that of his own age. We could say that, psychologically, he had the maturity of someone at least 18 or 20 years old, especially as he demonstrated his firm decision to reject the many proposals that they made to free him from prison in exchange for the apostasy of his faith in Christ. But he replied with a phrase, instead, of accepting, one that the witnesses then reported, a phrase that he used speaking to his parents when they tried to free him from captivity: “My faith is not for sale,” which means: “My faith in Christ cannot be sold, even though I know that this involves torture and death.” He wrote back and said that while they tortured him, they had offered to send him to study in the United States, to admit him in the Military Academy, which at that time was a very aristocratic environment.
The martyr, for his love of the Church, was killed in odium fidei (in hatred of the faith). His death was particularly cruel.
José was tortured in inhumane ways. They even skinned the soles of his feet, repeatedly hitting him with knives to continue causing him pain. They made him walk with flayed feet — which left traces of blood everywhere — to the cemetery, the site of the shooting, where he died. In spite of all this, he remained firm in the faith, shouting, “Long live Christ the King.”
“Long live Christ the King” was the cry with which the Mexican Cristeros went down in history. What did those words mean to them?
It’s a theological expression; maybe neither St. José nor the others fully realized its meaning, its significance. For them, it was a way of proclaiming the centrality of Christ in history. We must point out that St. José did not ever stop proclaiming Christ. They said, “If you shout, ‘Death to Christ the King,’ we will spare your life.” But instead he continued: “Long live Christ the King. … Long live the Lady of Guadalupe.”
This invocation of Our Lady of Guadalupe was significant, too, as it was the first concrete manifestation of God in the history of Mexico and Latin America. José stayed faithful to the very, very end, even as they continued stabbing him and eventually shot him with the pistol.
As a specialist on the concept of sanctity, are you familiar with other martyrs like St. José?
I have been a consultant for 31 years of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and I have seen hundreds of cases of martyrdom, but never of a martyr so young. It’s a unique case, where you really see the power of divine grace. But José Sánchez del Río — this is my thesis — is not only a martyr of the Christian faith, but is a martyr of the fundamental rights of the person: the right to freedom of opinion, freedom of religion, the right to practice their religion. ... In short, he is a martyr of all the rights that were denied the totalitarian era. The 20th century is the century of totalitarian regimes, each very different from the others, but yet they all agree on setting aside God, getting rid of the foundation of human rights.
In addition to St. José, many Mexicans have paid the ultimate resistance to anti-Catholic persecution unleashed by the regime at the time of the Cristeros War. Can we can consider them all martyrs, even if they have not been proclaimed as such by the Church?
Well, we know of the many humble people who rebelled against those who wanted to eradicate the Catholic faith from Mexico and remove their right to religious freedom. I’d say that, among the some 50,000 victims of the period between 1926 and 1929, that perhaps some 300 or 400 merit being beatified for their martyrdom.
What does the martyrdom of St. José, so many years after those events, teach Catholics today?
St. José simply teaches us that the Catholic faith is not for sale, as he said himself [while] dying. This is especially true in a world like today, full of ambiguities, of relativism, of dominant cultural nihilism. The Christian faith, instead, has a solid foundation, i.e., the principle that God is the creator of all reality, and if we put it aside, then all the rights of the person lose consistency and end up at the mercy of a political power. It’s interesting, I repeat, that all ideological totalitarianisms of the 20th century have desecrated the human person, profaning God.
Register correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.