Saints and Sinners in the Cristero War
By Father James T. Murphy
Ignatius Press, 2019
230 pages, $17.95
To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531
A black-and-white photograph, taken in November 1927, should be an icon of what it means to fight for religious freedom. The man pictured is José Ramón Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, known today as Blessed Miguel Pro. In the photo, his arms are stretched out in the form of a cross … waiting for the end. A few moments later, a Mexican firing squad cut him down for one reason: He was a troublesome Catholic priest who dared to practice his faith.
This iconic photo is a bloody reminder of events not so long ago and not so far away, when the Catholic Church in Mexico was in danger of physical annihilation.
In 1926, a civil war broke out after years of anti-religious repression. It pitted a trained federal army against a rag-tag army of defiant Catholics, many of whom were simple farmers and laborers, who, after years of hostility from their atheist government, took up arms in order to fight for their faith.
Roughly 90,000 died in the three-year civil war, including many non-combatants who were suspected of hiding priests and carrying out the sacraments in violation of the law. And martyrs were made.
Blessed Miguel Pro was not the only martyr to emerge from what history now calls the Cristero War — “Cristero” meaning “warrior for Christ” or “Catholic militant.”
Among others, there was St. José Sanchez del Rio, 14, who, in February 1928, was executed by the Mexican government to for refusing to renounce his faith; and Blessed Salvador Huerta Gutierrez, who was tortured and killed for refusing to disclose the location of two priests on the run. His death in April 1927 made him the only auto mechanic in the communion of saints.
But as noted in Saints and Sinners in the Cristero War, “Blessed Miguel Pro may be the only martyr in the history of the Church whose execution was photographed.”
The fact he was photographed is not just a piece of historical trivia.
The Mexican government was convinced that its war against Catholicism was a cause that would garner worldwide support. It was following in the footsteps of the anti-clerical French Revolution and its attack on the Church. It even got some support from some American Protestant churches and — perhaps to no one’s surprise — the virulently anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan.
So the Mexican government invited the media to watch and record the execution, believing it would bolster its unholy cause.
Instead, it backfired. This single photo exposed the brutal years of repression that had culminated in state-sanctioned brutality against a people who only wanted to worship in peace and turned the world against what was becoming a kind of Soviet Mexico.
Saints and Sinners is an important work for any faithful Catholic and anyone who believes in freedom of religion and freedom in general. It shows how what seem like “reasonable” restrictions on religion — as can be seen in many places today — can turn into violent repression. China immediately comes to mind.
The attacks on the Church in Mexico began in earnest in 1917, when a revolutionary government enacted a new constitution.
“The articles stripped the Church of all her property, forbid the Church to run schools or seminaries and banned all religious services outside the confines of the church building,” Father Murphy writes. There was also talk of creating a state “religion” with a Mexican pope. Years later, the Mexican precedent became a paradigm for Hitler’s Third Reich, as Nazi Germany tried to create a German national church free of the Old Testament and any Jewish influence.
Some Mexican state governors chose to ignore the law for the sake of harmony. But in other places Catholics experienced a “reign of terror … with priests killed at the altar and strung from poles along the highways … and believers tortured and killed in the most horrible way,” the book explains.
The law caused an exodus of Catholics who sought refuge in sympathetic parishes in California and elsewhere. However, in 1926, under President Elias Calles, the repression increased. He insisted all governors apply the law as written, with no exceptions. He also demanded, as stated by law, that the number of priests be limited and only those over the age of 40 and married (!) could perform their duties. In some places that meant one priest per 30,000 Catholics.
The actual uprising came in a way few could have predicted. In response to the Calles edict, the bishops, in consultation with Pope Pius XI, decided there would be no more services at all. Its unintended consequence was the Cristero War.
“It was an unprecedented act of protest by the Catholic hierarchy in the face of years of religious persecution,” Father Murphy writes. “For the first time in over four hundred years, all church sanctuaries in Mexico were dark and tabernacles were empty, while parishioners stared in stunned disbelief not knowing what to think.”
The actual uprisings, Father Murphy writes, did not have a “formal call to arms.” Rather, sporadic attacks against the Mexican military and other morally acceptable targets began to flare up and gain steam. It was, the author writes, a classic David and Goliath story. The Catholic rebels were not a cohesive force. It was a true grassroots rebellion, with action taken spontaneously by different cadres in different locales.
Of the 90,000 estimated killed, the Mexican army lost 60,000, while Catholics lost only 30,000, a miracle in itself — given how badly they were outgunned.
Father Murphy believes the Catholics had the advantage for several reasons: high morale due to their religious zeal; hit-and-run tactics that allowed the fighters to fade seamlessly into the rural population, where they could be cared for and rearmed; and perhaps, most of all, the women who cared for the fighters, worked the fields, took care of supplies and gathered military intelligence.
And there was something else that gave the Cristeros the edge: The women could be called upon to motivate their men.
“A sister would goad her fifteen-year-old brother by telling him he lacked the worth possessed by the defenders of God’s Cause,” Father Murphy notes.
Sometimes a simple appeal to male pride can move mountains; an appeal to faith can work miracles. War must always be a last resort, of course, but in the case of the Catholic men and women fighting oppression and injustice of the Mexican government, as outlined in Saints and Sinners of the Cristero War, this last resort was a necessary response to defend the rights of the Church, which, through the grace of God alone, offers a peace which surpasses all human understanding.
Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.