Mexican Martyrs

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — It was an ugly scene. Soldiers hung a rope on a mango tree in the town square and wrapped a noose around a neck that normally would have been encircled by a Roman collar.

Normally. But these were not normal times. Mexico, land of a Catholic people, had been infected by a virulent strain of anti-Christianity. Just a few years before, in 1917, a new constitution reinforced anticlerical laws and denied a series of civil rights to the Church and its clergy.

The soldiers gave the priest under the mango tree several chances to recant, asking each time they lowered him to the ground, “Who lives?”

“Christ the King and St. Mary of Guadalupe,” was the constant response. Father Rodrigo Aguilar Aleman, who had readily identified himself as a priest when he was apprehended hours before, died when the rope was pulled up the third time.

Father Aguilar was only one of many priests, religious and lay faithful killed during the early 20th-century persecution of the Church in Mexico. Many belonged to a small army of Catholic peasants who called themselves the Cristeros and who fought to regain religious freedom. “Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long live Christ the King!” was their battle cry.

Several of those killed were members of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization founded in New Haven, Conn., in 1881. Father Aguilar and five other priests — Fathers Miguel de la Mora, Luis Batis Sainz, Mateo Correa Magallanes, Pedro de Jesus Maldonado and Jose Maria Robles Hurtado — were Knights. And they were among 25 companions Pope John Paul II canonized on May 21, 2000.

“Most don't know the Knights have saints at this point,” said Ken Davison, executive director of Catholic World Mission, a relief and missionary agency based in Hamden, Conn. Catholic World Mission hopes to change that by telling the story of the martyrs in a new coloring book and companion CD/cassette called Viva Cristo Rey! The Courageous Saints of the Knights of Columbus.

Viva Cristo Rey! is part of Catholic World Mission's Glory Stories series “that teaches a particular truth of the faith in a way that captures imaginations with real stories of real people — the saints,” Davison explained.

Written by Register staff writer Tim Drake and illustrated by Connecticut portrait artist Sam Ryskind, the 32-page coloring book aims to provide 5- to 12-year-olds with new Catholic saints as models. The CD/cassette version is made for radio.

“The story teaches a priest is called to be another Christ, and that may include laying down his life for his flock,” Davison explained. “We tell these men continued to teach and to perform their function as priests despite knowing it would lead to their death.”

Dominican Father Gabriel O'Donnell, who has been promoting the cause for canonization of the Knights' founder, Father Michael McGivney, pointed out that in the story of the Mexican martyrs, “the promise of Christ that the Church would endure in every difficulty is borne out.”

He also noted that laymen canonized along with them showed “the responsibility for evangelization borne collaboratively by priest and laymen” — a collaboration Father McGivney had in mind.

“The fact they were Knights of Columbus is important in that they were living out the vision of Father McGivney,” Father O'Donnell said.

The similar values the Knights and Catholic World Mission share made for another natural tie-in. In the radio dramatization, Father Miguel de la Mora says he found Knights caring for the earthly needs of the poor and also concerned about spreading the Catholic faith so the poor can live forever in heaven.

The Knights, based in New Haven, had 6,000 members in Mexico by 1923 and tried to get other countries to protect the Church there. In response, Mexican president Plutarco ElÃ-as Calles had the organization declared illegal.

The effects of the persecution have been long lasting, with many Mexicans unable to learn the teachings of the faith.

“We have a lot of lay missionaries in Mexico, a country that people would say is Catholic,” Davison noted. “They have a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe but little knowledge of their faith. … It's an area we have to re-evangelize and re-catechize.”

In fact, Viva Cristo Rey! might also put many Mexicans in touch with their own history. Last December, two Mexican missionaries supported by Catholic World Mission were visiting Connecticut and were thrilled to see the bilingual coloring book/CD.

“There is nothing in the history books in Mexico about the persecution,” Davison noted. The radio drama made the visiting missionaries aware of “the skeleton of the drama, and they have taken these coloring books back to Mexico to teach history to the kids.”

The new saints are at least known in those areas where they worked, according to William Olivera, a Knight in Mexico. St. Miguel de la Mora is venerated in several chapels in Puebla, and St. Pedro Maldonado, whose remains rest in Chihuahua's cathedral, is venerated in all the chapels in that archdiocese.

“His love for the Eucharist has been a motivator especially for this Eucharistic year,” Olivera said.

The Holy Father has called for a Year of the Eucharist and will kick off the year with an International Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Oct. 10-17. John Paul will participate in the congress via a special satellite television connection.

Needed Role Models

In the United States, the inspiring stories of these Knight-saints are poised to spread rapidly.

“We have had some Knights councils distribute the coloring books because it explains what the Knights do in social support and evangelization,” Davison pointed out.

In Altoona, Wis., Our Lady of Guadalupe Council of St Mary's Church bought more than 40 coloring books to give as Christmas presents to the students in kindergarten through fourth-grade in the parish school. According to council member Brad Payson, the Knights chose the book because they knew the children would enjoy it and learn valuable lessons at the same time.

“The gift was to introduce them to different saints in a fun and educational way,” said fellow Knight Charlie Thurner in agreement. “And we were trying to tie in the Knights of Columbus, St. Mary's and our parish and bring them closer together. These books seemed appropriate for that.”

Thurner's son John, a first-grader, enjoyed coloring the book while his father and mother read the story to him.

“There isn't an awful lot of Church history being taught, or their exposure to it is fairly limited,” Thurner said. “So when you can get a book about martyrs and books on the different saints, over time they build the history of the Church up.”

Dominican Father Juan Diego Brunetta is chaplain of the Father Michael J. McGivney Council 10705 at St. Mary's Church in New Haven, Conn., where the Knights of Columbus was founded and where Father McGivney is buried. He said that even he “learned about the saints from the CD.” After he gave copies of the coloring book/CD to his nieces, nephews and godchildren, he got reports that “all the kids want to do is listen to the Glory Stories.”

“In an engaging way they teach about Catholic heroes,” Father Brunetta said, comparing it with society's heavy emphasis on sports and rock stars. “Here we have an opportunity to tout in an attractive way Catholic heroes who will inspire us to live out own lives of holiness.”

Davison projects the CD/cassette radio dramatization, available for home use, will also have a big impact once it hits the airwaves.

“We are excited that Mike Jones, the VP and general manager of Ave Maria Communications, approached us to put these stories on the air,” he said. “Any radio station nationwide will be able to pull the show off their satellite — and we have stations signing up already. EWTN is also talking to us about making the shows part of their lineup, which is distributed free worldwide.”

Davison expects things to get rolling this summer, and that would be timely in yet another way — on June 22 the Vatican announced the upcoming beatifications of 13 more martyrs from the early 20th-century persecution.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.