During his visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the legacy of the Cristeros War and the Mexican Martyrs of the 20th century when he illuminated the statue of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) in Leon on March 26. The statue is a memorial to the martyrs of the Calles’ government crackdown on the Catholic Church beginning with a new Constitution in 1917. President Plutarco Elias Calles ordered the first statue of Cristo Rey destroyed during the Cristeros wars of the 1920s. A later Mexican government rebuilt the statue as a gesture of good will to the Catholic Church years after the persecution ended.
The background to this 20th century persecution of Catholics was as revolutionary as that in 18th century France. First Mexico achieved independence from Spain and then from the French in the 19th century. The governments formed after these rebellions became more and more anti-clerical and anti-Catholic because they thought the Church was supportive of the foreign regimes.
The 1917 Constitution created laws that mirror the French Revolution’s attack on the Church: seizing church property, outlawing religious orders, taking control of church matters—and went even further. The Constitution also prohibited priests from voting, the Church from even commenting on any public policy, and would not allow priests to wear their clericals or vestments outside their churches. This meant that public processions, as at Corpus Christi, were prohibited. President Calles, who was virulently anti-Catholic (and a Freemason), enforced these restrictions vigorously after his election in 1924. He also required state licensing of priests; thus the state could limit the number of priests by not licensing them. When priests continued to serve the Catholics of Mexico without being licensed, they were forced underground. Evelyn Waugh wrote in the introduction to his biography of St. Edmund Campion, the English Jesuit martyr of the 16th century, that his story – that of the hunted, fugitive priest – was being repeated. Graham Greene, whose novel The Power and the Glory is set during this period, called the situation “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth [I]”.
The results of this persecution were war and martyrdom. For Greater Glory depicts both aspects by telling the story of the army formed by Catholics in opposition to the Calles’ government, the execution of priests, and the martyrdom of José Luis Sánchez del Río, a young boy. The Cristeros, who took their name from the great cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” were making progress against government troops when the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow (Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s father) intervened to negotiate a truce, which unfortunately allowed the government to continue the persecution.
Pope Pius XI wrote three encyclicals denouncing this persecution; the first, Iniquis Afflictisque, was issued in 1926. The Pope made a crucial connection between the martyrs of the French Revolution and those suffering in Mexico:
Last month on the occasion of the beatification of many martyrs of the French Revolution, spontaneously the Catholics of Mexico came to Our thoughts, for they, like those martyrs, have remained firm in their resolution to resist in all patience the unreasonable behests and commands of their persecutors rather than cut themselves off from the unity of the Church or refuse obedience to this Apostolic See. Marvelous indeed is the glory of the Divine Spouse of Christ who, through the course of the centuries, can depend, without fail, upon a brave and generous offspring ever ready to suffer prisons, stripes, and even death itself for the holy liberty of the Church!
Pope Pius XI continued his call for an end to the persecution in Acerba animi (1932), deploring government deception in negotiations and calling on Catholics in Mexico to remain steadfast and true. The third encyclical in 1937 was Firmissiaman Constantiam; it contained an urgent call to the laity to defend the Church. The persecution finally ended when a Catholic president, Manuel Avila Camacho, was elected in 1940. When Blessed John Paul II visited Mexico in 1979 it was still illegal for him to celebrate Mass in public. In 1992, a new Constitution amended the anti-Catholic provisions of the 1917 version.
The Catholic Church has recognized the martyrs of this persecution. The most famous is Blessed Miguel Pro, the Jesuit priest executed on November 23, 1927. Just like St. Edmund Campion in Elizabethan England, Father Pro entered Mexico illegally and had to wear disguises and hide to celebrate the Sacraments. When captured, he was accused of plotting against the government and condemned without trial. President Calle ordered his execution photographed in great detail, hoping to incite fear in the Cristeros army. But the photographs had the opposite effect and Catholics began to show great devotion to the martyr—soon the government forbade the distribution of the very photos it had publicized! Pope John Paul II beatified Miguel Pro in 1998; he also canonized 25 Martyrs of this period on May 21, 2000. Thirteen more martyrs, including young José Luis Sánchez del Río were beatified in 2005 in Mexico.
Catholics in the United States are a long way from shedding our blood as we resist sin (cf. Hebrews 12:4), but we see here an example of the persecution that can come, even as a government seeks to found itself upon the cause of freedom and the common good.
Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com. Stephanie is working on a book about the English Catholic Martyrs from 1534 to 1681.