Why Is Mexico so Catholic?

What is it that makes Mexico—which Pope Benedict XVI is visiting this weekend—so Catholic? With more than 80 percent of the population professing the faith, our neighbor to the south is the second-most Catholic country in the world, surpassed only by Brazil.

It might have something to do with the Cristero War early in the twentieth century—one of the most extraordinary episodes of Church history and one that I suspect is known to few Americans. In 1917, while the rest of the world was preoccupied with World War I, Mexico was in the throes of a violent revolution. Once in power, the new, radical government adopted a whole slew of anti-clerical laws. All church property, including hospitals and convents, was seized. Schools were closed. Religious vows were outlawed. Priests were barred from wearing their clerical garb in public. Worship outside of church buildings was prohibited.

Faced with a full-on assault on the Church, and saddled with crippling restrictions on religious freedom, Mexican bishops suspended the celebration of Mass and the other sacraments in July 1926. For the first time in hundreds of years, church bells went silent.

In January 1927, a mass movement comprised largely of peasants struck back against the government. Outnumbered and out-armed—some with just machetes or even sticks—they rose up against federal forces. Known as the Cristeros for their cries of Viva Cristo Rey! this modern-day crusade turned what government authorities had initially dismissed as a “manhunt” into nearly a three-year war.

By 1929, the federal government was bleeding 96 million pesos a year to the war effort and three-fourths of the country was in Cristero hands. A new president reached out to two Mexican archbishops, seeking peace—with promises to not enforce the most virulently anti-clerical provisions of the state constitution. Pope Pius XI called on the Cristeros to end their war and they relented, albeit reluctantly. But what followed were not years of peace, but rather protracted persecution of the Church. The government reneged on assurances of amnesty for the Cristeros. Mass executions ensued, with an estimated 5,000 killed. The number of priests dwindled dramatically, since they were legally allowed to carry on their ministry only if they married. The outcome of the Cristero War has been described as a betrayal by some, but the reality is much more complicated. (Click here to read Pope Pius XI’s moving defense of the Vatican’s actions.)

The most important legacy of the Cristeros, however, is a spiritual one. In May 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a whopping 25 saints—mostly martyrs—all from the Cristero period. The announcement vastly increased the total number of Mexican saints—at the time there was just one—and tens of thousands of Mexicans packed St. Peter’s Square for the occasion. The early Christian writer Tertullian famously wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. In modern times, it’s hard to think of a better example of this than Mexico.

(Pictured above are Cristero soldiers.)

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Torres

    Why is Mexico so Catholic? I am mexican. I think it is because
    the Blessed Mother appeared to Saint Juan Diego in 1531. Her
    apparition (officially recognized by the Catholic Church)  has had   amazing influence in the last 500 years.  

  • http://iamtheangel.com/ Archangelmichaelstuart

    excellent question. Hmmmm

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