The 25 Mexican Martyrs
The Catholic Church in Mexico has suffered greatly from persecution over the past 150 years. Mexico’s government, under the influence of laicism, Freemasonry, political Liberalism, anticlericalism and Marxism, installed a constitution in 1917 that diabolically sought to eliminate Catholic religious education, repudiate religious vows and deny priests the right to vote; and, having declared all church property forfeit to the state, it forbade all religious rites outside the church buildings.
The pressure of the 1917 constitution naturally upset Catholics, but the successive presidents of the next two decades responded to their indignation with vigor, even to the point of bloodshed. Catholics understandably organized an armed Religious Defense League, called the “Cristeros”; but the existence of this activist group merely gave the government a further pretext to accuse all Catholics of treason, whether guilty or not.
President Plutarco Calles (1924-1928) became the Nero of the Mexican persecution. Many were executed during his regime, often after atrocious tortures. The government sought in particular to eliminate priests (simply admitting to being a priest was a capital offense), and members of the Catholic lay movement, Catholic Action. It also strove to replace the Catholic Church with a schismatic “Mexican Church.”
Warfare against the Church did not destroy it, but drove it underground. Spasmodic persecutions occurred under some of the successors of Calles. Only in the 1940’s was the official policy of persecution halted. Great changes for the better have come during subsequent decades. Pope John Paul II has visited Mexico and been warmly received; and Mexico has established diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
With peace reestablished between church and state, it has been possible to honor the martyrs of Mexico’s hideous anti-Catholic war. This column has already told of the elevation to the rank of “blessed” in 1988, of the heroic Mexican Jesuit, Bl. Miguel Pro (1891-1927).
The moment before he was shot, Blessed Miguel cried out “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King!) That had been the motto of the Mexican Catholics in the face of their persecutors. The implication was that it is better to obey God than men; that one should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. Pope Pius XI had established the feast of Christ the King in 1925 as a response to the tyrannies and totalitarianisms cropping up throughout the world. Mexico’s Catholics, “always faithful,” had made that title their motto. Appropriately, Pope John Paul II chose the feast of Christ the King, Sunday, November 28, 1992, to beatify 26 more Mexicans. One of these was a modern religious foundress, Bl. Maria de Jesus Venegas (1868-1959). The other 25 were victims of the persecutions of 1926-1929: 22 diocesan priests headed by Bl. Cristobal Magellanes; and three young laymen of Catholic Action who were closely associated with their parish priest and willing to die with him rather than deny their faith. Most of the 25 were killed by firing squads. The priest victims were from all over Mexico. The spirit of the lay martyrs is well expressed in the words of Manuel, the 28-year-old husband and father of three children: “I am about to die, but God will not die. He will take care of my wife and children.”
In his homily at St. Peter’s, the Pope said that this rite of beatification was intended to be a reminder, in the fifth centennial of Columbus’ discovery of America, of the gift that Mexican Catholics had made to the Faith. (It was pointed out that those chosen for beatification on this occasion were only a sampling of the large number of Mexicans who had given their lives for the Church.) Perhaps it was with the quincentennial celebration in view that Father Cristobal Magellanes had been designated the leader of the group. Cristobal is the Spanish form of Christopher Columbus’ given name; and Magellanes reminds us of another early explorer for Spain, Ferdinand Magellan.
From their death the Holy Father drew a lesson greatly relevant to us: “We are all called to be witnesses to Jesus’ sovereign, loving presence in the midst of mankind.”
--Father Robert F. McNamara