¡Viva Cristo Rey!

He did not come to dominate peoples and lands, but to free men from the slavery of sin and to reconcile them with God.-- B16, today's homily.

You can read about the history of today's feast here, but it was instituted in 1925 to combat communism and attendant secularism. I've been saving my reflections on my recent trip to Mexico for today, since I visited several towns which were hotbeds of Catholic resistance to the brutal suppression of the Church during what's come to be known as the Cristero wars. To the extent people know anything about this period in Mexican history, it's generally through Graham Greene, the first journalist to turn any serious attention to it --and of course it engendered his magnificent The Power & The Glory.

Several of us were there on business, but were able to visit Sahuayo (about 2 hours south of Guadalajara by bus), the site of the martyrdom of Bl. José Luis Sanchez del Río, who with his companions was beatified last year. He was a scant 14 years old when he volunteered for the rebel Cristero army. Thy tried to turn him away because of his youth, but he basically wouldn't leave and Prudencio Mendoza, general of the rebel forces, defeated, allowed him to be the company's flag-bearer. When the general's horse was shot from under him in battle, José Luis gave him his, then took cover and kept firing until he ran out of ammunition.

The basic story of his ensuing martyrdom is here, and we were able to follow in his footsteps, starting at the Church of St. Andrew Apostle, which los federales used as a jail at the time. We arrived in the evening on the first day of the novena to St. Cecilia, which means that as we toured the church, which houses his relics and contains a little shrine where his moving letters from jail are on display along with photos and other memorabilia, a series of mariachi bands paraded into the Church in the spirit of fiesta. It got late and the priests traveling with us obtained permission to celebrate mass, and in an instant the word spread and the Church was full --and the mariachis provided the hymns.

After mass we followed in the footsteps of José Luis, walking the mile or so that he was marched (the soles of his feet flailed) towards the cemetary and his waiting grave, all the while refusing to denounce his faith, instead proclaiming the battle cry of the Cristeros: ¡Viva Cristo Rey! All the while I kept reflecting that once fourteen old enough to have formed deep convictions and be capable of great courage and manly sacrifice. I don't think you can build that on a playstation, sorry.

We interrupted our walk to stop at the shrine of the Sacred Heart, which is essentially a catacomb for other Cristero martyrs. Unlike long ago and far away martyrdoms, the striking feature of this pilgrimage is that there are photos documenting everything, and witnesses ready to tell the tale. The locals explain that after long years of war, the Cristeros negotiated peace with the government and laid down their arms --and in this place, as soon as some 20 men surrendered, they were shot. The pictures on the wall confirm the story.

To me the most moving aspect of the Cristero wars is how the entire citizenry of these towns was involved. They hid priests; young people risked their lives to transport the Eucharist so people could receive, and everyone would minister to the wounded and dying, rushing to their sides to pray with them and help them die well. Talk about supporting the troops! There's a palpable sense of unity when you hear the children of these heroes talk about the times. I reflected, too, that dying well is a forgotten art in the antiseptic age, which tries to pretend death doesn't exist.

About an hour South of Sahuayo lies Cotija de la Paz, home town of the recently canonized Bishop Rafael Guízar y Valencia, a prominent figure in the Cristero period. Cotija is a marvel of piety in some ways (although old-timers regret the gringo-ization of their youth, who cross the Northern border to make money and bring home --if they come back-- the worst features of American tv culture). The town proper is a tiny little place --everything walkable-- but nonetheless the birthplace of four bishops and five founders of religious orders. In Cotija it's the practice to greet people with "¡A Maria!" --and it's a race to see who says it first. If you say it first, the other person has to say a Hail Mary for you; if you lose, you have to pray for the other person.

Are they proud of their native saint there! The town was still decorated from the canonization a few weeks earlier --every household had the bishop's portrait over the mantel and purple and white paper chains (actually made of satin ribbons) festooning the door. The typical Mexican paper cut-out decorations that you may have seen strung across streets on Cinco de Mayo were done in purple and white and cut to look like the holy man. One of his major relics is housed in the conference center where we were meeting, and one night the people of the village came to collect it and carry it in procession to the various Churches in town. (Publicity was done the traditional way: the invitation came via bullhorn as a car passed up and down the streets of the town.)

Everyone has a tale his parents told him of his kindness and bravery. His clandestine seminary was the only Mexican seminary for the entire Cristero period, and he was famous for saying:
A Bishop can do without the miter, the crosier and even without the cathedral, but he cannot do without the seminary.
You can read his whole life elsewhere, but I'll recount one local tale you're not likely to find in the official bio. Bishop Guízar used to drum up audiences for missions by playing the accordion. When we visited his home, they told us that once the federal soldiers captured him and he was sentenced to death. On the march from one jail to the next, he asked to be granted one last request, which was for a last meal, as he was very hungry. There he kept eating and eating (whether as a delaying tactic or what I don't know --he was a portly man), and he kept ordering rounds of drinks for his guards. Some visitors asked him who he was, and he said he was a musician. They said this must be tested, so an accordion was brought and he began playing and singing --and sending rounds of drinks-- until his guards were blotto and he escaped. As I say, whether that tale will make the official hagiography I don't know, but --my kind of saint.

By the way, many of the Cristero martyrs were Knights of Columbus, as was St. Rafael Guízar. So view the Knights with strange new respect --they have 7 canonized saints. Here's their press release for Bishop G's canonization, which includes my favorite picture of him. Through their intercession, may we share in the virtues of the Cristero martrys. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!