“The country is a jail for the Catholic Church. In order to be logical, a Revolution must gain the entire soul of a nation. They will have to open a jail for each home, and they don’t have enough handcuffs or hangmen to bind up the hands and cut off the heads of the martyrs. We are not worried about defending our material interests, because these come and go; but our spiritual interests, these we will defend because they are necessary to obtain our salvation.” 1
After the executions the bodies of the martyrs who penned the quotation above, Anacleto Flores and Juan Padilla, were dumped on an untended patio along with the bodies of Ramon and Jorge Vargas, who had sheltered Flores from government persecution. The bodies were taken home by family members and a period of mourning began.
Doña Elvira, the mother of Ramon and Jorge, quieted a crying relative by saying, “You know that our mission as mothers is to raise our children to heaven.” The Vargas’ had sheltered many Catholics during the persecutions without mishap. Did they regret sheltering Anacleto Flores? Jorge’s sister Maria Louisa recalled:
“We had already had in our house various priests and a group of young seminarians, but never a chief of the Cristeros. The responsibility of lodging him was enormous, but it was impossible to close the doors against him—this, never.”2
The doors were also open at the Flores home, where hundreds of mourners came to touch the body of El Maestro and console his young widow and children. Did Senora Flores regret her husband’s life? Gathering her sons around their father’s body she told them: “Look. This is your father. He has died defending the Faith. Promise me on his body that you will do the same when you get older if God asks it of you.”
The next day thousands of Catholics ignored the law and police intimidation to process with the bodies of the martyrs, praying and singing hymns to Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe as they went to the cemetery in Mezquitan for burial. The police wisely did nothing to prevent the “illegal” procession. In a face saving move the government claimed the executions occurred because the martyrs conspired to kill an American in order to stir up trouble between the United States and Mexico – as if the government needed any help doing that.3 The Revolution’s statement was a lame slander at best – not even the murdered American’s wife believed it. The Church gave her verdict in November 2005, when Anacleto Gonzalez Flores was beatified (along with Padilla, Vargas, and other Mexican martyrs).
The Clergy and the Cristeros
In August 1926, Calles had confidently predicted that the Cristero uprising would be repressed within weeks. “It will be less a campaign than a hunt,” boasted General Ferreira.4 Nine months later the General promised an end to armed conflict by Midsummer, 1927. But the peasant guerillas kept winning battles. Calles blamed their stubbornness on the Church, whom he claimed was aiding and abetting the Cristeros in their rebellion. Few statements could have been more inaccurate.
Many priests were martyred, but rarely because they supported the Cristeros. The clergy was considered dangerous, and of course to the Revolution they were, but not in a military sense. It was another case of Calles and the Mexican government not comprehending reality. They thought if they strung up enough Cristeros from telephone poles – and there are pictures showing Mexican Catholics dangling from nooses on telephone poles, the dead bodies stretching to the horizon – the Catholics would be intimidated. In fact, the sight of martyrs for the faith seemed to energize the Cristeros and their sympathizers, whose stubbornness seemed limitless during the three-year war.
Calles also misunderstood the clergy. He assumed priests and Cristeros were thick as thieves, and that his persecution of the clergy would weaken the Cristeros. Consequently, Father Jose Genaro Sanchez of Jalisco was hung, Father David Uribe was shot in April, 1927, and Father Mateo Correa Magallanes was executed for not telling government officers the contents of the confessions some Cristeros made to him. The executions also involved torture and mutilation, as in the case of Father Sabas Reyes who “was suspended for three days from a portico of his church and jabbed with bayonets by soldiers, who finally cut off the soles of his feet and then forced him to walk to the cemetery, where they shot him.”5
Eighteen non-combatant priests were executed during 1927. None of them was aligned with the Cristeros, except in the Revolution’s fevered imagination. The few priests that aided the Cristeros, usually as military chaplains, were criticized for so doing by their fellow priests.
According to Father Adolfo Arroyo, “The overwhelming majority of the bishops and priests, displaying a criminal degree of conformism, wallowed in an accursed inertia, all expecting sheer miracles from heaven to give liberty to the Church. They were all content to give exhortations and say a few prayers. The priests, more strict than ever, mostly had recourse to theology and, without further consideration, announced the illicit nature of the violent struggle in defense of the Church.6”
In sermons the Cristeros were routinely referred to as “cattle thieves.” This was a baffling criticism to many Cristeros, who waged war in order to reopen the churches so the priests could do their jobs. After pondering the matter, one Cristero replied:
“We came across an obstacle which we would never even had imagined: the very Fathers forbade us to fight for Christ, for the religion our fathers taught us and then reaffirmed for us in baptism, confirmation, and our first communion. And this was when we were fighting chiefly to defend them.
“You must not have recourse to violence, they would tell us; a Christian must be humble and patient and let himself be struck. He should always turn the other cheek; Jesus was as gentle as a lamb, that’s why He let them crucify Him. What is more, ever since Moses we have had the fifth Commandment, which forbids us to kill…We rebels wanted to know why, if it was true that the only path open to the soldiers of Christ was to turn the other cheek, they (the clergy) were not going to surrender so that they could die like martyrs straight away. This was another mystery for us rebels.”7
Yes, some Cristeros came to believe that some of the clergy were cowards. In fairness, however, a priest’s ministry rarely involves armed warfare; with a few notable exceptions, the priest administers the Sacraments to souls, and that is where his obligation lies. Of course a priest can fulfill this obligation without calling other Catholics “cattle thieves,” but it should be mentioned that the priests in Mexico were not having an easy time of it – except for those who became priests of government families. The way it worked was that the husband, a government man, would give in to his wife’s requests to hear Mass, and bring a priest to the house. In some homes this became a regular event, with meals and socializing afterwards. So the government, ironically, protected certain priests.
Other priests lived like Cristeros: a hand to mouth existence under difficult circumstances, living in hiding, traveling long, dark, lonely roads to minister to a Catholic country starving for them, always in danger of being caught by the government and shot, or worse. Other priests remained with their parishes even under threat of death,8 refusing to leave their flock in the hour of darkness.
As for the priests who made a point of denouncing the Cristeros, some were sincere, and some found it more expedient to publicly side with the government and condemn the Cristeros, assuming that the rebellion would be short lived and their clerical careers would not. Others may have simply been carrying out orders. The episcopate had not lost patience in waiting for the government to come back to the bargaining table, and to encourage this the Mexican Church officially deplored Catholics using violence against the government. Privately, there was irritation at the Cristeros for losing their patience.
Another point of conflict between the Cristeros and the Church in Mexico was the bishop’s consistent refusal to provide the Cristeros with military chaplains. This led a Cristero, Miguel Gomez Loza, to complain: “The Fathers in these parts do not approach our soldiers; they say it is because they do not want to commit themselves or they are afraid of their superiors. Those who have the most right to, and the most need of spiritual succour, are the most abandoned.”9
Some priests aided the Cristeros anyway, but they were small in number, numbering perhaps forty in the three-year war. The rest of the priests in Mexico, some 3,600, were either hostile to the Cristeros or refused to aid them.10 This caused bitterness in the ranks, resulting in the charge that the clergy were cowards. Yet if this charge was at least in part born of frustration, frustration yielded in turn to an indomitable resolve:
“Without their (the clergy) permission and without their orders we are throwing ourselves into this blessed struggle for our liberty, and without their permission and without their orders we will go on until we conquer or die.”11
The clergy had options. The majority of them left their parishes and resettled in larger towns, where persecution was mild and one could eat lunch with men of the government. It was a comparatively pain free life for priests, and served the government purpose of removing priests from rural areas where they might become involved with the Cristeros.
The Cristeros’ had options too, but generally they believed that fighting for their religion was the only honorable choice. Moreover, they longed for martyrdom. A group of unarmed older men joined the counter-revolution saying, “We are going, we old ones who are good for nothing, to give our lives to God.” Others declared, “We must win Heaven now that it is cheap,” and “How our grandfathers would have loved to win glory like this! And now God is giving to us! I’m off.”12
It is easy to claim the desire to be a martyr. When the opportunity came, however, many Cristeros’ backed up their words with true martyr courage. Twenty-seven Cristeros were summarily executed at Sahuayo. Only Claudio Becerra was spared, because he was a boy. Later he wept at the tomb of the twenty-seven, saying, “I am sorry that God did not want me as a martyr.” Age was not always a barrier to martyrdom: when young Honorio Lamas was executed with his father, he whispered to his mother before the final volley, “How easy Heaven is now, mother!”
When Cosme Valencia refused to serve in the federal army, he was executed. His last words: “I want the life of the soul, not that of the body.” Cristero Norberto Lopez was offered a pardon if he enlisted in the army. He refused, saying, “Ever since I took up arms I have had the intention of giving my life for Christ, and I’m not going to break the fast at a quarter to twelve.” Here is an account by Josefina Arellano about the death of her young brother-in-law:
“Silverio…pulled back the blanket that covered the doorway and greeted the Government by saying softly, ‘Long live Christ the King!’, and when the echo of his voice died away he was already on his way to receive the martyr’s palm and crown, for he had always said that he was a Catholic and had no other interest than the love of Christ.
“A few moments later, I drew back the blanket to go out, leaving the little ones in the arms of Domingo (her husband) to go out to die. Treading on the dead bodies, I stopped in the doorway, my God, what did I see? Above the stone wall many rifles were pointing at me, my eyes clouded over, my body trembled, but I remembered that the moment was for me, I imagined the crown and I almost touched the palm.”13
Those many who witnessed the deaths of their loved ones reacted with supernatural detachment: “It was a great adventure, so great and so noble, we were so happy at that time,” recalled Cristero Ignacio Villanueva, “Our Lord has been pleased to confer the martyr’s crown.” There was grief and bitterness as well, but even these reactions were shot through with the light of grace bestowed:
“You and I deplore from the bottom of our hearts the death of these men who offered in good faith their lives, their families and their worldly interests, who shed their blood for God and our beloved country, as true Christian martyrs do; their blood, united with that of Our Lord and with that of all the martyrs of the Holy Ghost, will obtain for us from God the Father the blessings that we hope for on Earth and in Heaven; blessed are those who die for the love of God who made Heaven and Earth and is in all things by his essence, potentiality and presence, not like the false gods of Plutarco Elias Calles and other madmen seduced by Satan, who offers them the oxen and the ox-cart of this life and afterwards makes them into stew in the Hell of torments.”14
Historian Jean Meyer remarked:
“The calm confrontation of death by the Cristeros who were taken prisoner always made an impression of the Federals: one might say that this was a characteristic of Mexican wars, that the combatants should give proof of their courage, or their contempt for death. Literature, songs, and the cinema have popularized this image of the virile Mexican, indifferent to life and death, and of his murderers, weeping out of admiration for him.
“Although the death of the Cristeros might be considered as resembling this model, its content and significance were entirely different, for it was an experience of communion with God and not a posture before men. One might then say of the Cristero movement that, rather than a Crusade, it was a collective ‘imitation of Christ’, the sacrifice of the Cristeros rather than the pursuit of the death of the persecutors.”15
The Cristeros also resembled an army, albeit a disorganized one. As time went on their tactics changed from guerrilla fighting to coordinated attacks on rural federal strongholds. Calles was dismayed when a force of Cristeros attacked and captured San Francisco del Rincon, a good-sized town fortified by federal troops. The Cristeros split their army into three forces, each of which attacked and captured three military strongholds in the town. Hardest to fall was the town hall. The Cristeros crashed the front door in with pickaxes and crowbars, and then engaged in mortal hand-to-hand combat in each room of the building. After a brutal struggle the federales were routed. The following day a Cristero force led by Father Jose Reyes Vega led an assault against a larger federal force near Arandas. After a three-hour battle, the Cristeros’ superior knowledge of terrain, combined with fearsome cavalry charges, routed the federal army again.
The following month an elite four hundred man federal cavalry unit sought to drive two hundred Cristeros from San Julian, a town they occupied. The federales rode into San Julian to utter quiet. Believing the Cristeros had fled, they proceeded to the center of town, and were withered by a concentrated volley of musket fire. The Cristeros, low on ammunition as always, had been instructed not to fire until the enemy was upon them. The federales fell back, then attacked again. So it went for some time, Cristero rifle fire becoming sporadic as they ran out of ammunition.
A cloud of dust approached the bullet-strafed town. The federales saw horsemen carrying red, white, and green Mexican flags and cheered; they now had enough reinforcements to take the town. As the cavalry came closer another cheer went up: Viva Cristo Rey! For it could now be seen that the Mexican flags were emblazoned with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe: the reinforcements were Cristeros. The federales broke rank and fled in a panic.16
Perhaps the most spectacular Cristero success in 1927 occurred in the state of Michoacan. The Cristeros were led by Luis Navarro Origel, who, when he took up arms, declared: “I will kill for Christ those who are killing Christ, and if no one follows me in this enterprise I will die for Christ.”17 He commanded a series of victories, including a three-day battle in June that involved one thousand Cristeros. Then the rains started, and most of the Cristeros went home to tend their crops. They came back in the fall and the string of victories continued. The most spectacular triumph occurred when Navarro’s men besieged seven hundred government troops at Canada de Ticuilucan. After losing two hundred men, the federales broke out and ran, abandoned by their general who surpassed his fleeing troops in his flight from battle.18 By the end of the year large portions of Michoacan had been removed from government control.
A few weeks after Anacleto Flores was executed, Father Vega led an assault against a train carrying 400,000 pesos. Track was torn up and the train derailed. A three-hour battle ensued between the Cristeros and federal troops on the train. Also present were dozens of civilian passengers, and the federal troops used the civilians as shields during the fighting. When Father Vega’s brother was killed in the fighting, Vega became enraged and ordered the cars set on fire. About four dozen people were burned alive. The Cristeros got the money and turned most of it over to a rich Catholic who said he would buy arms with it. The Cristeros never saw the money again.19
Calles was enraged by the Cristeros victories, and used the train incident for its full propaganda value, neglecting to mention his army’s use of Mexican citizens as shields, or the fact that many Cristeros were also critical of Father Vega’s actions. Calles used the incident to expel the remaining Mexican bishops from the country, and to introduce a new government program called Reconcetracion, or Reconcentration. Rural villages were emptied, and the villagers were sent to large cities to survive as best they could. After plundering the empty village, the army burned everything to the ground. Harvests were sold, or destroyed. Animals were sold, or machine-gunned. The Revolution that had proclaimed itself champion of the poor was now destroying them.
Huddled together in hot cities in the most unsanitary conditions, many refugees contracted typhoid or small pox. They were mocked by federales, who grabbed rosaries and scapulars from the refugees, and after profaning them and hurling them on the ground, shouted: “Fanatics! What good does all that stuff do?”20
Calles’ plan was brutally simple: to destroy the food chain the Cristeros relied on, and to turn their sympathetic countrymen against them. The Reconcentracion certainly halted Cristero momentum, but here again the government miscalculated, for army brutality converted many of the refugees from Cristero sympathizers to actual Cristeros. This dynamic was also lost on an American observer, who reported that the Reconcentracion would end the war, and predicted the federal military campaign would soon end. Carleton Beals, a leftist writer who was firmly pro-government and anti-Church, witnessed the horrible sufferings of the refugees and concluded:
“The sorry state of affairs in Mexico cannot be attributed to the Catholics but to the military chiefs and irresponsible bandits…In the entire country civil law has disappeared and life is not worth a straw; property belongs to those who gave arms.”21
The wanton destruction of crops, land, and animals drove up food prices, and the brutal treatment of refugees caused plagues to spread. The Reconcentracion was halted; the refugees were returned to what – if anything – was left of their homes, and ordered to reseed their fields.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Mexico had become The Lawless Lands, an aptly titled chronicle by English novelist and Catholic convert Graham Greene, who visited the revolution ravaged country in the 1930’s. The closure of the Church, instead of stimulating progress, seemed instead to stimulate murder, mayhem, and immorality.
Because the Cristeros controlled certain parts of central Mexico, they became the part of the government, cooperating with the municipal government. Life in these areas was much different from land under government control.
For instance, the laws against prostitution, drinking, and living together outside marriage were enforced, and generally honored. After the Church was closed in July 1926, fiestas were not allowed either. This was a sacrifice, for most Cristeros loved fiestas and music. There was more than just symbolism involved with this prohibition, however. Cristero Valente Acevedo explained, “Where there was music, there was wine, and the enemy might surprise us when we were drunk.”22 For moral and military reasons, “we did not allow scandals involving women. A man who was not properly married either had to get married according to the law, or separate, or he was sent to prison.”23
While government troops routinely violated women, a Cristero doing so would be executed. The spirit of the Cristeros movement “was thoroughly moral, which essentially distinguishes it from previous movements,” according to Acevedo, who resisted being called a revolutionary, stating that the Cristeros were “the opposite of a revolution.”
Prostitution decreased and schools increased in Cristero lands. If one looked closely, it was evident that the Cristeros and their supporters were trying to restore to their communities neighborliness and traditional social values. This was the overarching goal under which fell laws for marriage and against prostitution, drinking, and other activities that acted as a solvent to virtuous living. Consequently, Cristero troops did not take military advantage of the citizens they lived with.
Jean Meyer writes that the Cristero rebellion “was not a reaction against social change, for at that time there was no such change – it was purely negative, a process of disintegration and aggravation. The system of government adopted by the Cristeros was dictated, on the one hand, by the fact that theirs was a popular army living at union with the people, and still less capable of ill treating it because it was building the Kingdom of Christ, and, on the other hand, it was a reaction against the social lawlessness which was becoming the rule.
“It was neither conservatism nor revolution, but reform, at a time when the ancient traditional models of behavior were in crisis, without others having arisen to take their place. The Cristero solution consisted in solidly reestablishing the rural world on its family and religious bases, profiting from the mood of mystic exaltation which makes possible a new morality and a new perfection; it restored, among the peasants, the hope of a brilliant future for the country.”24
In Mexico City there was precious little evidence of that brilliant future, but many other Catholics toiled after it anyway, in their own fashion. Some of them even worked for the government. Others did works of charity for their neighbors, and their enemies. There was a Jesuit priest who in a short time became famous for his efforts for the poor, the imprisoned, and the spiritually starved. So talkative and cheerful was he that none suspected him of severe mortification practices; only his brothers who heard him “disciplining himself with extraordinary vigor” each night knew different.
He preferred to work anonymously, so much so that he could say:
“No one knows where I live. There are four different spots where I keep appointments and receive letters, messages, and donation for my poor families which now number twenty-three…without knowing how, when, nor who has sent them, I receive now fifty kilos of sugar, now boxes of cookies, now coffee, chocolate, rice – and even wine. And the Providence of God is so paternal that even while I’m scratching my head, trying to think whom I may sponge on next, I find the larder already filled.
“I know hardly anyone, and still it has been scarcely any trouble for me to obtain loans of vacant houses for as long as six to eight months…here, in the midst of the vortex, I am amazed by the special aid of God, the very special graces He grants us in such perils, the Presence now more intimately felt when discouragement comes to make our souls smaller…”25
The Jesuits returned Father Miguel to his native Mexico for the last year of his life. It was an audacious year, full of brushes with the law and with death. While some men had abandoned hope, Father Miguel seemed to have abandoned fear. Wearing any number of outlandish disguises, he repeatedly fooled prison guards to carry Holy Communion into the cells of political prisoners (that is, Catholics), or into public hospitals, without once being detected.
Much has been written elsewhere of his exploits, so here let one anecdote suffice. Threatened with jail by a police officer, the priest snapped: “Look, you vulgarian, if your cart me off to prison, I shan’t be able to confess your mamacita.” The officer sighed and told Father Miguel to go away at once.
“I go? He who will go is you – and not to the police station, but simply to tell your mama that I shall hear her confession tonight and carry Communion to her tomorrow morning to learn whether in that way I can’t achieve your own confession, you good-for nothing, shameless demon.”
“Ah, what a little three stone padre!”
“Well, one would be enough to break your head.”
“The next day,” Father Miguel concluded, “my friend attended the Communion of his mother, and I believe that soon I shall carry it to him.”26
Some Catholic writers have taken pains not to associate Father Miguel – or as he is better known, Padre Pro – with the Cristeros. Pro, after all, was a saint, unlike those cattle thieving Cristeros. There does seem to have been at least some indirect contact between Pro and the Cristeros, however. The conduit for the contacts was the Liga,27 another black sheep Catholic social action organization that Padre Pro (and his brothers Humberto and Roberto) belonged to and spoke on behalf of. Pro also provided “spiritual and material help” to Liga members who were smuggling supplies to the Cristeros.28 And he was in charge of a Liga financed apostolate to care for the widows and children of Cristeros who died in combat.29
In November, 1927, several Liga members plotted the assassination of General Alvaro Obregon, a political comrade of Calles. Calles planned to turn the presidency over to Obregon in 1928, and then take it back the following election. The Liga was not involved formally in the plot, which failed.30 The car driven by the would-be assassins was traced to Humberto Pro. He and his brother Miguel were arrested.31
The car in question had been sold by Humberto a few days before the assassination attempt. Neither he nor his brothers had anything to do with the assassination, and they affirmed this when questioned. But the government had been looking for Padre Pro for months, and knew that the Pro brothers were involved with the Liga, which in the government’s eyes made them little better than the Cristeros. Calles was not about to let the Pros go free. He ordered them executed without a trial.
“From here on,” Miguel told Humberto, “we’re offering our lives for the cause of Religion in Mexico. Let us do it together that God may accept our sacrifice.”
Father Miguel was placed in front of a bullet chipped wall. A man approached him. “Padre, I ask your pardon for my part in this.” Pro replied, “You have not only my pardon, but my gratitude. I give you thanks.” He knelt and prayed. Kissing a small crucifix, he arose, and refused a blindfold. Without his cassock, he was a small, rumpled figure, remarkable only for his complete composure. An order barked out, and rifle butts thumped onto shoulders. Father Miguel stretched out his arms so that his body formed a cross. His last words were three – not shouted in defiance, but spoken calmly, even kindly, a final benediction upon those who knew not what they did, and upon those who did; for in the end both served to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven –
“Viva Cristo Rey.”
1 Catholic World Report, July 2000, Viva Cristo Rey! Remembering the Mexican Martyrs of the Cristero Rebellion, by Ann Ball. The quotation is from an editorial authored by Anacleto Gonzalez Flores and Luis Padilla that appeared in the periodical Gladium.
2 Ibid. The Vargas family was further consoled later that evening, when their remaining son, Florentino, came home. His mother, who thought he had died as well, embraced him and said, “Ah, my son, how close you were to the crown of martyrdom. Now it is your obligation to live so as to merit the favor you have been given.”
3 In 1927 the concerns of the United States regarding the revolutionary government in Mexico were twofold: that Calles was encroaching on U.S. oil interests in Mexico (this was true), and that the Mexican government was persecuting American Protestants living in Mexico (this was negligible).
4 Tuck, op. cit., p. 55.
5 Bailey, op. cit., pp. 140-141.
6 Meyer, op. cit., pp. 69-70.
7 Ibid, pp. 70-71.
8 The death threats came from the government. There was a policy to remove priests from their rural parishes and relocate them in urban centers, in the hopes that the absence of priests would weaken the resolve of the Cristeros and their sympathizers, who all lived in the country. The priests who defied the government policy were not necessarily Cristero sympathizers – they were simply brave priests who refused to abandon their flocks, and sometimes paid for this decision with their lives.
9 Meyer, op. cit., p. 73.
10 Meyer, op. cit., p. 75.
11 Ibid, p. 71.
12 Ibid, p. 190.
13 Ibid, p. 191.
15 Ibid, p. 192, my emphasis.
16 Both Cristeros and federales carried Mexican flags, as both believed they were the true representatives of Mexico.
17 Tuck, op. cit., p. 42.
18 Bailey, op. cit., p. 163.
19 Tuck, op. cit., pp. 63-64.
20 Tuck, op. cit., p. 74.
21 Tuck, op. cit, p. 73.
22 Meyer, op. cit., p. 142.
24 Ibid., p. 143.
25 Fanchon Royer, Padre Pro, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1954, p. 173.
26 Ibid., p. 177.
27 Short for the National League for Religious Defense (or Defense of Religious Liberty). See Parts II and IV.
28 Bailey, op. cit., pp. 167-168.
30 It was a foolish plot at best; Obregon was similar to Calles in his views on religion, but was not a fanatic like El Turco. It is likely President Obregon would have come to a quick agreement with the Church. Perhaps this is what some of the more grandiose Liga members feared: a settlement between the government and the Church that would shut the Liga out of seats of power.
31 The other brother, Roberto, was arrested and later released.