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Catholic World News News Feature

Viva Cristo Rey! October 17, 2001

Until the May 21 canonization of 25 Mexican martyrs, many Catholics--even in the neighboring United States--were unaware of scope and ferocity of the persecution unleashed against the Catholic Church in Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s. The bitter conflict known as the Cristero Rebellion (the Cristiada) is rarely mentioned by popular historians.

Under the dictatorship of Plutarco Elias Calles, from1924 to 1928, the Mexican government was bitterly anti-clerical; Calles wanted to eradicate the Catholic Church. In 1925 he attempted to establish a national church, expelled all foreign clergymen from the country, and confiscated the property of Church-affiliated agencies such as schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions. In 1926, 33 new legislative measures designed to suppress the Church--measures which became known as the Ley Calles (the Calles Law)--were enacted. The Ley Calles limited the number of priests who could serve in any locality, and the number of services they could lead, closed down seminaries and convents, and barred foreign priests from serving in Mexico.

With the knowledge of Pope Pius XI, the Mexican bishops closed the country's Catholic churches in protest against these new repressive laws. Faithful Catholics mobilized, collecting over 2 million signatures on a petition calling for the repeal of the Ley Calles. But their efforts were ignored by the Mexican regime, and finally some Catholics, concluding that they had no other choice, took up arms in an effort to restore their religious liberty.

The Cristero rebels, whose cause was always handicapped by a shortage of weapons and a lack of military training and experience, officially began their military campaign on New Year's Day in 1927. The rebellion began in Jalisco, and spread rapidly to surrounding areas. It ended 30 months later, with the results settled at a bargaining table rather than a battlefield.

Most of the Mexican Catholic bishops had always opposed armed conflict. From his place in exile, Bishop Pascual Diaz of Tabasco ceaselessly to formulate an agreement with the government that could bring an end to the fighting. Dwight Whitney Morrow, the US ambassador to Mexico, and Father John J. Burke, the head of the US National Catholic Welfare Conference (the predecessor to today's US Catholic Conference) were also key players in the search for a negotiated solution.

When Alvaro Obregón, Calles' successor as Mexican president, was assassinated two weeks after his election, Emilio Portes Gil was named interim president. Portes Gil was more flexible than his predecessors, and on June 21, 1929 his government reached an agreement with the Catholic negotiators. On June 27, the churches of Mexico were re-opened, to the joyous pealing of their bells. .

Although it was not successful in meeting its goals, and anti-Catholic legislation would remain in place in Mexico almost until the end of the 20th century, the Cristiada left an indelible mark on Mexican history. The battle cry of the Cristeros, "Viva Cristo Rey," still resounds today.

In May, some 20,000 Mexican pilgrims traveled to Rome for the ceremonies in which 25 heroes of the Cristiada were canonized. Among these new saints were the first 6 members of the Knights of Columbus ever to attain beatification. And many more Cristeros are being studied by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Fathers Miguel Pro, SJ, and Elías del Socorro Nieves have already been beatified. Causes have also been opened for the lay martyrs Maria de la Luz Camacho, Josefa Parra, Coleta Melendez Degollado, , and José Sanchez del Rio, who was only 13 when he was killed. Finally there are eight other laymen whose causes have been opened. Here, in brief, are their stories of those eight Mexican Catholic heroes.

THE SOCIAL ACTIVIST Anacleto Gonzalez Flores was a fiery young attorney from Tepatilan, in Jalisco, who had pledged to use his oratorical talents in service to God and his country. An excellent student, he gained the nickname "El Maestro Cleto," ("Professor Cleto"). Gonzalez Flores was particularly influenced by Rerum Novarum, the great encyclical by Pope Leo XII which first set out the major themes of Catholic social thought. He studied law in Guadalajara, where he was an enthusiastic member of the Association Catolica de la Juventaud Mexicana (ACJM)--an organization founded in Guadalajara in 1913, dedicated to the restoration the Christian social order in Mexico. He taught catechism, and as a member of the St. Vincent de Paul society, visited the poor, the sick, and prisoners. He wrote articles in magazines and newspapers, and founded a periodical to refute the anti-religious arguments that lay behind the Mexican Constitution of 1917. Alongside these activities and studies, Gonzalez cultivated a deep interior life as a daily communicant, and a third-order Franciscan. In November of 1922, he married Maria Concepcion Guerrero Flores. He was deeply devoted to his wife and to family life and wrote, "The family is the true unifier, energetic and vigorous, in which rests all the good of society."

In July 1918, Guadalajara had seen the first violent conflict between government forces and the Catholic faithful. Gonzalez worked to defend Catholic interests, and was able to secure the revocation of some unpopular decrees. In leading the Catholic response to the increasingly anti-clerical government politices, he elaborated a philosophy of resistance based on the non-violent principles of Mahatma Gandhi. He was jailed briefly in 1919, and by 1922, he had come to prominence as a coordinator of the first national congress of Catholic workers. That meeting, held in Guadalajara, led to the organization of the National Confederation of Catholic Workers, a group which soon spread throughout Mexico.

In 1924, Gonzalez organized another new group, the Union Popular, in order to revive the flagging spirits of the country's Catholics. The Union Popular rapidly gained strength in Guadalajara, with the blessing and approval of Archbishop Orozco y Jimenez. Next Gonzalez and a colleague, Luis Padilla, founded a new periodical, Gladium, in which they wrote:

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.

RELUCTANT REBEL

The Union Popular was based on pacifist principles, in contrast to the more militant line developed by the Liga Defensora de la Libertad Religiosa. The latter group, begun in Mexico City in 1925, supported the use of armed force, if necessary, to regain religious freedom; the Union Popular insisted that victory could be won through the power of non-violent resistance. By 1926, however, the struggle to uphold the principles of non-violence was becoming more difficult. On August 3 of that year, the desecration of the sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Guadalajara prompted cries for open rebellion, which resounded throughout the state of Jalisco. In Zacatecas, Father Luis Batis and three other members of the ACJM were murdered. In October there were uprisings all across Jalisco--in Tlajomulco, Ameca, Cocula, Ciudad Guzman, Chapala, Atengo, Ayutla, and Tecolotlan. (These outbursts of rebelliong caught President Calles by surprise. He considered religion a pastime for women and children, and called Jalisco, a center of fervent Catholic sentiment, the "Henhouse of the Republic.")

Gonzalez Flores was caught in a moral dilemma. Now that armed conflict had begun, he began to ask himself how he could, in conscience, maintain his commitment to non-violence while thousands of Catholics were "put down to death like canon fodder." He made his decision during the last days of December 1926, when delegates from the Liga Defensora de la Libertad Religiosa came forward with a demand that the Union Popular declare itself for or against the armed struggle. Basing his position on the moral legitimacy of self-defense--an argument which had been accepted tacitly by some Mexican bishops, and openly by others--he decided to throw his support behind the rebels.

So Gonzalez brought together the leaders of the Union Popular, and announced:

The League has begun a revolutionary adventure with a determination that may be single-hearted. For my part, my personal position is that I cannot be another other than what my position demands. I will be with the Liga Defensora, and I will throw all that I am, and all that I have, into the balance. This much remains clear: the Union Popular was not made to be an instrument of civil war. Today, however, beyond doubt we are driven to the extremes.

The die was cast, and Gonzalez was soon acting as a chief organizer of the resistance. In January of 1927 the guerrilla war began in earnest throughout all of Jalisco. The periodical Gladium carried news of the struggle, and exhortations for Catholics to help the Cristeros. From a series of hiding places, Gonzalez helped to set the strategy of the rebel campaign, wrote and sent out bulletins, and delivered speeches rousing support for the Cristiada.

The Mexican government, naturally wanted to crush the rebellion immediately. General Jesus Maria Ferreira felt that the best way to achieve that goal would be to capture the chiefs of the Union Popular and the ACJM, and set the time for this action as the morning of April 1, 1927.

Gonzalez was captured at the home of the Vargas Gonzalez family, and taken to military headquarters where General Ferreira ordered for him to be tortured, in an effort to learn more about the Cristeros. He was hanged by his thumbs until they were dislocated; the bottom of his feet were slashed. Yet he steadfastly refused to give any information. The frustrated General Ferrerira condemned Gonzalez to death, accusing him of masterminding an assassination. His Gladium colleague Luis Padilla and three young men from the Vargas Gonzalez family were also condemned, although the youngest of the Vargas brothers was released due to confusion about his age. On the first Friday of April 1927, at three in the afternoon, the prisoners were taken out to be shot. A short while thereafter, a defense attorney arrived with a stay of execution. He was too late.

When the body of Anacleto Gonzalez Flores was recovered by his family, hundreds of friends, relatives, and admirers passed by his home, to touch the body of Maestro Cleto and pay their final respects. Anacleto's young widow brought their sons into the room where their father's body lay. "Look," she said to her eldest child:

This is your father. He has died defending the faith. Promise me on his body that you will do the same when you are older if God asks it of you.

The following day, thousands of Mexican Catholics ignored the heavy presence of the police, and perhaps even risked their lives, when they followed the bodies of the martyrs to the cemetery in Mezquitan, reciting prayers and singing hymns to Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In an official statement that he released to explain the executions, General Ferreira said that he had found Anacleto Gonzalez Flores to be "the brains" behind the shooting of Edgar Wilkins, an American citizen; he added that Anacleto Flores and his "group of fanatics" were trying to stir up trouble between Mexico and the United States. General Ferreira successfully pressured the news media to publicize his statement. But the widow of Edgar Wilkins was never satisfied with the Mexican government's explanation of his death. She wrote a protest to Washington, providing the name of the man she believed to be the real murderer of her husband, and explaining that the killer's motive was straightforward: robbery.

THEIR LEADER'S EXAMPLE

Jorge and Ramon Vargas Gonzalez, who died alongside Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, were from Ahualuco de Mercado in the state of Jalisco. After their university studies, Jorge began working at the electric company while Ramon studied medicine. The brothers became active members of the ACJM and were followers of "Maestro Cleto."

During the persecution of religious, the Vargas family gave refuge to a number of priests and seminarians. Jorge’s sister Maria Louisa recalled the family's decision to shelter Anacleto as well:

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.

One they were in jail, Gonzalez Flores and the brothers Vargas encountered Luis Padilla, who had also been taken prisoner in the same government crackdown. All five were put in the same room for interrogation. While Gonzalez was tortured, the others were exhaustively questioned and beaten. But following the example set by their leader, they remained steadfast and silent. Four were condemned; Florentino Vargas was set free because the police thought, erroneously, that he was below the age of legal majority. General Ferreira ordered a simultaneous execution, but Flores asked that he be shot last, so that he would be able to comfort the others up until the last moment. Together the condemned prisoners recited the Act of Contrition in a loud voice, and then a hail of bullets ended their final cry of Viva Cristo Rey! Their bodies were thrown outside on the patio of the police station, where they remained untended until their families claimed them.

Notice of the executions flashed like gunpowder through the city of Guadalajara. The homes of the martyrs filled rapidly with mourners. At the Vargas home, a relative began to cry loudly. Calmly the martyrs' mother, Dona Elvira, quieted her by saying, "You know that our mission as mothers is to raise our children to heaven." That night, the family and friends were surprised and overjoyed when Florentino unexpectedly arrived at home His mother ran to embrace this son she had thought was dead, saying:

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.

Luis Padilla Gómez, who had joined with Anacleto Gonzalez Flores to found Gladium, was born in Guadalajara. He once began studies for the priesthood, but struggled with his vocation and eventually left the seminary. A writer and deeply spiritual man, his personal diaries show his constant desire to give himself to God. In one moving passage he wrote, "Yes, Jesus, I will follow you, forgetting the world, even if hell passes over me. In the meantime,Lord, hide me in your wounds."

In 1920, after completing philosophy studies, Luis dedicated himself to an apostolate as a catechist and social activist. A member of the ACJM since its founding, he became secretary of the Union Popular. By 1926 he had decided to resume his studies for the priesthood, but that option was no longer open to him; the seminaries had been closed and their students dispersed.

When he was in jail, with his death sentence pending, Padilla expressed the desire to go to confession. But no priest was available, and his friend and mentor Maestro Cleto assured him:

No, brother, now is not the hour to confess, but to request pardon and to pardon our enemies. God is a father and not a judge, the one that gives you hope. Your own blood will purify you.

TWO MORE BROTHERS

The brothers Ezequiel and Salvador Huerta Gutierrez were born in Magdalena and finished their education in Guadalajara. Ezequiel had a beautiful tenor voice and used his talent in the churches of the city. He was offered a contract with an Italian opera company, but refused on the grounds that his voice was dedicated to the service of God.

Ezequiel married in 1904 and fathered ten children. A dedicated family man, he loved his wife Maria and their children enormously and was generous and affectionate with them. Their home life was tranquil happy. In 1925, Ezequiel made his profession as a third-order Franciscan.

In 1926, when the churches were closed because of the religious persecution, Ezequiel Huerta became the custodian of the church of San Felipe Neri. His two oldest sons were active Cristeros. General Ferreira believed that Ezequiel's wife was also active among the Cristeros. (She had, in fact, nursed the wounded among the rebels.) In March of 1927, Maria Huerta was captured while attending secret Mass and on her release the couple discussed their belief that this incident was only a prelude to something worse.

Ezequiel Huerta attended the wake for Anacleto Flores, and on the following day he stayed with his children while his wife went to pay her respects. At about nine in the morning the police arrived at their home, telling Ezequiel that he had been denounced for having Cristero priests hidden in his house. A young seminarian who was a friend of the family, Juan Bernal, arrived at the Huerta home soon after the police, and later testified about his friend's last hours.

After a fruitless search for hidden clerics, the police took Ezequiel Huerta and young Bernal into custody. As they left, Maria Huerta (who by now had returned from the wake) called out to her husband: "Don’t worry, Ezequiel; if you don’t return to see us in this life we will see you in heaven." In a deliberate act of petty cruelty, the police took not only the breadwinner of the family, but also the bread; they confiscated beans, corn, and rice from the family kitchen.

Sergeant Felipe Velazquez questioned Ezequiel Huerta about the whereabouts of his two brothers who were priests, and other acquaintances who were believed to be active in the Cristero movement. Huerta refused even to open his mouth in response, so he was beaten until he was thoroughly bloodied. "We are going to hang your brother Salvador by the thumbs; and you, if you don't talk, we will hang you by your hind legs," cried the sergeant furiously. In reply, Hueva began to sing with all the strength he could muster, booming out the hymn "My Christ lives, my King lives." He was beaten again until he was unable to sing or even speak aloud. Two men carried him back to his cell and dropped him beside Bernal. Painfully, in a low voice, Huerta reported to his companion, "Nothing much happened." Then he delivered a final request:

Listen, when they carry my body to my house tell Maria that in the purse under my belt I have a hundred pesos of gold; it is all that I have to give her.

After finishing high school, Salvador Huerta worked as a mechanic, as an explosive technician in the mines of Zacatecas, and as a locomotive repairman in Aguascalientes. He married Adelina Jiminez in 1907 and fathered twelve children who would remember him as a loving and self-sacrificing father and a devoted husband. The family moved to Guadalajara in order to be closer to Salvador's parents, and Salvador Huerta opened an auto repair shop; he soon gained a reputation as the best mechanic in Guadalajara. Called the "Magician of Cars," Huerta was well respected in the community. Eventually his business grew to include had eight employees, and while he taught these workers mechanical skills, Huerta also taught them respect for the things of God. He himself made daily visits to the Blessed Sacrament, was a member of the Nocturnal Adoration Society. His children recall that he taught them piety more though his example than through his words.

On the same morning that his brother Ezequiel was arrested, Salvador Huerta was at work when the police came and told him to come to fix a car. He asked them to bring the car in to the shop, but when the police persisted he serenely collected his tools and walked to the police station. Questioned there by the police chief about his connections with the Cristeros, Salvador Huerta also responded with silence. He was tortured and finally thrown in the same cell with his brother. While he was being questioned, agents searched through his house, finding some religious articles and a revolver which belonged to Salvador's son. The butt of the gun was inscribed, "And the Word was made flesh and lived among us;" those words from the Gospel of St. John were commonly used among the Cristeros.

Early on the morning of April 3, two guards entered the cell where the Huerta brothers were imprisoned, and ordered them out. In spite of their injuries, the two men arose and entered the police van to be carried to the cemetery of Mezquitan. As they were lined up against a wall there to be executed, Ezequiel turned to his brother and said, "We pardon them, right?" Then his beautiful voice was stilled by a volley of bullets. Salvador then said, "Brother, you are already a martyr." Taking a candle in his hand, he held it in front of himself, telling his executioners, "I put this light on my chest so you won’t fail to hit my heart. I am ready to die for Christ." The next volley drowned out his final words.

The Huerta families were not able to claim the men's bodies because General Ferreira deliberately set a high price for their release. Therefore, the two martyrs were buried in a single grave

READY FOR A FIESTA

Luis Magana Servin was born in Arandas, Jalisco. A quiet child, he had beautiful eyes; a local painter chose him as the model for a painting of the Christ child, which still hangs in the Arandas parish church.

Luis Magana Servin became his father's "right hand man" in the family business, a tannery. As a young man, he studied the encyclical Rerum Novarum, and committed himself to practicing social justice through humane treatment and kindness toward the workers at his family's plant. Former employees testify that Magana made no distinction between poor and rich; he treated everyone in the same friendly and respectful fashion. He was one of the founders of the ACJM in Arandas and was also a founder of the Nocturnal Adoration Scoiety in Arandas in 1922. Magana was active in his parish, and used his organizational skills to form youth groups to help the poorest families. Co-workers and friends remember Magana as a good salesman, who was generous to his workers and to the poor. He married a young girl named Elvira in January of 1926, and from the beginning their marriage was a happy one. Their first child, Gilberto, was born in April of 1927. Five months after her husband's death, Elvira gave birth to a daughter whom she named Luisa in his memory.

Arandas remained peaceful during the turbulent years from 1910 to 1917, but during the Cristero conflict the town was one of the strongholds of the Catholic resistance. Many of the men joined in the fighting; the elderly, women, and children served as messengers and provisioners for the rebels. Luis Magana himself was a proponent of non-violence, but he gave the Cristiada his spiritual and material support, as did most of the Catholics of the area. Well aware of the dangers involved in such work, Luis collected and sent arms, food, and other necessities to the Cristeros.

Miguel Gomez Loza, the leader of the Cristeros and the civil governor of Jalisco, had established his headquarters on a ranch near Arandas in the middle of 1927, after government troops had burned down his former center of operations in Cerro Gordo. So the town became an ideological battleground, with the government determined to stem the growth of support for the rebels. In order to frighten the people, soldiers hanged the bodies of slain Cristeros in trees on a river bank south of town. Military authorities also demanded that the farmers bring their corn harvest to a designated collection center, in order to prevent them from sending food to aid the Cristeros. As the conflict intensified, authorities prepared a list of the people who were suspected of aiding the Cristeros, and the name of Luis Magana Servin appeared on that list.

On the morning of February 9, 1928, federal soldiers sent by General Martinez came to the Magana home to arrest Luis. Not finding him at home, they took his younger brother Delfino instead, telling Don Raymundo, his father, that if Luis did not turn himself in by the end of that very day, they would shoot Delfino. When Luis came home for lunch, he found his wife and parents in tears. They told him what had happened, and with his usual serenity he calmed them, saying he would go and speak with General Martinez to obtain Delfino's release.

Luis then bathed, shaved, and dressed in a new suit. He ate lunch calmly with his wife and children. When he was finished, he knelt in front of his parents and asked for their blessing; then he hugged everyone, kissed his little son, and left the home.

As Magana walked down the street, a friend saw him and asked where he was going so dressed up. When Luis told him, he cautioned, "Don't go, they will shoot you!" Then Magana, opening his arms and looking at the sky, replied, "What happiness! Within an hour I will be in the arms of God."

Magana made his way to the military office and asked for General Martinez. He was immediately arrested and conducted to the hotel where the general was staying. When he entered the room, the general demanded, "Who are you?"

"My General, I am Luis Magana, whom you are looking for," he said without a sign of uneasiness, looking the general directly in the face. "The one you have detained is my brother and he hasn't done anything. Now that you have me, turn him loose."

General Martinez saw before him a brave man, dressed as if he was planning for a fiesta, calm and serene as if he were about to receive an award. Rising from his seat, he said, "Well, young man, we are going to see if you really are as valiant as you seem." Then he ordered, "Let the other go, and shoot this one immediately on the patio of the church."

Taken to the church, Luis refused the traditional blindfold and asked to speak. Two witnesses have testified to what he said:

I am neither a Cristero nor a rebel. But if you accuse me of being a Christian, that I am. You soldiers who are going to shoot me, I want to tell you that from this moment I pardon you and I promise you that on arriving in the presence of God, you are the first ones I will intercede for. Viva Cristo Rey! Viva Santa Maria de Guadalupe!

As the sounds of the gunfire carried through the still air, the Magana family heard the reports, knowing in their hearts that it was their own martyr who had been executed.

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