Most of us have no experience with real kings and queens. It is an experience rather strange to the modern American mind. It isn’t in our democratic consciousness. Absolute authority can go bad.
Our historic experience with King George III of England, before the American Revolution, sought of left us with a bad taste of royalty. Still, we love to hear, read, and watch items about the Royal Family of Great Britain or the Princely Family of Monaco. We even like the tune God Save the King or Queen so much that we just kept the music and changed the words to My Country ‘Tis of Thee.
Our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents also had issues with monarchs and dictators. Whether it was the Kaiser of Germany, the Tsar of All Russia, Josef Stalin, Fidel Castro, and any number of historic, interesting, and strange political characters, they were a reason for us to be Americans, today.
And, most of us are so far removed from fighting for our rights and liberties that we cannot even imagine what it would be like not have to these. Yet, some of us, here in this church, can testify…can give witness to what it is like.
Imagine going to a church for confession, only to find no priest there. You go to other local churches and find frustrated Catholics, like you, facing the same situation. Churches have been closed, burned, or made into barns or store-houses. A young married couple with a new baby cannot find a priest or deacon from baptism. And, the last time anyone you know attended Mass…was months ago.
This nightmare gives some sense of the profound evil that gripped Mexico about a century ago. And, some religious freedoms were not restored until the 1950s, 1970s, and, yes, even the 1990s.
The Cristeros fought the socialist Mexican government. They were regular people like you and me. They saw the injustices brought about by their nation’s new anti-church anti-Christian laws.
Basically, the Mexican government declared war on the Catholic Church and changed the laws, trying to close the Church…if not driving her from the country altogether. It took away Church property, including hospitals, monasteries, convents, and schools. Priests were not allowed to wear their clerical clothing in public. To take a religious vow…to become a religious sister or brother…was a crime. Then, they added special laws to make the persecution worse.
For the first time in more than four hundred years, no priest in Mexico offered the Holy Mass. Most priests, who stayed in Mexico, lived on the run…trying to bring the Sacraments to the Faithful. If caught, they were jailed, and, sometimes, tortured and killed.
The Cristeros, named for Christ Himself, started to fight against the Government—their battle cry was: Viva Cristo Rey! Long Live Christ the King! They were successful—maybe because they tried to be good Catholics, but also because the cause was just.
The war cost the Mexican Government a lot of money. So, the Government made a deal and they appeared to give back the Church’s and people’s right to practice of our Holy Religion.
Was the request of James and John a little out of order? Maybe…. But, the fact that they thought the request could be made demonstrated that they had progressed enough to ask and grow. They were journeying with the Lord and had learned enough to search out. They had grown enough to expect a teaching moment. Although the request seems a little conceited, the Gospel writer puts it out of context, I am sure, to make it a teaching moment for us.
Public worship was restored. The people packed the churches. Pope Pius XI, himself, asked the Cristeros to stop fighting. And, over the next three months, in obedience to the Holy Father, they did.
Then, all the agreements were broken. The Cristeros were hunted down and killed until the 1950s. Unknown thousands lost their lives after the war had been declared over.
The Government again closed the churches. Priests vanished; they were on the run, again. Schoolteachers were even forced to take a public oath of atheism and to teach against the Catholic religion.
From the early Church, it was written: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. It wasn’t so long ago, here in the Americas…the Church was persecuted…in our own backyard.
There was a young boy named José Sánchez del Río, who loved Jesus Christ with all his heart. He had a strong love of Our Lady of Guadalupe and said the Rosary each day. He taught other children of his town the Catholic faith and organized them to make visits to the Blessed Sacrament.
When José was thirteen: his older brothers left home to join the Cristeros. José wanted to join them, but he had to wait.
Finally, his mother agreed and with tears in her eyes watched her youngest son ride off to
join the crusade. And, He made his way, some twenty miles, to the next town, and he presented
himself to the Cristeros’ Commander, who asked:
What contribution can so small a boy make to our army? José replied: I ride well. I know how to tend horses, clean weapons and spurs, and how to fry beans and tortillas.
The Commander made him a helper to a Cristeros’ General. His job was to ride alongside the General in combat, carrying his battle flag, and delivering the General's orders. The soldiers, inspired by his spiritual life, nicknamed him Tarcisius, after the Roman altar boy who died protecting the Blessed Sacrament from a pagan mob.
After a battle, when he had saved the General, José was captured. He was chained and dragged off to a church, which the Mexican Soldiers made into a jail and a stable for their horses. Now we will see, hombrecito, how tough you are!
They forced José to watch as they took a captured Cristeros, tortured him, and hanged him. Instead of looking away, José encouraged the prisoner, telling him that they would soon meet in heaven. For two days, José was locked, alone, in the church.
The captain of the guard offered José his freedom in exchange for information about the Cristeros. José refused. So they pinned him down and cut the skin off the soles of his feet. That night, the soldiers marched him through town to the cemetery, telling him to deny Jesus Christ and they would spare his life.
Viva Cristo Rey …shouted José, over and over Viva Cristo Rey , as he limped over the gravel and twigs with his bloodied feet. Long Live Christ the King! Long Live Holy Mary of Guadalupe!
At the cemetery, José was pushed into a shallow grave. Struggling to his feet he again shouted, Viva Cristo Rey! To avoid the sound of gunfire, the commander of the firing squad ordered his men to stab the boy with their bayonets. Viva Cristo Rey! …Again the bayonet into his side…Viva Santa Maria de Guadalupe!
Say 'Death to Christ the King' and save your life!" demanded the captain of the guard.
Viva Cristo Rey! Long Live Christ the King!
The captain lost all patience and drew his own pistol. The bullet struck José in the head, knocking him to the ground. As a final act of defiance against the enemies of Christ, José dipped his finger in his own blood and with it drew a cross in the dirt, then touched his lips to the cross. Five more bullets sent the martyr to his Savior.
Sometimes, we know, so well, the stories of our Superheros…. Adults know the story-line of their favorite television shows. But, we don’t tell or even know the true stories of real heroes…our saints….
Like the story of Father Mateo Correa Magallanes, who refused to tell officials what Cristero prisoners had told him in confession. Or, the story of the most famous of the martyred priests, Blessed Miguel Pro, who was unjustly accused of helping to try to kill one of the Mexican Presidents. Father Miguel Pro died before a firing squad with his arms outstretched like our Lord crucified, proclaiming Viva Cristo Rey Although Fr. Pro was not part of any armed rebellion, his death inspires people of faith to live a heroic life.
Jesus came to live among us…to share our lives…to teach us by the example of His Life. He offers His Life for us on the Cross, so that we may find our better selves in Him. God didn’t demand a way of life of us from above; He shared His Way, Truth, and Life with us…here with us. This is the leadership of a real King…our Heavenly King…Christ the King. So, we pray…