Remembering a martyr to liberty

politics | Nov 2, 2016 | By Gordon J. MacRae

Mass in the New Hampshire State Prison Chapel was canceled for unknown reasons on the morning of Sunday, October 16. I had no Mass supplies to offer Mass that evening, and no way to obtain them in time, and by the time I learned of the cancellation, the 8:00 AM Mass on EWTN was over. Then I remembered that EWTN repeats its Sunday morning Mass at noon. So I made a mental note to drop everything then, and tune in.
 
Instead, to my surprise, EWTN was at that time carrying the Mass of Canonization presided over by Pope Francis for the addition of some new names among the Communion of Saints. I had a post to finish that afternoon – it was “Wikileaks Found Catholics in the Basket of Deplorables” – and I absolutely had to have it finished and in the mail by 6:00 PM. I wondered whether I had time for a Canonization, but as the names of the new saints were read, I knew that everything else must take a back seat.
 
 
One of them was Saint José Sánchez del Río, martyred for his faith at an age at which many youth of today are enticed by popular culture to abandon theirs. I wrote of José Sánchez del Río in an All Saints Day post entitled, “Of Saints and Souls and Earthly Woes: ‘Viva Cristo Rey.’” It was about the deeply moving film, For Greater Glory, and this is what I wrote about José:
 
“The real star of this film – and I warn you, it will break your heart – is the heroic soul of young José Luis Sánchez del Río, a teen whose commitment to Christ and his faith resulted in torment and torture. If this film were solely the creation of Hollywood, there would have been a happy ending. José would have been rescued to live happily ever after. It isn’t Hollywood, however; it’s real. José’s final tortured scream of “Viva Cristo Rey!” is something I will remember forever.”
 
I cried, finally, at the end of For Greater Glory. Before the credits rolled, there was a postscript describing that José was beatified as a martyr for faith by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. José’s final “Viva Cristo Rey!” – “Long Live Christ the King!” – echoed across the century, across all of the Americas, across the globe, to empower a quest for freedom that can be found only where José found it, in the Triumph of the Cross.
 
Jose Sanchez del Rio
 
If you haven’t seen this film, you must. It is especially timely in days to come as the idea of liberty is exercised in a most important, but propaganda-fueled and contentious presidential election when threats to religious liberty are hidden behind a smoke screen by our media. We are lulled into a national stupor, not recognizing the extent of the threat. The Canonization of Saint José Sánchez del Río comes at a precious moment in time for us.
 
A LESSON IN FAITH AND LIBERTY FROM THE CRISTEROS
 
The story of José’s world is fast moving beyond the memory of living witnesses, but we must not let it be forgotten. For three years from 1926 to 1929, a vast segment of Mexico’s Catholic population rose up against the tyranny of the rogue Mexican government of President Plutarco Elías Calles. He made himself a living icon of the new religion: State control of the peoples’ hearts, minds, and souls at the cost of their faith.
 
 
In that new regime, laws were codified to restrict the free exercise of religion, and to impose upon the people forced compliance with their government’s subjugation of the practices of their religious beliefs. This was the world of Graham Greene’s classic novel, The Power and the Glory, that along with the film, For Greater Glory shared “These Stone Walls Third Annual Stuck Inside Literary Award.” Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez wrote of it:
 
“We need to ask for the strength of the Cristeros… Mexico was the original cradle of Christianity in the New World… That such oppression could happen in a nation so deeply Catholic as Mexico should make everyone stop and think.”
 
It made me stop and think as the Little Sisters of the Poor courageously carried American Catholicism’s battle for religious liberty to the U.S. Supreme Court last year. It made me stop and think again as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – the cradle of America’s freedom and the site of its first witch hunt – passed laws this year barring churches from holding anything other than strictly religious events unless they comply with a state mandate for transgender bathrooms. This is our government’s national obsession as the West descends into moral chaos.
 
Rev. Francisco Vera, an elderly priest, shot by firing squad in 1927 in Jalisco, Mexico.
 
 
The world met the 1926 Mexican suppression of faith with silence, and many Catholic politicians of the time – in both Mexico and the United States – adopted that silence. The slippery slope in the government’s intrusions upon religious liberty continued unabated until a tipping point was quietly crossed. Religious leaders, especially priests, went from being suppressed to being hunted.
 
From 1926 to 1929 some heroic Catholic faithful and priests organized to face this tyranny. This is the story of the flawed “Whiskey Priest” in The Power and the Glory. And it is the story of the Cristeros, including our newest saint, 14-year-old José Sánchez del Río, as he witnessed state police murder a beloved priest setting off the Cristeros War in For Greater Glory.
 
Fr. Miguel Pro offers prayers and forgiveness for Mexican soldiers who executed him by firing squad, 1926
 
I was moved beyond words when Saint José’s grand-nephew, Ric Cortez, posted a comment on “Of Saints and Souls and Earthly Woes: Viva Cristo Rey.” Having been taken from this life at age fifteen because of his refusal to cave to the demands of the state to set aside and denounce his faith, it seemed almost surreal to watch José canonized on the Sunday just before TSW posted “Misguiding Light: Young Catholics Leaving Faith for Science.”
 
There are other Patron Saints of Religious Liberty – Saints Thomas More and Thomas Becket have both had a presence on These Stone Walls – but today Saint José Luis Sánchez del Río carries our banner of freedom in the spiritual warfare that we face – many without even knowing it. All three are martyrs, not just for their faith, but for their courageous practice of it. The courage and sacrifice of young José is a part of our living memory, and no Earthly power can silence it.
 
Fr. Gordon J. MacRae writes at These Stone Walls. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” 


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