In February 1917, before Our Lady of Fatima, and before the Soviets took over Russia, the Communists targeted Mexico first. In it we find the first socialist constitution in the history of the world (Royal, Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, 15). The Mexican government knew that a direct confrontation with the Church would be futile, so they focused their efforts in one particular area: public schooling.
Here is where the real conflict started. Until then it was the Church who provided education to its parishioners according to the dogmas of the Church, but in harmony with the State. The Church’s sphere of influence was always present to the average Mexican. All the major events of any person’s life (Baptism, schooling, First Holy Communion, Marriage, Funeral, etc.) were conducted by the Church.
Since such influence was an obstacle against the socialists, the new Mexican government attempted to strip the Church of her right to educate, and then fill the void with their Communist education. Although the new constitution of 1917 modified the law and aimed it against the Church, Venustiano Carranza (the leader the constitutional changes) shrewdly decided not to enforce the laws against Church education since Mexico had just come out years of a bloody civil war, and it was too soon to risk a reaction. Nevertheless, the anticlerical seed was planted and all it needed was time to germinate.
The Marxists Make Their Move
The ideal “fertilizer” arrived in 1924 when a former commander of the Mexican revolution rose to power: Plutarco Elias Calles (1877-1945). In the same year, diplomatic relations were officially formalized between Mexico and the Soviet Union. Once Calles assumed power, he still bided his time for two years before initiating an open persecution of the Church. He finally started to enforce the socialist constitution: religious orders were expelled, clerical dress was forbidden, church property was seized by the government, along with schools, hospitals, monasteries and orphanages. Soon the Marxists began hunting down priests and forcing Mexican teachers to teach their doctrines or lose their jobs.
Mexicans and the world looked in awe and shock at the abuses that the Calles administration perpetrated against its own citizens. How could an openly anti-Catholic government be in Mexico of all places? The land of Maria de Guadalupe? Unbelievable. The enemies of the faith thought that persecuting the Church would extinguish Catholicism but as we know from history, the power of death and violence cannot overcome the Church. A popular revolt arose from men of God who combined the gentle love of the Indian for Our Lady of Guadalupe with the fighting spirit of Santiago.
Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, one of the Cristero leaders, called out to them at the beginning of the war: “I know only too well that what is beginning for us now is a Calvary. We must be ready to take up and carry our crosses” (Navarrete, Por Dios y Por la Patria, 123). By 1929, 40,000 men had served as Cristeros living and dying, trusting in the cross of Christ (Coulombe, Puritan’s Empire, 366). After years of conflict peace came (at a very high price) and the Church was allowed to exists (with restrained rights, but no longer on the run) and the faithful were once again free to have access to the Sacraments.
The Legacy of the Mexican Crusaders
Mexico fought and survived the onslaught of socialism (already infiltrating across governments and the Church by then), while the rest of the world was folding under Marxist pressure. After the Cristero War, the Guadalajara Seminary became one of the largest and most important seminaries in the world for the Church.
Mexico is one of the countries where Protestantism has struggled the most to take root despite the numerous attempts made by different Protestant denominations. Even migrants of Mexican origin in the United States are among the most likely to retain the Catholic faith among immigrants. This (just to name a few) are one of the hidden treasures that we often fail to see. Currently the legacy of the Cristeros is being rediscovered not only by Mexicans but the whole world.
On a personal level, I have benefited from the courage shown by Catholics during that time period. It was in the post-Cristero era when my maternal grandfather was born. This had a direct impact on my soul since my maternal grandfather was the most important male influence in my life. Even after his passing I still keep learning from the numerous lessons and wisdom he imparted by word and action. My great-grandparents could have responded to the assault on faith with violence and rage, or contempt for their enemies, or even by capitulating the faith, after all the times were not very benign for Catholicism. They could have said, “It’s pointless, everything is lost,” but they (like millions of Mexicans) did the opposite: they embraced the cross.
My great grandparents faced this adversity by living the faith (raising children, instilling virtues in them, and always holding onto hope, etc.) and it was because of this pious attitude that my grandfather was able to know and love Christ. He, in turn, was able to live a faith that was not just relic of antiquity, but a faith that was alive.
Against Marxism Today
In our current age we start noticing hostile attitudes towards the Church and its teachings just like the years prior to 1917 in Mexico. Is there something we can do? If so, how do we go about it? Clearly the first step is prayer and a life in a state of grace. After that, we must develop an attitude of piety and Christian brotherhood. Catholics during the Cristero War understood that, no matter what were the differences they all looked after each other with true charity.
Contrary to popular belief even though the Cristeros were extremely courageous they usually avoided conflict with the government troops (if possible). They were not looking for blood but peace. They prayed and showed mercy towards their enemies. When they won a battle, they knew that it was because Christ was the one who fought for them, not because they had an arsenal at their disposal (which they didn’t have anyway) or land where they could be self-sufficient. They knew that the first step in being Catholic treating each other as what we are: Catholics brethren. The same lesson remains for us.
If we are going to have to carry this cross we must look back at those who did it successfully before us and learn from them because doing it faithfully could mean that we would be the generation that establishes the columns of Catholicism in this country in a permanent way with an everlasting impact. Let us focus on what has an immediate impact in our society: living in a state of grace. Let us look at the potential difficult times ahead of us as an opportunity to live a strong, intentional Catholicism. If the time comes for us to plant the same seed as the Cristeros did, then by the hand of Our Blessed Mother we can confidently answer the call saying “Viva Cristo Rey y Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!” (Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe)
Photo credit: Cristeros of the Castañon regiment, public domain.