It was a dark, frigid night in February. A soldier placed the cool metal of the revolver on the forehead José Sanchez. If anything would scare Jose, this would be it. He’d be set free if he would just stop saying, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King!) But Jose refused to be quiet. Where did this boy get his courage and what made him care so much about Christ?
José Sanchez del Río was born on March 28, 1913. He grew up in a small town in the middle of Mexico. He had three brothers and sisters and lots of friends. His family was well off; he received much of what he wanted growing up, including his own horse which he learned to ride very well. His parents taught him to be generous with what he received: he learned to give to the poor from his own belongings and allowance.
Jose enjoyed a happy childhood. He was good at sports and taller than most of his friends. He knew how to have a good time, but was careful not to bully others. His friends noticed he often visited Christ in the Eucharist at the church, and many knew he prayed the rosary every day.
The twentieth century was a very difficult time for the Church throughout the world. In many countries men who were militant atheists gained control of the governments and fought violent campaigns to erase the Christian faith from their countries. These men rejected God and saw Christianity as an obstacle to progress. T his happened in Russia and the countries it conquered from 1917 until 1989 under the communist regime. In Western Europe, Spain suffered a deadly civil war in the 1930’s in which thousands of priests, nuns, and lay men and women were killed for their faith. Also in the 1930’s Adolph Hitler gained control of Germany and installed the Nazi government, which suppressed freedom and killed millions of Jews and Christians. He began World War II by his violent invasion of other European countries. In China, Mao Tse Tung organized a violent takeover and dictatorship of that country that included a terrible persecution of the Church. Even today bishops, priests, and lay Catholics are imprisoned, tortured, and killed in China, in spite of its promises to respect religious freedom. Vietnam and North Korea also persecute Christians.
Pope John Paul II has said that the twentieth century produced more martyrs than any other previous century, and he has strived to remind Catholics of these courageous witnesses. As a young man, a priest and a then as a bishop, he first lived under the Nazi oppression from 1939 to 1945 and then under the Communist oppression from 1945 to 1989. Many of his friends, including priests and seminarians were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured or killed because of their faith. Many important politicians credit John Paul II for contributing to the fall of communism.
Mexico also suffered greatly in the first part of the twentieth century. In 1926, when Jose was 13 years old, the Mexican government unleashed a bloody persecution of the Catholic Church. Over 95% of Mexicans were Catholics, and the government, under President Elias Calles, wanted to gain complete control of all the citizens by destroying the Church in Mexico. This persecution had been building up over the previous years, but the vehemence of the steps now taken surpassed all the Mexico had seen before. Government officials exiled, jailed, or murdered all the priests and bishops they could lay their hands on. Soldiers confiscated churches and turned them into horse barns or prisons. They desecrated tabernacles and the Eucharist . The persecution was particularly harsh in the area where Jose lived.
Ordinary men and women were shocked by the inhumane abuse of power and tried to oppose the official policies. Those who stood up to the injustice and were caught hiding priests were treated with severe brutality: mock trial and execution by a firing squad for the fortunate, prolonged torture and public hangings in worse cases.
The bishops had urged resistance through civil means but when the people saw and their right to worship God arrogantly taken away and their bishops and priests treated so brutally, there was a spontaneous uprising in many parts of Mexico. Thousands of Mexicans, poor and rich, erudite and illiterate, banned together in small towns and sprawling cities to form an army that came to be known as the Cristeros, or Christ’s soldiers. They opposed the inhumane laws and the lawless destruction imposed by the dictatorial government. Their battle cry was “Viva Cristo Rey!” and their pamphlets, showing martyred Catholics, carried the reminder “Dios no se muere.” (God does not die.)
Jose knew all about the Cristeros and was impressed by their bravery in defendingfreedom of religion in Mexico and people’s right to life. He admired the Cristeros so much that he wanted to join their ranks. Even though he was too young to be a soldier, he convinced a local Cristero general to let him carry the flag into battle and sound the bugle. A couple of months later, he rode his horse into the battle of Cotija beside the Cristero General. The tide of the battle turned against the Cristeros who began to retreat. The General’s horse was shot dead and collapsed to the ground. Jose quickly realized the General would be caught. Without a moments hesitation Jose jumped off his own horse and begged the General to use it to escape. “General, take my horse and escape. You’re more necessary to the cause than I am.”
Jose had signed his own death sentence. The government’s troops had standing orders to capture and execute all the Cristeros they encountered. Jose covered the general’s escape firing all the ammunition he had. When he ran out of bullets, he was surrounded by the enemy and taken prisoner.
Jose’s real battle had just begun. The soldiers began to torture Jose: interrogations, beatings, sleep depravation, starvation, and bribes – all unsuccessful attempts to induce Jose into betraying his faith. Jose answered each blow with the words, “I’ll die before I betray Christ and my country!”
“In order to terrorize him, the soldiers made him watch the hanging of one of the other captured Cristeros. Jose encouraged the man, saying “Lazaro, you will be in Heaven before me. Prepare a place for me. Tell Christ the King I shall be with him soon.”
In prison Jose recited the rosary and sang songs of faith. He wrote a beautiful letter to his mother telling her that he was resigned to the Will of God. Jose’s father attempted to ransom his son, but was unable to raise the money in time.
On the night of February 10, 1928 the soldiers gave up. They did not bother conducting a trial. Jose was handcuffed and led out of the makeshift prison under the cover of darkness. With a knife they skinned the bottom of his feet and made him walk over salt. They stabbed him with switchblades, pushing him up the streets. Each wound drew blood from Jose’s veins and a shout from his throat: “Long live Christ the King and our Lady of Guadalupe!”
The townspeople were afraid to open their shutters, but they cried inside their houses as they heard the soldiers push Jose toward the cemetery. A few people followed the macabre procession from the safety of the shadows. The soldiers forced him into the cemetery and made him dig a shallow grave. The grave was for Jose if he refused to renounce his Catholic faith. But Jose steadfastly insisted on declaring his faith in Christ. A soldier’s pistol ended his life on this earth. His last message for his parents was, “Tell them I will see them in Heaven. Long Live Christ the King!”
Epilogue: Resistance and Obedience
As the Cristeros rebellion gained force, the government began to realize it was in danger, and asked the Holy Father to request that the Cristeros fighters put down their arms. The government promised amnesty and freedom of religion. For the sake of peace Pope Pius XI asked the Cristeros to desist in their rebellion, pointing to the government’s promise of respect.
Knowing that the government would betray and kill many of them, the Cristeros nevertheless surrendered their arms and discontinued the rebellion. The love for their faith and for the Church, which had caused them to fight for their freedom to worship God, now motivated them to trust the guidance of the Holy Father in whom they saw the special voice of Christ.
Many were in fact betrayed and murdered by the government, but at the same time a process of greater respect for the freedom of the Church in Mexico began, although full freedom for the Church took over 80 years to be recognized by law. Yet the heroicresistance of the Cristeros, coupled with their tremendous example of obedience to the Holy Father, sowed the seeds of peace and religious freedom in a country that is one of the most Catholic in the world.
Seed for New Soldiers
Jose Luis has not been forgotten. This past June Pope John Paul II approved the decree for his beatification.
The official beatification Mass of Jose will take place this Spring 2005, and many young people from around the world will be present.
Following Christ always requires heroism , and a true Christian is aware that he is involved with Christ in a spiritual war. It is a war not just for his own soul but also for the souls of those around him. Often the toughest battles are fought in our own heart, but our response always has an impact on those around us. When challenged by the world of sin and selfishness every true Christian is called to stand up with Jose Luis and make a difference: “Viva Cristo Rey!”
SAINTS AND HEROS
A Witness In Columbine
On Tuesday April 20, 1999 two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado began a murderous rampage that left 13 people dead. Among those killed was Cassie. According to several witnesses, the two young men confronted her and asked her if she believed in God. She answered “Yes,” and was immediately shot in the forehead at point blank range. She died instantly.
Although she did not know her murderers personally, during middle school Cassie had herself become involved in almost the same type of dark subculture that these teenagers had assimilated and acted upon. The strong intervention of her parents and the help of new friends at a church youth group had helped her to discover Christ and commit her life to him, and she had been working hard over the last several years to grow in her faithfulness and witness to Christ.
In a note she wrote to her friend Amanda the night before her death Cassie had finished with the line “P.S. Honestly, I want to live completely for God. It’s hard and scary, but totally worth it.”
A Witness to the Eucharist
Tarsicius lived in Rome in the 3rd century AD during a time of persecution. He was a young man, probably in his teens, who had the official job of carrying the Eucharist from the Pope’s Mass to other priests of Rome so they could give communion to those who had not been able to come to Mass. He also had the assignment of bringing the Blessed Sacrament to Christians in prisons, since a boy would arouse less suspicion than a man. One day as he carried the Blessed Sacrament secretly under his clothes, a group of Romans noticed something suspicious and asked him to show what he carried. He refused, and they became angry. They began to beat him with clubs, but he still would not allow them to see what he was hiding. They continued, and he fell to the ground, facedown, and died. When they turned him over and searched, they could not find the Eucharist. He was buried in the now-famous catacombs of St. Callixtus on the Appian Way, very close to where he had died. About a century later, after the persecution had ceased, Pope St. Damasus I wrote a special inscription over his over his tomb to remind Christians of his bravery: His body was later transferred to another Church in Rome, St. Silvester.
“In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
“Do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” 2 Timothy 1:8
“If we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” Romans 6:5
“The Church proposes the example of numerous saints who bore witness to moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment.”
(John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, number 93)
“But you, dear young people, do not be afraid to proclaim in every circumstance the Gospel of the cross. Do not be afraid to go against the current!”
(John Paul II, Homily for Palm Sunday 2004)
AMNESTY: A pardon, especially for political offenses against a government
ATHEIST: A person who says that God does not exist.
BEATIFICATION: The permission granted by the Holy See to publicly venerate a deceased person whose life on earth was extremely virtuous or was martyred (who died a heroic death for Christ or His Church). It is, in effect, a statement by the Church that the deceased now dwells in heaven.
BRAVERY: Lack of fear under difficult circumstances. Ability to do the right thing even when in danger.
DESECRATE: to treat something sacred with contempt or irreverence. Desecrating the Eucharist is among the most serious sins that can be committed in the Catholic Church, and the absolution (forgiveness) for the sin of desecration is usually reserved to the Holy Father through a special department of the Vatican.
EUCHARIST: Jesus Christ present under the appearance of bread and wine. In the Eucharist, the bread and wine, although they still maintain the externals of these two foods, have been changed during the consecration in Mass into the real body and blood of Christ.
FAITH: Man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man.
FREEDOM OF RELIGION: Being able to express one’s faith in God and worship God without interference of others.
ERUDITE: having profound knowledge.
MACABRE: Grim and horrible
OBEDIENCE: Loyally following the indications of those put in authority over us. Through faith in Christ a Catholic obeys the teachings of the Holy Father in all matters related to faith and morals.
PROMULGATE: to publish or make known officially (a decree, Church dogma, etc.)
TABERNACLE: Special container or box where Eucharist is kept after Mass. This allows the Eucharist to be taken to the sick, and allows Catholics to venerate and speak with Christ who is really present in the Eucharist.