The Cristero War: the Story Behind the Cover Up

Author: ZENIT


The Cristero War: the Story Behind the Cover Up

Historian Gives Evaluation of Film, Explains What Happened in 1920s Mexico

By Kathleen Naab

If one asks a young Mexican about the basics of the Cristero War — what it was and when it happened — it's entirely possible to get a blank stare in response. Though one of the most important chapters in 20th-century Mexico, the war has been largely covered up.

The film "For Greater Glory," which opens Friday in the United States and has found great success in Mexico since it opened in April, aims to correct that injustice and bring the war and its heroes to light.

"For Greater Glory" (titled Cristiada in Spanish) is essentially historically accurate, says historian Ruben Quezada, who has written “For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada" as a companion book to the film. The companion volume is being published by Ignatius Press and will be released June 15 in English and Spanish.

ZENIT asked Quezada for an overview of the history of the Cristero War, and about some of the heroes of the conflict — heroes both for society and for the Church.

ZENIT: Neither a film nor a ZENIT interview is sufficient to explain all the historical intricacies of such a complex epoch. Still, could you give us a brief overview of the Cristero War? 

Quezada: The Cristero War is a chapter in Mexico’s history in the 1920s, when thousands of Catholics answered this crucial question [of religious freedom] at the cost of their very lives. President Plutarco Calles launched a direct attack on the Catholic Church using articles from Mexico’s Constitution, which created this uprising and counter-revolution against the Mexican government during that time. The original rebellion was set off by the persecution of Roman Catholics and a ban on their public religious practices.

There are two important dates to point out here. 

The persecution began on Aug. 1, 1926, when the government re-enacted the penal code and forced the closure of all Catholic churches throughout the entire country with its new anticlerical laws. However, the first coordinated uprising for religious freedom did not occur until Jan. 1, 1927.

It was not until mid June 1929 when the truce was officially signed, bringing an end to the Cristero War.

ZENIT: Is For Greater Glory a historically accurate film? 

Quezada: Apart from some “artistic license” the film is essentially accurate.

ZENIT: The movie alludes to some discrepancy between the Vatican's position regarding the religious persecution, and that of the Cristero fighters. Could you explain this? 

Quezada: When the oppression was about to begin, the Vatican granted permission — requested by the Mexican bishops — to cease any Catholic religious services in order to avoid confrontations. Additionally, the Holy See wrote letters to the government requesting they abolish the Calles Law. The government ignored each request. As the war intensified, Rome continued to have direct communications with President Calles to ask for leniency. Not only were Vatican officials [in Mexico] dismissed, but diplomatic relations were broken off by the government.

Lastly, Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical letter to the clergy and the faithful of Mexico to give them courage and hope during this persecution. There was really not much else the Holy See could do. On Nov. 18, 1926, the Pope sent the encyclical letter Iniquis Afflictisque (On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico) to offer prayers and encouragement during this difficult time.

ZENIT: Some of the characters of the film are real-life blesseds or saints. Who are they and what is their story?

Quezada: Anacleto González Flores (played by actor Eduardo Verástegui of Bella) was born on July 13, 1888, in Tepatitlán, Jalisco, Mexico. 

He was greatly involved in social and religious activities and was an enthusiastic member of the Catholic Association of Young Mexicans (ACJM). He taught classes in catechism, was dedicated to works of charity and wrote articles and books with a Christian spirit. In 1922 he married María Concepción Guerrero and they had two children. 

By 1926, the situation in Mexico had worsened and Anacleto, who up until this time had advocated passive, non-violent resistance, joined the cause of the National League for the Defense of Religious Freedom upon learning of the murder of four members of the ACJM.In January 1927 guerrilla warfare spread throughout Jalisco; and from his many hiding places, Anacleto wrote and sent bulletins and studied major strategies. The young man was captured on the morning of April 1, 1927, in the home of the Vargas González family, along with the three Vargas brothers. 

He was taken to Fort Colorado where his torture included being hung by his thumbs until his fingers were dislocated and having the bottom of his feet slashed. He refused, however, to supply his captors with any information. Anacleto González Flores was condemned to death and was shot together with the Vargas González brothers and Luis Padilla Gómez on that same day, April 1, 1927.

It is important to note here that Anacleto González Flores along with Miguel Gómez Loza both received the “Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice” award for their incredible works of service to the Catholic Church.

Miguel Gómez Loza (played by actor Raúl Mendez) was born on Aug. 11, 1888, in Tepatitlán, Jalisco, Mexico. From a young age he had a strong love for God and a great devotion to the Blessed Mother.When he was 26, Miguel entered the University of Morelos where he earned a law degree, and eventually opened an office in Arandas (state of Jalisco) as an attorney.In 1915 he became a member of the ACJM, and in 1919 he established a national congress of Catholic workers to unify industry workers, commercial employees and agricultural laborers. He also worked tirelessly to defend the rights of the needy, which caused him to be arrested 59 times for organizing protests against the government.In 1922, Miguel married María Guadalupe Sánchez Barragán and they had three children. He joined the "National League for the Defense of Religious Freedom" in 1927, but believed in non-violence in order to resist the persecution. 

After the death of Anacleto, he was appointed by Catholics as governor of Jalisco and strove by all the means at his disposal to defend liberty and justice.By March of 1928, Miguel was living on a ranch near Atotonilco, Jalisco. On March 21, federal forces who had been hunting for him discovered his whereabouts; he was executed by firing squad the same day.

José Sanchez del Rio (played by actor Mauricio Kuri) was a young Cristero soldier who joined the uprising to defend religious liberty. He was horrified to see the attacks on the priests and the desecration of churches in his small hometown of Sahuayo, Michoacan.When the Cristero War broke out in 1926, his brothers joined the rebel forces, but his mother would not allow him to take part [because of his young age]. The rebel general, Prudencio Mendoza, also refused his enlistment.The general finally relented and allowed José to become the flag bearer of the troop. He was known to be one of the youngest members of the Cristero movement.After his arrest we know of the gruesome events that transpired after the government's failure to break José's resolve on the evening of Feb. 10, 1928: “Consequently they cut the bottom of his feet and obliged him to walk around the town toward the cemetery. They also at times cut him with a machete until he was bleeding from several wounds. He cried and moaned with pain, but he did not give in. At times they stopped him and said, ‘If you shout ‘Death to Christ the King’ we will spare your life.’ José would only shout, "I will never give in. Viva Cristo Rey!" When they reached the place of execution, they stabbed him numerous times with bayonets. He only shouted louder, "Viva Cristo Rey!" The commander was so furious that he pulled out his pistol and shot Blessed José Sanchez del Rio in the head.

We do have a list of priests and laymen who have been beatified and canonized from this persecution in Mexico.

St. Agustín Caloca 
St. Atilano Cruz Alvarado 
St. Cristobal Magallanes 
St. David Galván Bermudes 
St. David Roldán Lara 
St. David Uribe Velasco 
St. Jenaro Sánchez Delgadillo 
St. Jesús Méndez Montoya 
St. José Isabel Flores Varela 
St. José Maria Robles Hurtado (Priest)* 
St. Jóven Salvador Lara Puente 
St. Julio Álvarez Mendoza 
St. Justino Orona Madrigal 
St. Luis Batiz Sáinz (Priest)* 
St. Manuel Morales 
St. Margarito Flores García 
St. Mateo Correa Magallanes (Priest)* 
St. Miguel De La Mora (Priest)* 
St. Pedro de Jesús Maldonado Lucero (Priest)* 
St. Pedro Esqueda Ramírez 
St. Rodrigo Aguilar Alemán (Priest)* 
St. Román Adame Rosales 
St. Sabas Reyes Salazar 
St. Tranquilino Ubiarco 
St. Toribio Romo González 
Blessed Anacleto González Flores 
Blessed Andrés Solá Molist (Priest)* 
Blessed Ángel Darío Acosta Zurita (Priest) 
Blessed Ezequiel Huerta Gutiérrez 
Blessed Jorge Vargas González 
Blessed José Sánchez del Río 
Blessed José Trinidad Rangel Montaño (Priest) * 
Blessed Leonardo Pérez Larios * 
Blessed Luis Magaña Servín 
Blessed Luis Padilla Gómez 
Blessed Miguel Gómez Loza 
Blessed Mateo Elías del Socorro Nieves (Priest) 
Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro Juárez (Priest) 
Blessed Ramón Vargas González 
Blessed Salvador Huerta Gutiérrez 

* Indicates member of Knights of Columbus

Our site will have documentation on the lives of each one along with the new book “For Greater Glory: The True Story of the Cristiada.” It’s the official companion book to the film published in English and Spanish by Ignatius Press. As an expert on the Cristero War, I was honored to write it. The book also includes a foreword by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and an introduction by Eduardo Verástegui, and there is an essay by Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson.  

ZENIT: The Cristero War is a page mostly lost to history, even for young Mexicans, who don't learn about it in school. How is this possible? 

Quezada: As recently as the 1980s it was difficult to find a single book that mentioned anything substantive about the Cristiada. If it was mentioned, it usually was no more than a single sentence in President Calles’ biography. School systems did not include the Cristiada as part of its history so that future generations would soon lose any knowledge of it.

But even today, it is important to note a crucial difference between the official state narrative and the Catholic understanding of events. The Mexican government portrays the Cristiada as a rebellion because the Cristeros “rebelled” against the enforcement of the Calles Law. But rebellion is hardly a fitting way to describe an attempt to restore customs in place for centuries before the Mexican Revolution. Catholics see the Cristiada as a response, albeit a violent one, to unjust persecution because Catholics were persecuted by unjust laws that inhibited their religious freedom.  

There is more freedom of the press today, and a large volume of untold stories about the Cristiada — testimonies and images that were illegal to print or publish for many years — are finally emerging. There are literally thousands of testimonies coming to light that reveal an inspiring history that has been hidden for decades under a dark shadow of fear and denial.


On the Net:

“For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada”:

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