Viva Cristo Rey

I will make it my personal mission to see that as many people view this movie as possible when it is released. A movie retelling the heroic struggle of the Cristeros deserves all the support it can get, and I hope it is a box office smash. The story of the Cristeros is the tale of the attempt by the Mexican government to crush the Catholic Church. Mexico had a long history of anti-clerical political movements prior to the revolution of 1910. However, the Mexican Revolution brought to the fore radical elements that pushed through the Constitution of 1917 with its anti-clerical articles 3, 5, 27 and 130.

In his encyclical Iniquis Afflictisque, the first of three encyclicals he wrote condemning the persecution of the Church in Mexico, Pius XI decribed the war against the Church waged by the Mexican government:

In the first place, let us examine the law of 1917, known as the “Political Constitution” of the federated republic of Mexico. For our present purposes it is sufficient to point out that after declaring the separation of Church and State the Constitution refuses to recognize in the Church, as if she were an individual devoid of any civil status, all her existing rights and interdicts to her the ac quisition of any rights whatsoever in the future. The civil authority is given the right to interfere in matters of divine worship and in the external discipline of the Church. Priests are put on the level of professional men and of laborers but with this important difference, that they must be not only Mexicans by birth and cannot exceed a certain number specified by law, but are at the same time deprived of all civil and political rights. They are thus placed in the same class with criminals and the insane. Moreover, priests not only must inform the civil authorities but also a commission of ten citizens whenever they take possession of a church or are transferred to another mission. The vows of religious, religious orders, and religious congregations are outlawed in Mexico. Public divine worship is forbidden unless it take place within the confines of a church and is carried on under the watchful eye of the Government. All church buildings have been declared the property of the state. Episcopal residences, diocesan offices, seminaries, religious houses, hospitals, and all charitable institutions have been taken away from the Church and handed over to the state. As a matter of fact, the Church can no longer own property of any kind. Everything that it possessed at the period when this law was passed has now become the property of the state. Every citizen, moreover, has the right to denounce before the law any person whom he thinks is holding in his own name property for the Church. All that is required in order to make such action legal is a mere presumption of guilt. Priests are not allowed by law to inherit property of any kind except it be from persons closely related to them by blood. With reference to marriage, the power of the Church is not recognized. Every marriage between Catholics is considered valid if contracted validly according to the prescriptions of the civil code.

 9. Education has been declared free, but with these important restrictions: both priests and religious are forbidden to open or to conduct elementary schools. It is not permitted to teach children their religion even in a private school. Diplomas or degrees conferred by private schools under control of the Church possess no legal value and are not recognized by the state. Certainly, Venerable Brothers, the men who originated, approved, and gave their sanction to such a law either are totally ignorant of what rights pertain jure divino to the Church as a perfect society, established as the ordinary means of salvation for mankind by Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer and King, to which He gave the full liberty of fulfilling her mission on earth (such ignorance seems incredible today after twenty centuries of Christianity and especially in a Catholic nation and among men who have been baptized, unless in their pride and foolishness they believe themselves able to undermine and destroy the “House of the Lord which has been solidly constructed and strongly built on the living rock”) or they have been motivated by an insane hatred to attempt anything within their power in order to harm the Church. How was it possible for the Archbishops and Bishops of Mexico to remain silent in the face of such odious laws?

Go here to read the entire encyclical. For a time after 1916 the situation was bitter for faithful Catholics but barely tolerable since President Obregon had the sense not to try to implement the laws in regions of Mexico where the Church was strongest. That ended with the election of atheist Plutarco Elias Calles as president in 1924. A fanatic anti-Catholic, Calles implemented the anti-clerical laws with full rigor, added touches of his own, expelled all foreign priests, closed the monasteries, churches and parochial schools and seized Church property. Priests and lay Catholics were constantly harassed, tossed into jail and suffered violence up to murder. Catholic girls and women were raped by government thugs. Calles’ goal, as he stated in his more candid moments, was to destroy the Catholic Church in Mexico. In this hour of peril for the Church, the faithful laity rallied around her. Pius XI in Iniquis Afflictisque took special note of this:

24. Nor can We praise enough the courageous faithful of Mexico who have understood only too well how important it is for them that a Catholic nation in matters so serious and holy as the worship of God, the liberty of the Church, and the eternal salvation of souls should not depend upon the arbitrary will and audacious acts of a few men, but should be governed under the mercy of God only by laws which are just, which are conformable to natural, divine, and ecclesiastical law. 25. A word of very special praise is due those Catholic organizations, which during all these trying times have stood like soldiers side to side with the clergy. The members of these organiza tions, to the limit of their power, not only have made provisions to maintain and assist their clergy financially, they also watch over and take care of the churches, teach catechism to the children, and like sentinels stand guard to warn the clergy when their ministrations are needed so that no one may be deprived of the help of the priest. What We have just written is true of all these organizations. We wish, however, to say a word in particular about the principal organizations, so that each may know that it is highly ap proved and even praised by the Vicar of Jesus Christ.

 26. First of all We mention the Knights of Columbus, an organization which is found in all the states of the Republic and which fortunately is made up of active and industrious members who, because of their practical lives and open profession of the Faith, as well as by their zeal in assisting the Church, have brought great honor upon themselves. This organization promotes two types of activites which are needed now more than ever. In the first place, the National Sodality of Fathers of Families, the program of which is to give a Catholic education to their own children, to protect the rights of Christian parents with regard to education, and in cases where children attend the public schools to provide for them a sound and complete training in their religion. Secondly, the Federation for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was recently organized when it became clear as the noonday sun that the Church was menaced by a veritable ocean of troubles. This Federation soon spread to all parts of the Republic. Its members attempted, working in harmony and with assiduity, to organize and instruct Catholics so that they would be able to present a united invincible front to the enemy. 27. No less deserving of the Church and the fatherland as the Knights of Columbus have been and still are, We mention two other organizations, each of which has, following its own program, a special relation to what is known as “Catholic Social Action.” One is the Catholic Society of Mexican Youth, and the other, the Union of Catholic Women of Mexico. These two sodalities, over and above the work which is special to each of them, promote and do all they can to have others promote the activities of the above-mentioned Federation for the Defense of Religious Liberty. Without going into details about their work, with pleasure We desire to call to your attention, Venerable Brothers, but a single fact, namely, that all the members of these organizations, both men and women, are so brave that, instead of fleeing danger, they go out in search of it, and even rejoice when it falls to their share to suffer persecution from the enemies of the Church. What a beautiful spectacle this, that is thus given to the world, to angels, and to men! How worthy of eternal praise are such deeds! As a matter of fact, as We have pointed out above, many individuals, members either of the Knights of Columbus, or officers of the Federation, of the Union of Catholic Women of Mexico, or of the Society of Mexican Youth, have been taken to prison handcuffed, through the public streets, surrounded by armed soldiers, locked up in foul jails, harshly treated, and punished with prison sentences or fines. Moreover, Venerable Brothers, and in narrating this We can scarcely keep back Our tears, some of these young men and boys have gladly met death, the rosary in their hands and the name of Christ King on their lips. Young girls, too, who were imprisoned, were criminally outraged, and these acts were deliberately made public in order to intimidate other young women and to cause them the more easily to fail in their duty toward the Church.

Mexican Catholics turned the other cheek as long as they could, but in the face of rape and murder by government forces, and open war upon their Church, spontaneous rebellions began to erupt throughout the country. Carrying crucifixes, and bearing banners emblazoned with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexican Catholics declared that they would die rather than allow the Church to be destroyed. For three years the Cristeros fought valiantly, and successfully, against better armed and more numerous Federal armies, gaining control over large sections of Mexico.

There were many martyrs, the best known of whom is Blessed Miguel Pro. Although Father Pro did not take up arms, his service as an underground priest made him a marked man. A man who loved jokes and to laugh, Father Pro was also a man of unbelievable courage. His execution being specifically ordered by President Calles, on November 27, 1927 he disdained the proferred blindfold, before he was executed by firing squad, and calmly stared at the men who would send him to God. He said to them, “May God have mercy on you. May God bless you! Lord, thou knowest I am innocent! With all my heart I forgive my enemies.” He then raised his arms, making of himself a crucifix, and shouted out the battle cry of the Cristeros, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King!) The Mexican government took copious photographs of the execution, and published them in newspapers, thinking to frighten Catholics. They quickly learned that Catholics treated the photos as relics and began to ask the interecession of Father Pro with God. Cristeros in battle would often carry with them one of the newspaper photos of Father Pro.

Father Pro was just one of many martyrs who died for Christ and His Church in Mexico at this time. John Paul II canonized 28 of the martyrs and Pope Benedict has beatified an additional 13. Most of the martyrs will never receive such recognition, but I am sure all have received their reward from God. A blog post does not allow for a detailed history of the Cristeros rebellion. Go here to read a good overview of the rebellion.

The rebellion ended due to a peace treaty negotiated by the American ambassador, Dwight Morrow, the father of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, between the Vatican and the Mexican government. Basically, the treaty allowed the anti-Catholic laws to remain on the books, and the Mexican government agreed that they would not be enforced. The Mexican government cheated on its end, as Pius XI noted in his encyclicals Acerba animi and Firmissimam Constantiam, and relations between the Church and the Mexican government remained very rocky until the election of Manuel Avila Camacho, a practicing Roman Catholic, in 1940,  who put an end to the most egregious anti-Catholic actions of the Mexican government. In 1992, after many years of the anti-Catholic provisions of the Constitution being ignored by the Mexican population and government, the articles were amended to remove their worst features. The heroic stand of the Cristeros was not in vain. Andy Garcia, the star of the filmCristiada, is one of the few “out of the closet” conservative Republicans in Hollywood. He and his one and only wife of 28 years have four kids and are Roman Catholics. In the film he portrays one of the more interesting figures of the Cristeros rebellion: Enrique Gorostieta Velarde. A soldier, he was an anti-clerical and a 33rd degree Mason. Nonetheless, due to his military talent, the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty hired him at a generous salary to lead the Cristeros. At first he made fun of the religious beliefs of his troops, but as the war went on and he witnessed the courage and self sacrifice of the Catholics under his command, a change came over him. He began to pray and talk openly of God. He also began to wear a large crucifix around his neck. When he died in battle on June 2, 1929, he went to God a believing Catholic. ( Interestingly, the stone cold atheist, President Calles, a few months before his death in 1945 stated that he now believed in “a higher power”.) The Cristeros wrote an epic page in Catholic history, and it is magnificent to see this film, Cristiada,  recalling their heroism and faith.


  1. […] This history blog has an excellent post of the history of this period in Mexico. Permalink April 6, 2011 ← A study in contrasts| […]

  2. Moving.

    ‘Viva Cristo Rey’ is also what the Cuban dissidents cry in front of the firing squad.

  3. Their memory will be cherished one day Adam in a Cuba Libre.

  4. […] This history blog has an excellent post of the history of this period in Mexico. […]

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