Ruben Quezada is the author of For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada—The Cristero War and Mexico’s Struggle for Religious Freedom. He is Director for the Catholic Resource Center and St. Joseph Communications, Inc. in Southern California. He is a recognized expert on “The Persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico in the 1920s” and has traveled internationally as a bilingual speaker giving lectures on this subject for many years to all age groups. He spoke with Catholic World Report about the history of the Cristiada and the Cristero War, depicted in the movie, “For Greater Glory”, which opens in theaters today in the United States.
CWR: For those who are not familiar with the story of the Cristiada: what are the key historical facts about the Cristero War? What led to it? Why were Catholics targeted?
Ruben Quezada: When Plutarco Calles took over as president of Mexico, he did not want the church to be part of any moral teachings to its citizens. He did not want God to be a part of anyone’s life.
After the Mexican Revolution the two presidents that followed (Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregon) abused their power to wage their personal attacks against the Catholic Church as well. There were similar persecution incidents and abuses towards the clergy and Catholics alike, and we have a few Mexican Martyrs from those persecutions who were not part of the Cristero War.
When President Calles came into power, he wanted to bring Mexico’s population to belong to a Socialist state. He would insist that the Church was poisoning the minds of the people and that its teachings were a threat to the Revolutionary mentality which it stood for.
Calles wanted to ensure that all citizens were going to be educated under the government’s dictatorship and secular mindset.
He wanted to ensure that only the government would have the freedom to form the minds of its citizens and insisted that the church was poisoning the minds of the people.
In order to enforce this new law it was necessary to expel all clergy, except for a few priests who would oversee the spiritual needs of the people and with the supervision of the state authorities. This led to various states of Mexico going without a single Mass being celebrated for a long time.
One can only imagine the feeling and desperation faithful Catholics would have to endure for many weeks at a time.
CWR: How many Catholics were killed? Who are some of the most famous martyrs from the Cristiada movement?
Ruben Quezada: There were approximately 90,000 people killed during this three-year war (1926-29).
There are a total of thirty-five martyrs who have been canonized and fifteen who have been beatified in triumphant ceremonies in the past few years.
The most famous martyrs that I am aware of are:
Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro, S.J. – Executed on November 23, 1927
Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio – A fifteen year-old Cristero executed on February 10, 1928
Blessed Anacleto Gonzalez Flores – Great leader of peaceful resistance – Executed April 1, 1927
And here’s a list of the rest of them:
SAINTS AND BLESSEDS OF THE CRISTIADA
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 Andrés SolÁ Molist (Priest)*
Blessed Ángel Darío Acosta Zurita (Priest)
Blessed Ezequiel Huerta Gutiérrez
Blessed Jorge Vargas GonzÁlez
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 Ramón Vargas GonzÁlez
Blessed Salvador Huerta Gutiérrez
* Indicates member of Knights of Columbus
CWR: What was the response of the Holy See and Pope Pius XI to the war?
Ruben 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 leaders requesting they abolish the Calles Law. The government leaders 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 dismissed, diplomatic relations were broken off by the government. Additionally, Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical letter to the clergy and the faithful of Mexico to give them courage and hope during this persecution. On November 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.
CWR: How was the Cristero War finally resolved? What role did the Knights of Columbus play in it?
Ruben Quezada: The end of this persecution finally came about under the pressure of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow, who wanted to serve as a peacemaker, but also to gain political favors. The Mexican bishops and the Holy See were also willing to negotiate to stop the bloodshed and the persecution of the innocent.
In August 1926, just days after the Calles Law took effect, the U.S. Knights passed a resolution to support the Church in Mexico. They established a fund that raised over a million dollars to offer relief services for those exiled from Mexico, to provide for exiled seminarians to continue their priestly formation, and to educate the American public about the true situation. The Order printed and distributed five million pamphlets about the Cristiada and two million copies of the Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Episcopate of the United States on the Religious Situation in Mexico. The U.S. Knights also sponsored over 700 free lectures and reached millions by radio.
CWR: How did the Cristero War and the Cristiada movement change Mexico?
Ruben Quezada: Without a doubt the Catholic population suffered tremendously for many years after the truce. The persecution continued in a non-direct way until around 1940.
According to statistics, there were more than 90,000 lives lost during this persecution. Taking this number into consideration (knowing most of them were the sole providers of their homes), it is important to see how it affected their lifestyle without protection and care for each family – and the effect it took on society.
I have personally heard numerous testimonies of those affected this way. It was a very difficult time for thousands of citizens. Widows had to find employment, and many of the children had to abandon their studies to find work, just to help the family survive. The eldest male son had to take the role of the provider as well for the sake of his little siblings.
The faith grew undoubtedly through this entire ordeal and for years to come; and although Mexico is still considered a Catholic country with many areas with a strong Catholic stronghold, the faith has dwindled in many areas, giving way to a wide variety of attacks on the Catholic faith, morality and principles.
CWR: What lessons do you think can be learned from those events?
Ruben Quezada: A key lesson to be learned from this persecution in Mexico’s history is to be ready and to come together as a true sign of solidarity as Catholics and defend religious freedom when it is attacked no matter the price you have to pay. It is not just the responsibility of those on the front line; it’s the responsibility of every single citizen.
And the reason very few Mexican nationals (living in Mexico and abroad) know very little about this chapter in history is because it was literally obliterated from the minds of the people. Once it was taken out of its history books, generations would soon forget—and that’s exactly how it occurred.
There is a very powerful quote from the film that I believe everyone must memorize it. Fr. Vega quotes: “We must not allow for the Godless to take away our faith.”