The recently-released motion picture For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada is raising awareness of a long-forgotten chapter in Catholic history that seems increasingly relevant for religious believers in America today. Few Americans—and amazingly few Mexicans—have been aware of the epic, three-year struggle to save the Catholic faith that convulsed Mexico in the 1920s, an almost mystical event that has come to be known by the faithful as “La Cristiada.”
Although the movie conveys a rough idea of the Cristiada, a war that took the lives of an estimated 250,000 Mexicans and sent shockwaves throughout the hemisphere, many aspects of the struggle have been omitted or modified. Some of the conflict’s most important figures, such as Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, are glossed over, and others are portrayed in an inaccurate or even inverted manner. In the interest of character and plot development, relationships between characters were created for the film that never existed in reality.
Origins of the Cristiada
The true story of the Cristiada begins in the 1850s, when the US-backed regime of Benito Juarez began the confiscation of the agricultural lands of the Catholic Church, as well as other reforms that culminated in a series of anti-Catholic laws declaring that all of the nation’s churches were property of the federal government, and that no religious expressions of any kind, including the wearing of clerical garb, could occur in public. Today, the government celebrates these changes, which are called La Reforma (“The Reform”), with a paid holiday.
Catholics responded at that time with the revolt of the “Religionists,” a series of violent outbursts and wholesale defiance of the government that would last from 1874 to 1876, and was only pacified by the rise of the dictator Porfirio Diaz, who relaxed the enforcement of anti-clerical policies and laws, although he continued the process of confiscating and redistributing Church lands.
The Reforma, which also confiscated the lands of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, would ultimately culminate in the concentration of 90 percent of the agricultural land of Mexico in the hands of one percent of the country’s families, resulting in abuses that would lead to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and the rise of Francisco I. Madero, who overthrew Diaz in 1911 with the moral support of much of the Catholic clergy. Madero would grant freedoms to Catholics that they had not seen for more than 40 years, including the creation of the National Catholic Party, which supported the new president.
However, following the assassination of Madero two years later at the instigation of US ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, a series of anti-Catholic presidents would rise to power in a struggle between revolutionary factions that would lead to an estimated one million deaths in Mexico, mostly by starvation and disease. The United States would ultimately back the hard-left faction of Venustatio Carranza and Alvaro Obregon, which was opposed to the more Catholic-friendly faction of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. The forces of Carranza and Obregon defeated Zapata and Villa, and established Carranza as president of Mexico in 1917.
The Carranza-Obregon faction was openly wedded to Marxist ideology, and under its leadership the Mexican government would become the first sovereign state in the western hemisphere to recognize the Soviet Union. It would also create a new Constitution in which it would enshrine its secularist, anti-clerical ideology, which still reigns as the supreme law of the country today, albeit in heavily modified form.
The Constitution of 1917 reestablished the old anti-Catholic legislation of La Reforma, elevating much of it from mere civil law to the level of constitutional law. It declared all churches in Mexico to be the property of the government, and forbade any public display of religious identity in public, including clerical garb. Priests, as well as lay Catholic publications and groups, were forbidden to comment on politics, and the clergy was deprived of the right to vote.
The new constitution also declared that education must be lacking in religious content, and prohibited religious institutions from operating primary or secondary schools. It gave the state governments the right to regulate the number of clergy permitted to operate in their jurisdictions, a power that eventually would be used to eliminate public worship for millions. All foreign clergy were prohibited. All religious groups were deprived of legal recognition.
The anti-clerical provisions of the 1917 Constitution, as the civil laws that had preceded it, were not fully enforced in the years immediately following the document’s adoption. However, that began to change in 1925, when the fanatically anti-Catholic, atheistic president Plutarco Elias Calles began to browbeat state and federal government officials into applying the laws with the greatest strictness, ultimately issuing a penal reform decree known as the “Calles Law” that provided criminal penalties for violating the provisions.
As For Greater Glory recounts, Calles decreed the expulsion of foreign-born priests and prohibited public expressions of religious belief and clerical participation in politics. However, the movie strangely omits the most offensive aspects of Calles’s policy: the almost total prohibition of Catholic education, and the restriction of the number of clergy permitted to function to levels that would result in the strangulation of the Catholic faith in Mexico.
By mid-1926, in many states the number of Catholic priests permitted had been reduced dramatically. In the state of Jalisco, only 250 priests were permitted. In Yucatan, the number was reduced to 40; in Colima, 20, and in San Luis Potosi, 13. In Tabasco, held up as a model by President Calles, no Catholic ministers were permitted. These numbers often left one priest to serve tens of thousands of people spread over large areas, an impossible task that meant the end of Catholic sacramental life for many.
The effect on Catholic education was equally devastating. In Mexico City alone, 118 schools and dozens of convents were closed. In some states, Catholic education was prohibited altogether, and no schools were permitted to teach the Catechism, an activity that was sometimes prohibited even in churches.
The Catholic bishops of the country responded to Calles with the suspension of public worship, in the apparent hope that they would stiffen the resolve of Catholics to resist the government’s measures. However, they had little idea of the explosive forces that they were about to unleash. For many, the loss of the sacraments was the final outrage that would push them beyond mere resistance and protest, and into a full-scale revolt that would seek to overthrow the government completely. Uprisings would begin almost immediately, and within half a year, the Cristiada would begin in full force.
Anacleto Gonzalez Flores: Spiritual leader of the Cristiada
Among the many colorful figures that animated the Cristiada, Anacleto Gonzalez Flores may be described as the movement’s “spiritual leader.” His Gandhi-like movement of peaceful resistance would ironically provide the infrastructure for the armed struggle in the state of Jalisco, the center of the Cristero revolt. Gonzalez Flores himself would be transformed from a pacifist into the reluctant leader of the Cristiada’s political wing, although he did not participate directly in the fighting himself. He would ultimately be martyred in 1927 and beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
For Greater Glory portrays Gonzalez Flores as an important figure, but offers little to explain his significance to the Cristiada, a significance that is almost impossible to exaggerate. In the years leading up to the war, Gonzalez Flores was Mexico’s principle lay leader in the fight against the Mexican government’s increasingly oppressive policies. He was also its philosopher and theorist, providing the religious and philosophical justification for the Catholic position, a visionary writer and activist whose life and martyrdom continued to inspire the movement long after his death.
Gonzalez Flores was born in 1888 in Tepatitlan, the largest city of the strongly conservative Los Altos region of the state of Jalisco, which would become the center of the Cristero revolt. Always a leader of his peers, he was inspired at an early age to defend the Los Altos values of God and country during the Mexican Revolution, and personally met the Catholic-friendly president Francisco Madero in 1912.
After studying for several years in a local Catholic seminary, he decided that he did not have a vocation to the priesthood, and moved to Guadalajara to study law in 1913, earning a living by teaching Latin and history at local high schools. He joined numerous associations as well as creating his own, always seeking to inspire fellow-citizens with the religious and cultural values he cherished. He became an organizer of the National Catholic Party, and created a patriotic association called the National Phalanx to inspire young Mexicans to defend their values against their own government as well as the corrupting influences of the United States. He was constantly engaged in the education of Catholic youth as well, teaching catechism classes in his spare time, and became known to his followers as simply “El Maestro” (The Teacher).
In 1914 Gonzalez Flores witnessed the sacking and destruction of the churches of Guadalajara by the forces of Carranza, who also shut down the city’s Catholic schools and expelled foreign priests, in a preview of the persecutions of Calles 12 years later. The city’s archbishop, Francisco Orozco y Jimenez, was forced into exile. Gonzalez Flores reacted by joining the pro-Catholic followers of Pancho Villa, becoming their press secretary, and helped to plot the retaking of Guadalajara, a scheme that failed and ended in death for two of the Villista leaders. The experience helped to convince him of the futility of violence to achieve his goals.
In the dark years of 1914-1916, while Guadalajara was under the control of anti-Catholic forces and schools were closed, Gonzalez Flores and close friend and future martyr Miguel Gómez Losa founded educational circles, teaching their students both secular and religious topics. When restrictions were finally lifted, Gonzalez Flores helped to establish the Jalisco branch of the Catholic Action of Mexican Youth (ACJM), and founded a weekly newspaper, La Palabra (“The Word”), writing articles in defense of the Catholic faith for it as well as numerous other publications. He continued to study law, and was also a daily communicant.
As Gonzalez Flores’ reputation as a Catholic thinker and organizer increased, the ACJM in Jalisco also grew dramatically, establishing numerous study groups to educate young people about the Catholic faith and other related topics. When the state government of Jalisco attempted again to attack the Catholic Church in 1918 and 1919, members of the ACJM sprang into action, organizing protests and interrupting sessions of the state Congress, until the authorities backed down. In response to such resistance, President Carranza and his successor, Alvaro Obregon, took a more conciliatory approach to the Catholic Church, creating a partial reprieve from persecution until Calles began it anew in 1925.
After joining a secret society opposed to Freemasonry called the Union of Mexican Catholics, and known simply as “the U,” Gonzalez Flores eventually founded a public organization in Jalisco to organize Catholic resistance to Mexico’s avowedly Marxist government: the Popular Union (UP), a group that grew to include hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Jalisco and neighboring states. He also founded a newspaper, Gladium, that reached a circulation of over 100,000, with its own delivery service. The organizational infrastructure that would eventually provide the backbone to the Cristero army was now in place, functioning as a peaceful resistance against government tyranny.
In 1925, after years of tireless activism at the service of the Catholic Church, Gonzalez Flores and three other lay Catholics were awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross by the Holy See. It was the same year that Pope Pius XI would decree the establishment of the Feast of Christ the King, for whose rallying cry the Cristeros would ultimately receive their name. It was also the year that Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles would begin anew the persecution of the Catholic Church.
As the Calles regime began to pressure states to enforce the anti-clerical articles of the Constitution, and attempted the creation of a schismatic, state-controlled “Mexican Catholic Church,” the National League for Religious Liberty (LNDLR) was created in Mexico City to organize resistance throughout the country. Gonzalez Flores joined, and in 1926 agreed to fuse the Popular Union with the organization.
The decision was a crucial one for the launching of the Cristiada. Although Gonzalez Flores personally opposed armed conflict, his organization was now a subsidiary of the League, and he could not override its decisions. The League initially organized a nationwide economic boycott in response to the Calles Law, which Gonzalez Flores was confident would bring the government to its knees, but when the boycott failed to produce the desired result, the organization turned to war.
As tensions mounted, and Gonzalez Flores began to be harassed and investigated by government officials, he realized that he must go into hiding, as had Archbishop Orozco y Jimenez. The League formally declared war against the Mexican government on January 1, 1927, and formerly peaceful Catholic activists sprang into action, attacking federal garrisons in a number of towns. However, military aid that had been promised by the League’s national headquarters never materialized, and soon the federal government had the rebels on the run.
On April 1, 1927, the Mexican government struck what seemed to be its most devastating blow against the Cristiada, when Anacleto Gonzalez Flores was arrested by the infamously cruel General Jesus Maria Ferreira, chief of the Military Zone of Jalisco. He was accompanied by four compatriots: Jorge, Ramon, and Florentino Vargas Gonzalez, and Luis Padilla, although the young Florentino was later released. They were taken to a military barracks that had become known as the “Coliseum of the Cristeros,” where they were tortured by Ferreira for hours in a futile attempt to determine the whereabouts of Archbishop Orozco y Jimenez. Their answer was: “I know nothing! Long live Christ the King!”
As their execution approached, Padilla told Gonzalez Flores that he needed to confess, and the latter answered: “No, brother, it is no longer time to confess, but rather to ask for pardon and to pardon. It is a father, not a judge who waits you. Your own blood will purify you!” He asked to be the last to die, so that he could remain to comfort the others as they expired.
As his moment came for execution, Gonzalez Flores turned to General Ferreira and quoted the Ecuadoran President Gabriel Garcia Moreno, who had been assassinated for his defense of the Catholic faith in 1875: “I die, but God does not die!” According to one witness, he then told General Ferreira, “Soon you will present yourself before God. I will be your greatest intercessor.” He was bayonetted on both sides of his back, perforating his lungs and causing him to collapse. He was then shot at close range as he lay on the floor, managing one last time to say, “Long live Christ the King!”
Although the Mexican government had eliminated the Cristeros’ most charismatic leader, Gonzalez Flores’ murder served only to inflame the movement that he had inspired. He was instantly recognized as a martyr by the people of Jalisco, who would visit and pray before his grave. One of those who did so, asking for the grace of martyrdom, was Jose Sanchez del Rio, a 14-year-old boy whose death is portrayed in For Greater Glory.
The memory of Anacleto Gonzalez Flores was constantly invoked by the Cristeros during the remaining two years of war, sustaining them in times of immense difficulty. His voluminous newspaper writings were preserved and republished in anthologies that are still available in Mexico today, and documentation was gathered for his eventual beatification, which occurred on November 20, 2005. Although he remains virtually unknown outside of Mexico, the result of his tireless work is still seen in the state of Jalisco, which remains one of the most fervently Catholic in the country, and the nation’s most productive center of priestly vocations.
Future installments in this series will examine the lives other important figures portrayed in For Greater Glory, including Jose Sanchez del Rio, General Enrique Gorostieta, Father Jose Reyes Vega, Victoriano Ramirez (“El Catorce”), and others. They will also discuss the relationship of the United States to the conflict, the aftermath of the war in Mexico, and other matters of historical interest relating to the Cristiada.