The first martyrs of America

Cristobal, Antonio and Juan canonized by Pope Francis on October 15

The recent canonization of Cristobal, Antonio, and Juan, officially declared the new saints as the first martyrs of the New World. The 12 and 13-year-old saints were murdered between the years 1526 and 1529 by the native indigenous people, enraged by the faith these kids had freely accepted, fruit of the missions of the Franciscan and Dominican friars in Tlaxcala, modern-day Mexico.

Pope Francis acknowledged the sanctity of these young heroes, allowing them to be celebrated by the universal Church.

Cristobal forgave his murderer

Cristobalito, or little Cristobal, as he was known by the Franciscan missionaries, was the eldest son of Chief Acxotécatl, and his successor. He quickly learned about Christianity and the truths of the faith with much enthusiasm in school. “Cristobal was one of the first children to begin school. He was characterized by his nobility and goodness. He even asked to be baptized himself,” said Father Francisco Rodriguez, expert on the life of the three children and priest of the diocese of Tlaxcala, to Vatican Radio.

“We don’t know his name in the Nahuatl language,” added Father Rodriguez. “When he was baptized, he chose the name Cristobal, which means ‘Christ bearer,’ and from then on, promised to live up to his name.”

And so, he did. The young man would enthusiastically tell his father what he learned at school; and even persuaded him to worship the true God, leaving behind his idols, and to marry only one wife, turning back on his polygamous beliefs. Acxotécatl, however, dismissed his son’s words as mere “child’s talk”. Nevertheless, one of his wives urged him to kill Cristobal, lest he inherit the throne.

After a tribal party, the chief remained alone with his son, and, grabbing him by the hair, threw him to the ground and beat him so badly that he broke the child’s head and arms. As Cristobal was being tortured, he called on God in his native language: “Lord, my God, have mercy on me; if you wish me to die, may I die; if you wish me to live, deliver me from my cruel father.” Before dying, the young hero offered forgiveness to his father. Cristobal told him that although he wanted to inherit the kingdom, now he would inherit an even greater one. Yet, instead of being merciful to him, his father delivered him to die at the stake.

This act was a “great and heroic gesture of a true martyr, despite his young age; determined to declare: ‘even if it costs me my own life,’” said Father Rodriguez. Cristobal “died in his mother’s arms,” he added. “He told her that he had expressed to his father his wish of inheriting the kingdom, but that now he would inherit a more fascinating one.”

Antonio and Juan, loyal until death

The other two martyrs were great friends. Antonio was a noble in his indigenous tribe and Juan was his servant.

From their childhood, both attended Franciscan school together and volunteered as guides to the Dominican friars in their mission to evangelize the Americas. “When the superior of the convent saw their desire to become guides, he warned the kids of the dangers they would have to face – they accepted,” affirmed Father Rodriguez. Juan was beaten to death with clubs by a group of natives who saw him as a threat to their customs. Antonio, in an act of loyalty, ran to aid his servant and was killed in the act.

With such testimony, these kids have enriched the Catholic Canon of Saints, for “only someone who is in love is able give up his life,” said Father Cristobal Gaspariano, also an expert on the case of the three martyrs. “This was the case of the children martyrs of Tlaxcala,” he continued. “They were passionate for the Lord, to the point of offering up their lives for him. May the celebration of these blessed children lead us all to live out our Christian vocation with much love; so that, if it ever becomes necessary, we may also give up our lives with heroic generosity.”

COMING UP: St. José Sánchez del Río: The boy who died for love of Christ the King

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José de Jesús Sánchez del Río went to visit the tomb of a Cristero martyr in 1927, and asked God to let him also die in defense of the Catholic faith. Not even a year would go by before his wish was fulfilled. In February of 1928, he was assassinated for the cause of Christ. At his death, Joselito, as his family affectionately called him, was just over a month shy of his 15th birthday.

Pope Francis canonized the 14-year-old martyr on Oct. 16 in Rome, alongside six others.

Striking contrasts

The history of St. José Sanchez has some sad coincidences. For one, the church of St. James the Apostle in Sahuayo, where Joselito was baptized, became his prison.

Another sad parallel: His godfather for his First Communion (in Mexico, it is tradition to choose a godfather or sponsor for First Communion), Rafael Picazo Sanchez, was the one who ordered his assassination.

Witnesses in the cause for Jose’s canonization testified that he was a “normal, healthy kid with a joyful character,” as the postulator, Comboni Missionary Father Fidel González, told El Pueblo Católico.

“He went to his Catechism classes and was notable for his commitment to difficult parish activities (…) Though it put his life at risk since public worship was prohibited, he received the sacraments when he could. He prayed the holy rosary each day with his family. Despite being very young, José understood very well what Mexico was going through with the persecution,” Father González said.

Fight for the faith

Despite being just a boy, José joined the Cristeros, a movement trying to defend religious liberty in the country. He carried out simple tasks, such as helping with the logistics for those who were fighting the battle for the faith.

During one clash between the Cristero troops and the federal forces, José saved one of the leaders of his army, the Cristero leader Guizar Morfín. Morfin’s horse was killed and he was in danger of being captured. José, seeing his predicament, quickly got off his horse and handed him to his general: “My general,” he said, “take my horse and save yourself. You are more needed by this cause than I am.”

General Guizar Morfín managed to escape, but the federal troops captured José, taking him to the town of Cotija, beating and rebuking him along the way. “We’re going to see how much of a man you really are,” they told him.

During his imprisonment, he wrote a letter to his mother: “Do not be worried about my death, as this would make me suffer … Be courageous and send me your blessing, together with the blessing of my father.”

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Saint Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio depicted in a painting by Rene Martinez Valdez. The 14-year old martyr was canonized Oct. 16.

Picazo, his godfather, didn’t want to kill the boy and offered him various proposals so as to save his life. He offered to register him in a prestigious military school or send him to the United States, but the boy refused these temptations since in order to get them, he would have to deny his faith.

They also asked his family for a ransom of 5,000 pesos, but José also rejected this offer, saying that his faith was “not for sale.”

On Feb. 10, 1928, they transferred José to a building close to where he was being held and told his family that he would be shot. One of his aunts managed to bring him Communion.

“I am sentenced to death. At 8:30 p.m., the moment that I have desired so, so much will arrive. I thank you for all the kindnesses you’ve shown me, you and Magdalena,” he wrote to his aunt.

The soldiers tortured him by cutting the bottoms of his feet with a knife and forcing him to walk barefoot to his last resting place, the cemetery of Sahuayo.

“I didn’t hear laments; I only heard the resigned voice of José. I saw the footprints of blood from the soles of his feet at the gate called Arregui that is on the street that leads to the cemetery; at the inn they also tortured him. … They brought him to the cemetery where first he was stabbed and then they gave him the final blow in the head,” a witness of the martyrdom testified.

Once at the cemetery, José was stabbed by the soldiers. With each strike, he shouted, “Long live Christ the King! Long live Holy Mary of Guadalupe!” Then a military leader shot him twice in the head, put his lifeless body in a small grave and covered him with dirt. It was 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 10, 1928.

“Blessed José Sánchez del Río should inspire us all, especially you young people,” Cardinal José Saraiva Martins said during the homily of his beatification in 2005 in Guadalajara, “to be capable of giving witness to Christ in our daily lives.”