The Cristeros and us

Most Americans haven’t the foggiest idea that a quasi-Stalinist, violently anti-Catholic regime once existed on our southern borders. Those who don’t know how bad Mexico was in the late 1920s are about to learn, though: at least those who see “For Greater Glory,” a recently-released movie about the Cristero War, a passionate (and bloody) defense of Catholicism that’s remembered today, if at all, because of Graham Greene’s novel, “The Power and the Glory.”

There’s been a strange silence about all this for almost a century. Even Catholics aware of the extent of 20th-century martyrdom seem to have little sense of the modern Mexican martyrs—although the addition of the memorial of St. Christopher Magallanes and Companions to the universal liturgical calendar (May 21) ought to remind North American Catholics just what was going on south of the Rio Grande during the years when the brutal government of Plutarco Elias Calles tried to destroy the Catholic Church in Mexico. It was a terrible time, and the example of the Cristeros, who included both underground priests like Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J. (perhaps the first martyr in two millennia to be photographed at the moment of his death) and fighters like General Enrique Gorostieta (well-played by Academy Award nominee Andy Garcia in the new film) ought to inspire 21st-century Catholics to stand firm in defense of religious freedom.

“For Greater Glory” takes some artistic liberties with history; the martyrdom of Christopher Magallanes, for example, happened in somewhat different circumstances than those described in the film. But taken as a whole, the movie conveys both the hard truth about the Calles regime and the often noble, but sometimes conflicted, story of Calles’s Cristeroopponents. The most moving subplot in the movie involves Jose Luis Sanchez de Rio, a teenager converted to serious Catholicism by Christopher Magallanes (as the film tells it) and “adopted,” in spirit, by General Gorostieta when the lad asks to join the Cristeros. Whatever the artistic license taken with the details of these relationships, it will be a hard heart indeed that is not moved by the depiction of the boy’s martyrdom, as he defies torture and blandishments, all intended to get him to apostasize, and cries “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”) just before the bullets strike him down. Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio was beatified on Nov. 20, 2005; his liturgical commemoration (Feb. 10, the day of his death) should shape the rhythm of liturgical life in U.S. parishes, like those of St. Christopher Magallanes and Blessed Miguel Pro (Nov. 23).

In his Chrism Mass homily in April, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington urged his priests and seminarians to see “For Greater Glory.” Cardinal Wuerl is not given to dramatic gestures; his suggestion that the film might help form the self-understanding of Washington’s priests and future priests was all the more powerful for that. Barack Obama is not Plutarco Elias Calles, and the United States in 2012 is not Mexico in 1926-29. But anyone who doubts that there are grave threats to religious freedom in North America today has only to consider the HHS “contraceptive mandate,” the administration’s refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the administration’s efforts to void the “ministerial exemption” in U.S. employment law, and the bad habit of Canadian human rights “tribunals” to levy serious financial penalties against Christian ministers who preach biblical truth.

Threats to religious freedom come in many forms—some hard, like during the Cristero War; some softer, if no less lethal to the first freedom. One way to blunt the hard threats is to stand firmly against the softer threats and to name those threats for what they are. “For Greater Glory” will inspire and encourage those already committed to defending religious freedom today. It is even more important, though, that those who haven’t yet seen the threat, or who deny that it exists, ponder this powerful depiction of the nearby and not-so-distant past, for the sake of the present and future.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.