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, 2016 in Rome, alongside six others.
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.”
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.”