Friday, May 21, 2010

For All the Saints: Christopher Magallanes and Companions, Martyrs

Today the Church commemorates the lives and deaths of 22 parish priests, along with three lay Catholics, who were killed between 1915 and 1937 in Mexico because they professed the Catholic faith. These martyrs were all active members of the Cristeros Movement, which rose up against the Mexican government's persecution of Catholics. The Church has confirmed these men as saints: Pope John Paul II canonized them in 2000.

It is humbling to reflect on these men and to wonder whether we would be willing to give our lives for our faith.

St. Christopher Magellenes, pictured above, built a seminary in his parish of Totiache at a time when the Mexican government banned foreign clergy and the celebration of Mass in some regions. When the anti-Church government closed his seminary, he opened another and still another. Eventually, the seminarians were forced to learn in private homes.

He wrote and preached against armed rebellion. But he was falsely accused of promoting the Cristeros guerillas. While heading to a farm to celebrate Mass, St. Christopher Magellenes was arrested on May 21, 1927. Three days later, without a trial, he was shot to death. Before he died, he gave his executioners his remaining possessions and offered them absolution. He was 48.

The last words heard from him were shouts from his cell.  "I am innocent and I die innocent. I forgive with all my heart those responsible for my death, and I ask God that the shedding of my blood serve the peace of our divided Mexico."

How did this remarkable life begin? St. Christopher Magallanes was born  in 1869 in the Archdiocese of Guadalajara. His parents, Rafael Magallanes and Clara Jara, were poor farmers and devout Catholics. He worked as a shepherd and entered the Conciliar Seminary of San Jose, pictured here, at the age of  19. He was ordained at age 30 and took a special interest in evangelizing to the local  indigenous Huichos people.

Like many in the United States, I learned nothing of the history of Mexico during my years in public schools. Only a few years ago, because a friend recommended I read Graham Greene's 1940 masterpiece The Power and the Glory, did I begin to comprehend the magnitude of the supression of the Catholic faith in Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s.  This powerful novel, which is on the YIM Catholic bookshelf (preview only), tells the story of a priest in a region where Catholicism is outlawed. Throughout the novel, this brave yet flawed "whiskey priest" is on the run, trying to perform the sacraments and minister to believers. He is haunted by the knowledge that if authorities catch him, they will kill him.

The novel reflects historic realities. The seminary where St. Christopher Magallanes studied, for example, was closed by the Mexican government in 1914 and turned into a regional art museum.

The Cristeros Movement, of which these martyrs were affiliated, was a reaction to the severely anti-clerical Constitution of 1917. According to the website, Cristeros of Jalisco recited this prayer at the end of the Rosary.

My Jesus Mercy! My sins are more numerous than the drops of blood that Thou did shed for me. I do not deserve to belong to the army that defends the rights of Thy Church and that fights for her. I desire never to sin again so that my life might be an offering pleasing to Thy eyes. Wash away my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins. By Thy Holy Cross, by my Holy Mother of Guadalupe, pardon me.

Since I do not know how to make penance for my sins, I desire to receive death as a chastisement merited by them. I do not wish to fight, live or die except for Thee and for Thy Church. Blessed Mother of Guadalupe, be at my side in the agony of this poor sinner. Grant that my last shout on earth and my first canticle in Heaven should be 
Viva Cristo Rey! Amen. 

Here in the United States I fear we Catholics have become lazy and indifferent in the practice of our faith, taking our freedom to worship for granted. I pray more of us will accept the offer of sanctifying grace that comes through the sacraments. What can we learn from our Mexican brothers and sisters in Christ?  Let us thank God for the brave souls who gave their lives in defending the faith.