When Catholics Were Cristeros

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

President Barack Obama might have known better than to have picked a fight with Catholics. History would tell him that they rarely lose.

During the 1920s, Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles found that out the hard way. As this year's historical epic For Greater Glory shows, Catholics don't give up without a long and bloody fight.

The film opens with Calles berating Mexico's Catholics as "outcasts from Rome" and "fanatics of foreign interests." He outlaws public worship and pledges to deport anyone who protests. Nonviolent activists regularly flooded the streets and petitioned others for support, but Calles and his government didn't relent.

While chants and marches did little to move Calles, a boycott of Mexican businesses "as a sort of Lent" to bankrupt the government riled Calles to his core. He directed his military to enforce the anticlerical laws with deadly force. Churchgoers were shot up indiscriminately, Cathedrals destroyed, priests publicly executed -- perhaps one priest too many.

Father Christopher, played by the incomparable Peter O'Toole, was an old, small-town parish priest who mentored a young boy named José Luis Sánchez del Rio. One day the government forces reached the doors of their Church. José pleaded with his priest to escape, but Father Christopher refused: "Who are you if you don't stand up for what you believe?"

With José watching, Father Christopher was led out and shot by firing squad. Though only fourteen at the time, a newly inspired José convinced his mother to let him join the rebellion. Problem was, the Catholics who took up arms against the government were rural rancheros without any clear leadership or strategy.

The leaders of the nonviolent movement decided that while they wouldn't fire the rifles, they ought to find a general who would. Their unlikely choice: an atheist. Andy Garcia delivers a stunning performance as Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, who was a decorated general with many victories and a restless Catholic wife. She tells him that he "cannot fight for something you don't believe in." With a kiss to the cheek, Gorostieta says he "believes in religious freedom" -- which he thinks should be enough.

Not too long after that, we see Gorostieta meeting the leaders of various factions he was hired to lead. Strangely, Gorostieta's atheism has left him -- briefly -- as he rallies the troops by telling them they are Cristeros fighting "for God, for the Church, and for absolute freedom."

Meanwhile, President Calles is making other enemies. Calles began enforcing an article of the Mexican constitution that made everything under the soil property of the State. This threatened European and United States oil interests, a threat President Calvin Coolidge would have none of.

Coolidge sent Ambassador Dwight Morrow to Mexico with the specific instruction to avoid war. Throughout a series of meetings, Morrow would bring up the "conflict" with the Catholic Church to which Calles responds, "Oh, that's nothing."

During a clandestine meeting with Mexican Bishops on a train, Morrow found out the conflict is quite a bit more than that. As the Bishops were pleading with him for American support, Morrow glanced out the window to see Cristeros hanging from telephone poles. Visibly shaken, Morrow excuses himself from the meeting with a newfound inspiration to help end the war.

Back on the battlefield, Gorostieta finds his inspiration too. The general meets José and looks after him as his own son. While carrying the flag during battle, José is captured by government forces and tortured. A devastated Gorostieta begins a mission to save José, but is too late.

Throughout the torture, José is repeatedly told that he will be spared if he renounces Christ. His response each time: ¡Viva Cristo Rey!

His tormentors take a machete to his feet and march him to his grave. In an eyes-glued-to-the-screen scene, José is led out of the torture chamber and becomes a kind of Christ as his bloody feet tip-toe through the town square. The soldiers become Romans as they stand José before his grave, now Golgatha.

José is given one last chance to abandon the Cristeros. "They're only words," he is told. Smiling, José proclaims Christ the King. At once he is stabbed and falls to his knees. He draws a cross in the sand and kisses it saying, "I'm going home." He is summarily shot and kicked like a dog into his shallow grave.

Earlier, Gorostieta lamented that he wishes he had faith, but doesn't know where to find it. In the Christ-like José, faith finds him -- and us.

Ambassador Morrow, we are told, eventually brokered a deal to resume worship in Mexico. If only Calles held up his end of the bargain. He directed thousands more Cristeros to be shot, often in their homes. What's more, Calles imposed an education monopoly with a socialist program aimed at taking "possession of the mind of childhood." There would be no more José Luis Sánchez del Rios.

The soft persecution of Catholics in Mexico would continue for sometime through Calles cronies. All was not lost, however. A monument to Calles still stands in his hometown of Guaymas, but Calles would likely want his statue placed elsewhere. Less than a block away, bells of a Catholic Church ring out in perpetuity.

Cristiada, as the film is known in Mexico, is already a Titanic at the box office. For many Mexicans, the film is a story not found in their history textbooks. Actor Eduardo Verastegui called the Cristero War a "wound that we've buried. I felt we should bring this wound out, learn from it, and show some of the heroes of Mexico who gave their lives for what they believed."

Even so, many involved in the project have squirmed at the notion that the film might resonate with Catholics in America. No, President Obama is not ordering the deportation of Catholics or bringing priests before firing squads, but this election is shaping up to be a referendum for a reason. Calles would likely applaud the contraception mandate and laugh alongside Nancy Pelosi at "this conscience thing."

"Freedom is not just for fancy documents," Gorostieta told his Cristeros -- as President Obama may soon find out -- it's also for the ballot box.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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