May 21, 2020

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter

(Optional Memorial of St. Christopher Magallanes and Companions, martyrs)


First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Responsorial: Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9

Alleluia: Matthew 5:10

Gospel: John 12:24-26

Today the Church celebrates the martyrdom of St. Christopher Magallanes, a Mexican priest who died during what is called the Cristero Rebellion in the late 1920s. He is remembered along with 40 other martyrs, mostly priests, who were martyred at various points in this brutal conflict.

The Cristero Rebellion was a civil war that arose when the administration of the socialist President Plutarco Elias Calles attempted to suppress the Catholic Church in Mexico. Calles made little secret of his desire to create a new socialist state without the influence of the Catholic Church. He wrote to one of his ambassadors of Mexicans, “free of religious hypnotism which fools the people ... within one year without the sacraments, the people will forget the faith.”

Towards this end, the Calles government enforced a series of strongly anti-Catholic laws, including outlawing religious orders, prohibiting any Church involvement in education, closing seminaries, and restricting the right of the Church to engage in speech or broadcast. Other law specifically targeted the clergy themselves, such prohibiting priests from wearing clerical attire or criticizing the government. Many churches were closed by government edict citing various pretexts and Jacobin gangs supported by Calles’s government were known to desecrate religious sites and harass priests and other believers.

Eventually, open rebellion broke out between Mexican Catholics and their government, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands, and the martyrdom of many Catholics. Interestingly, the Cristeros War even became something of a cause in the United States, with the Knights of Columbus funneling money to the Cristeros, while the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan sent aid to the Calles government.

The conflict did not end until 1929 when the US Ambassador to Mexico brokered a kind of truce. Sadly, the Mexican anti-clerical and anti-religious laws were left in place, though over time these were less vociferously enforced. Indeed, many such laws remain on the books in Mexico to this day, such as the prohibition on outdoor religious worship and the prohibition on the Church owning any form of print or broadcast media.

The reason religious, and particularly religious institutions like the Catholic Church, have been the subject of persecution by dictatorial governments throughout history is because dictators want a monopoly on power. Not just political power, but also social and moral power. They do not want people to have a reference point for power or duty beyond the state. They seek to “atomize” people so that the family, the Church, and other intermediary organizations do not provide an alternative form of social life. They do not want people to have competing loyalties or alternative sources of ideas. They want to make it so that, as much as possible, the strongest bond is simply between individual persons and the government. 

In the first commandment, God tells us, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” Worship of God alone is not simply the principle of right religion, it is also the principle of right politics. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says: “When human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, it makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission; it becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse … drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.”

The dangers of encroaching statism exists in all times and places, including our own. Thankfully, God always raises up saints, and particularly his martyrs, to meet these challenges, as in St. Christopher Magallanes and his Companions whom we celebrate today. The first reading from the Book of Revelation speaks of the glory of the martyrs in heaven: “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb. For this reason they stand before God's throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The One who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”