On a recent trip to Mexico I managed to see the new movie “Cristiada.” This movie is about the Cristeros War (1926-1929), a people’s revolt against the Mexican government of atheist President Plutarco Elias Calles and his efforts to secularize the country. Directed by Dean Wright (Lord of the Rings, Titanic, Narnia) the English original titled “For Greater Glory” (official trailer in English at this link) is scheduled for release in the US on June 1, 2012.
In my estimation this movie is a must see for anyone interested in Mexico, Catholicism and, especially, the historical context in which the Legionaries of Christ were founded. The battle cry of the Cristeros was "Viva Christ the King!" No wonder Fr. Maciel came to name his new congregation "Legionaries" whose mission was to further the "Kingdom of Christ."
I first heard about this Cristero rebellion in 1965 when I went to Cotija, Michocan as one of the two first Irish Legionaries of Christ to land in Mexico. The other Irishman was Fr. John Walsh, LC. We went there with Fr. Maciel, the founder of the Legion, and we stayed with his mother, Maurita, who treated us with the warm hospitality so typical of Mexico.
Over the years, I heard Fr. Maciel personally tell stories related to the Cristero rebellion and how it impacted his experience of living the faith as a young man in a rural town. The story of the events that took place all over Mexico was ignored in Mexican history books. Despite the fact that some 90,000 people lost their lives in the rebellion, most Mexicans know very little about the causes, events, and outcomes of the rebellion.
The now disgraced Fr. Marcial Maciel was the youngest founder of a religious congregation in the history of the Catholic Church. Born on March 10, 1920, in Cotija de la Paz - a town of about 5,500 inhabitants located in the state of Michoacán - his childhood took place through the social and religious upheavals that afflicted Mexico during the Cristero Revolution. Cotija was near to the epicenter of the fighting. When he was little, he and his mother went to daily Mass at the shrine of San Juan del Barrio, a chapel on the outskirts of town. As a child he saw Cristeros hanged from the trees. On his mother’s side, he had four uncles who were Bishops. Mama Maurita, as his mother was known, had a brother, José de Jesús Degollado Guízar, who was a General in the Cristero revolt in charge of operations in the western region of Mexico including the states of Michocan, Jalisco and Nayarit. Unlike other Generals he managed to avoid assassination by living in hiding after the war was over. He died in 1957.
The movie does an excellent job of recounting the largely unknown story of the Cristero war. My Mexican friends who have seen it have been moved by the drama and find it hard to believe how the story has remained untold for so long. As in most movies the director takes liberties with the facts. However, by and large, the drama is true. It tells the story about a time when the Mexican Government tried to shut down the practice of the Catholic faith, how the Catholics took up arms to defend the freedom of religion, and how civil war ensued. There are disturbing scenes in which the the “Federales” attack Catholic churches during Mass and kill priests in the sanctuary.
Personally, I was impressed at how closely the narrative follows the stories I, and so many other LCs, heard from Fr. Maciel. This is an important movie to be seen by anyone who would seek to understand the circumstances during which Maciel developed his ideas for a new religious congregation. It was a time during which priests were outlawed, Mexican seminaries were based outside of the country, Catholics distrusted the Government, and the position of the Vatican with regard to the rebellion was ambiguous. The United States played an important role motivated mostly by its interests in petroleum and regional stability. Ultimately, the Cristeros were let down by the Mexican Bishops. An early hallmark of Legionary behavior was to ignore Bishops who were not sympathetic to the new congregation couple with intense loyalty to the Holy Father. The Cristero story, I suggest, provides some historical context for Maciel's legacy.
It is a fairly well known fact now that Fr. Maciel had no great ecclesiastical training. Yet again, the movie provides historical context as how this was entirely possible. The infamous "penal times" in Ireland no doubt produced similar effects. One of the main characters in the movie is a priest, a combination of two historical characters, who takes up arms, is totally ruthless and who (in real life) played fast and loose with his celibacy and tequila.
The Mexican government did not abide by the terms of the truce negotiated in 1929 to end the war. In violation of its terms, Government forces shot some 500 Cristero leaders and 5,000 other Cristeros. Particularly offensive to Catholics after the supposed truce was President Calles's insistence on a complete state monopoly on education, suppressing all forms of Catholic education and introducing secular education in its place. Calles's military persecution of Catholics was eventually officially condemned by President Lázaro Cárdenas and the Mexican Congress as late as 1935. Between 1935 and 1936, Cardenas had Calles and many of his close associates arrested and he forced them into exile soon afterwards. Freedom of worship was no longer suppressed, although some states still refused to repeal Calles' policies although relations with the church improved under Cardenas.
The Mexican Government’s disregard for the church, did not relent until 1940, when President Manuel Ávila Camacho, a practicing Catholic, took office. At that time, Fr. Maciel was just 20 years old. Church buildings in the country still belonged to the Mexican government and the nation's policies regarding the church still fell into federal jurisdiction. In exchange for the Church's efforts to maintain peace, most of the anticlerical provisions were not enforced, an exception being Article 130, Section 9, which deprived the Church of the right of political speech, the right to vote, and the right of free political association. The Church legally had no corporate existence, no real estate, no schools, no monasteries or convents, no foreign priests, no right to defend itself publicly or in the courts, and no hope that its legal and actual situations would improve. The clergy were forbidden to wear clerical garb, to vote, to celebrate public religious ceremonies, and to engage in politics. Again, these restrictions were not always enforced.
The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. There were 4,500 priests serving the people before the rebellion, but by 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million Mexicans. The rest had been eliminated by emigration, expulsion and assassination. By 1935, 17 states had no priest at all.
In 1992 after more than 130 years the Mexican Government and the Holy See reestablished formal diplomatic relations and restored civil rights to the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico.
The movie sheds a lot of background light on he foundation of the Legion by providing an excellent account of the Cristero War. In 1935, Fr. Maciel attended a minor seminary in Mexico City directed by one of his uncles, the bishop of Veracruz. Because of the religious persecution in that state, the Bishop located his seminary in the capital city. The seminary was clandestine, hidden in the basement of a house in the Atzcapozalco district and the young seminarians resided there in difficult conditions. The house was old with adobe walls and they used some of the larger rooms as dormitories. The first seminarians were crammed in like anchovies in a tin.
Undoubtedly, myth and folklore have crept in to distort the truth of those early years of the foundation. Those of us, who directly heard Fr. Maciel relay stories of his early years, retold them to new generations of Legionaries. As such, a motivational narrative of his life and times quickly developed. No doubt the ensuing narrative eventually played fast and loose with the facts.
The film is shot on location in the state of Durango is cinematically beautiful. There are some disturbing scenes depicting the brutality of the Mexican government as well as amazingly uplifting and moving scenes depicting the faith of those fighting for their faith and for liberty. Andy Garcia is a very credible, real life, atheistic General Gorostieta. The remainder of the excellent cast (including Eva Longoria, Peter O’Toole, Ruben Blades, Bruce Greenwood, Eduardo Verastegui and newcomer Mauricio Kuri) provide cameo-style supporting roles. As far as I know, the movie's producer, Pablo Jose Barroso, is a supporter of the Legionaries of Christ. Legionary priests served as chaplins on the set.
On May 21, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of 25 saints and martyrs arising from the Mexican Cristero War. The vast majority are Roman Catholic priests who were executed for carrying out their ministry. Priests who took up arms, however, were excluded from the process. The group of saints share the feast day of May 21.