Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI preceded Pope Francis in beatifying and canonizing saints who were martyred during the Mexican Cristero War (1926-1929). The courage and holiness of these saints was proven in the circumstances of a religious persecution.
The Catholic Church was severely weakened by the Mexican government in the Cristero War. Church properties were seized, schools and other Church institutions were closed, and priests and sisters were exiled or murdered. But not just priests and sisters were martyred during this tragic period of history. Many laypeople also suffered death defending the right to religious freedom, and one of the Church’s newest saints was among them — St. José Sánchez del Rio, canonized five years ago.
At first Jose was denied permission to join the Cristero rebel movement. He was too young, but the boy wouldn’t give up. When his mother expressed her opposition, he said, “Mama, do not let me lose the opportunity to gain heaven so easily and so soon.” José’s persistent desire to give his life for Christ and for others won out, and the general permitted him to be the troop’s flag bearer. Members of his troop gave him a nickname — Tarcisus — after the young early Christian saint who sacrificed his life to protect the Eucharist from sacrilege.
In late January 1928, José was captured by government officers. He had given his horse to the general of his troop, and he sought shelter to hide from the enemy, but he was found and captured.
The young prisoner of war was taken to a makeshift jail cell in the sacristy of a nearby church. According to the witness of childhood friends, while there, he prayed the Rosary throughout the day and prepared for his impending death. He was ready to do God’s will, emphasizing this in a letter he wrote to his mother.
My dear mother:
I was made a prisoner in battle today. I think I will die soon, but I do not care, mother. Resign yourself to the will of God. I will die happy because I die on the side of our God. Do not worry about my death, which would mortify me. Tell my brothers to follow the example that their youngest brother leaves them, and do the will of God. Have courage and send me your blessing along with my father’s.
Send my regards to everyone one last time and finally receive the heart of your son who loves you so much and who wanted to see you before dying.
— José Sánchez del Río
His father attempted but failed to secure his release.
José never had a trial but was offered the chance to live if he would renounce his faith. He refused. Hoping to weaken him in his determination, his persecutors brought him to witness the hanging of a fellow prisoner of war. But instead of scaring him into recanting his faith in Christ, José encouraged the condemned man telling him, they’d soon see each other in heaven.
On the night of Feb. 10, 1928, only 14 years old, José was forced to walk through town in his own Way of the Cross. His Calvary would be the local cemetery. Before he set out, they cut off the bottoms of his feet, and as he walked, they inflicted several wounds upon him with a large blade. It was torture. He shouted in pain. He left a trail of bloody foot prints. He shared in Christ’s passion and death, offering himself for the good of others and love of God. Again they tried to cause him to renounce his faith, “If you shout ‘Death to Christ the King,’ we will spare your life.” José had nothing of it. “I will never give in. He said, Viva Cristo Rey!”
Finally, they reached the cemetery — the place of his death — and, with bayonets, his persecutors stabbed him repeatedly. Their commander, however, shot him, frustrated with the slow, agonizing death his soldiers had inflicted upon the boy. Just before dying, José traced a cross into the dirt, to which he bent down and kissed.
This is the story of a boy who knew Jesus. This is the story of a boy who had a relationship with Jesus. He was ready and willing to die for our Lord whom he knew and loved, who he knew and loved him.
Do we know Jesus? Do we have relationship? Is he someone we talk to and readily go to? Many spiritual writers will say that until we meet him what we do here can end up becoming just an outward show, without heart. Just words, external observances and no heart, just following the rules.
I think there is this perception out there that we are given a set of rules: here are the rules keep them, obey them, and that’s what it means to be a good Catholic. Now don’t get me wrong we do need the rules. They are a gift from our Lord. Our Lord who is life, who is beauty, who is the happiest of all beings. Who made us in his own image and likeness so that we too could be happy. The rules are a gift and we need them because you and I have a problem, we’re born with a bent will and a rebellious heart. We are inclined to put ourselves first. And so we need our Lord to give us direction on the way to go. He points us to the way of eternal life.
But our faith is more than just following the rules and saying the right words. It’s also about a relationship with Jesus. Without relationship the rules and words are empty and not the fullness of Christianity. We need our Lord’s direction, we need our Lord’s guidance, and we need a relationship. It’s both.
So our solution if we haven’t already, is to meet Him, to meet the one who is literally dying to be met. And there are so many opportunities here at St. Joseph’s and St. Jerome’s for meeting our Lord. Daily Mass during the week, Eucharistic adoration, men’s group, CCW, Legion of Mary, K of C, Agape Latte, Lucernarium, small Christian communities, and book clubs, I’m sure I’m missing something but there are many opportunities in our parishes to join a small community, which are a great aid in meeting our Lord.
Our Lord wants to meet us, to have an encounter with us, to break into our lives, to help us understand why we’re restless, and thirsty, and unhappy. He wants to encounter us in the Eucharist, to give himself to us so that he and I become one flesh, so that he and you become one flesh.
Now we don’t have to wait for an encounter by joining a group. Ask for the grace to meet him right now, ask for the grace to be aware of his presence right now, ask for the grace to hear his voice, saying to him, “Lord I want to know you now.” “I can’t find happiness on my own; I want you to show me the way.”
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley