“You will explain your position to government officials,” taunted their guards, soldiers implementing the anti-Catholic force of the revolutionary government.
Driving northeasterly for a few minutes, about a mile out of town, the cars suddenly veered to the side of the road and rolled to a stop at El Puerto de Santa Teresa, a nondescript stretch along the primitive roadway that would develop into the Sombrerete-Chalchihuites Highway.
Forced from their seats, the prisoners – Catholics: one priest and three laymen – stumbled from the cars on that August 15, 1926, forced down a parched slope of dirt, a graveyard of flora in the arid plateau’s xeric shrubland dotted with skeletal clumps of fractured grass and the occasional awkward patch of opuntia, prickly pear cactus.
High noon, the men – captors and captured – sweltered under the ravaging sun that traveled overhead, in its zenith, along its route in conjunction with the Tropic of Cancer.
The 33 articles of Calles’s Law were intended to ensure the destruction of Catholicism in Mexico by giving the State powers over the Church, such as: all priests were to register with the government...
As the temperature flared, so, too, did the tempers of the tormentors.
“You all conspire to revolt against the government,” they accused the four men.
“We offer you freedom. All you need to do is acknowledge the legitimacy of the anti-religious laws of President Plutarco Elías Calles. That’s all you need to do.”
Devout Catholics in an anti-Catholic Mexico, all four refused.
Two of the men – both fathers, one spiritual, the other temporal – were picked out.
Father Luis Batiz Sainz. Born on September 13, 1870, in San Miguel del Mezquital, a pious child, he began attending minor seminary at the age of 12, and received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, on January 1, 1894. As a priest, he became known for his pastoral zeal and his fervency in Eucharistic adoration. In a revolutionary time when it was dangerous to speak out, he preached against political revolution and its inherent violence. Sensing the impending death and destruction on the Catholic world, he was heard to say, “Lord, I want to be a martyr, though I am your unworthy minister, I want to shed my blood, drop by drop, for your name.”
All education was to be secular; all churches were to be under the government authorities...
Next to him, Manuel Morales Cervantes (pictured left). Born on February 8, 1898, in the village of Mesillas, Zacatecas, shortly after his birth, his family relocated to Chalchihuites. When old enough, he worked to help support his impoverished family. Once established as an accomplished and successful baker, he married and earned the reputation of a devoted husband, one half of a happy couple blessed with three children.
At the side of the road, Father Batiz (pictured right) begged their captors to release Morales, for the sake of his children, whom he had to support.
In response, Morales simply said, “I die for God, and God will take care of my children.” He then – calmly – lifted his hat.
Father Batiz smiled at his companion, absolved him and comforted him with a few final words, “Hasta el cielo,” “See you in heaven.”
The executioners raised their weapons.
Morales stood and shouted, “Viva Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe!”
Fatal gunshots sounded through the near-deserted hillsides.
As the two lay, sprawled on the ground with their blood soaking the dust, the two young cousins were ordered forward.
Salvador Lara Puente. Born on August 13, 1905, in the Durango town of Berlin, he was tall and strong and enjoyed the sport of charreada, competitive horse riding with its origins in Spain. Gifted with a friendly nature, he was a loving son to his widowed mother, whom he helped support with work he found in one of the local mines, where he was respected as a responsible worker with integrity.
Beside him, David Roldan Lara. Born in Chalchihuites, on March 2, 1907, when he was a year old, his father died, leaving his mother to care for him and his brothers. Despite the financial hardship, he attended Catholic school and served as an altar boy. When old enough, he helped support his impoverished family with work he found in a local mine, where the company deemed him an honorable, honest and hard worker. He was well-liked by friends and co-workers because of his joyful, generous, kind, understanding nature, and his girlfriend held him in esteem as an upright man.
Religious garb worn outside the church was illegal; the Catholic Church could not own property; and all churches, religious houses, seminaries, parochial schools, etc. were deemed government property.
Both men vehemently, explicitly denied their movement’s involvement in violence.
Led about 170 feet away from the bodies of Morales and Batiz, the cousins calmly recited an Act of Love as they, knowingly, walked to their martyrdoms:
“O my God, I love Thee above all things with my whole heart and soul, because Thou art all good and worthy of all love. I love my neighbor as myself for love of Thee. I forgive all who have injured me, and I ask pardon for all whom I have injured.”
Standing, helpless, they faced the firing squad.
“Viva Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe!” both men shouted as their executioners raised and fired their weapons.
Bl. Miguel Pro, executed November 23, 1927
Close to death, Roldán lay on the dirt, bleeding, as one of the gunmen walked over to him and fired the final bullet, the coup de grâce.
This would mark one of the first mass executions in the bloody beginning of what would become known as the Cristero War, the struggle between devout Catholics in the Church and Christophobes in the Mexican government. It was a battle between the Christian individualists who believed in man’s God-given rights to be free to worship and the Socialist collectivists who believed it was the State that determined rights in its efforts to control everyone and everything.
What had sparked the executions was a boycott, hastily planned after Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles (1877-1945) signed into law, on June 14, 1926 (published on July 2 and ordered to take effect on July 31), the dictates of the Law for Reforming the Penal Code, commonly referred to as Calles Law, which, basically, outlawed Catholicism.
The 33 articles of Calles Law were intended to ensure the destruction of the Catholicism in Mexico by giving the State powers over the Church, such as: all priests were to register with the government; the number of priests in each parish was to be drastically reduced; all monasteries and convents were to be dissolved; all education was to be secular; all churches were to be under the supervision of government authorities; religious garb worn outside the church was illegal; the Catholic Church could not own property; and all churches, religious houses, seminaries, parochial schools, etc. were deemed government property.
To the new laws, Catholics had two public responses: one from the laity and one from the hierarchy.
From the laity, on July 23, as a stronghold of religious defense and a socio-economic action against the anti-Catholic laws, the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty called for the boycott, to take effect on the same day as the Calles Law, July 31.
In a handout, the League proposed the following action program:
1. As of July 21 of the current year and while the Decree issued by the Executive of the Union, on June 14, is in force, reforming and adding to the Penal Code, the inhabitants of the Mexican Nation who love freedom, will develop a general action in defense or blockade throughout the country.
2. The blockade will consist of the paralysis of the social and economic life by the following general means:
A. Abstain from advertising and buying newspapers that oppose this action or do not support it. Silence will be understood as lack of support. Regarding the newspapers of Mexico City, no action will be taken against them, except by express determination of the League.
B. Abstain from making purchases that are not essential for daily subsistence (for example: not buying luxury items and, if possible, clothing items; suppress the superfluous, such as sweets, fruits, snow, soft drinks, etc., and even in the articles of first necessity to acquire only the indispensable).
C. The greatest possible abstention is the use of vehicles, especially individuals, and, if necessary, choose the least expensive.
D. Abstain from attending all kinds of entertainment, both public and private, theaters, cinemas, dances, walks, etc.
E. Limitation of electricity consumption.
F. Total abstention from attending secular schools.
This enumeration does not mean that other means of the same nature that are deemed appropriate in each locality are no longer used, for the greater effectiveness of the proposed object.
3. Each person who loves freedom must become an effective propagandist of this action and must exercise it, in a particular and energetic manner, against those who intend to break or weaken it.
4. According to the cases and special conditions of each place, the action will intensify against the interests of people or groups that are enemies of freedom.
These energetic procedures should not cause scruples or terror, as it is an extreme case of life and death for the Catholic Church in Mexico.
The program that we have just released, of the League of Religious Defense, was authorized by the Mexican Episcopate, as can be seen in the letter that we transcribe below:
Private Correspondence of the Bishop of Tabasco, Mexico,
July 14, 1926.
Mr. Rafael Ceniceros y Villarreal, Mr. Luis Bustos and Mr. René Capistran Garza.
Our dear sirs: In the session of the Episcopal Committee, on the recently past July 7, the communication presented by you was studied, in which the cooperation of our authority was requested for the peaceful campaign called SOCIAL ECONOMIC BLOCK that will be undertaken by the League for the Defense of Religious Freedom, in order to obtain the repeal of the laws that oppose said freedom.
After a careful examination of your project, we found it worthy of all commendation both for its proposed purpose and for the orderly and peaceful manner in which it will be carried out.
We are with you in this work that claims very just rights, and we effectively recommend to our clergy and faithful the most effective participation in such a laudable undertaking.
José Mora y del Río, Archbishop of Mexico,
President of the Episcopal Committee;
Pascual Díaz y Barreto, Bishop of Tabasco,
Secretary of the Committee.
God and my right.
México, D.F., July 14, 1926.
From the hierarchy, two days after the League made its announcement, the Catholic religious authorities ordered, on July 25, that, beginning August 1, clergy would not offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass nor any of the other Sacraments throughout all of Mexico:
We Archbishops and Bishops who are in agreement, to our venerable councils, to our venerable secular and regular clergy, and to all the faithful of our beloved dioceses, health, peace and blessing in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Venerable Brothers and Dear Children:
His Holiness Pius XI, deeply moved by the religious persecution that has been unleashed against the Mexican Nation for some time, even before the dreadful upsurge in recent months, said in his Apostolic Letter of February 2, 1926: “How wicked are the decrees and laws that enemy rulers of the Church have sanctioned among you, against the Catholics of the Mexican Republic, we hardly need to say to you that, burdened for so long with a heavy yoke, you know perfectly well that such mandates are so far from being based on the ‘order of reason’ and to look to, as it should be, the common good which, on the contrary, does not even deserve the name of laws. With good reason, then, Our Predecessor, of happy memory, Benedict XV, who distinguished himself with deserved praise when he holy and justly rejected those laws, against those that you formulated a solemn protest, a protest that We ourselves by the present letter, We not only ratify, but We make it entirely ours.”
From 1917, when we raised the protest to which His Holiness alludes, until these last months, our conduct was one of prudent silence, because the anti-religious articles were not applied to the point of making the life of the Church impossible.
Indeed, the governments that have held power in this period of time, undoubtedly, put very serious obstacles to the life of the Church and dictated some excessively rigorous and often unconstitutional administrative measures against Her. They never made preaching, administration of the sacraments and general worship absolutely impossible.
Against that very serious persecution, but which could be considered in some way isolated and transitory, we were able to observe an expectant attitude, seek accommodation, tolerate humiliation, always safeguarding the principles relative to the Divine Constitution of the Church, which we exhibited in our previous Pastoral.
But the Federal Executive Law promulgated on July 2 of this year, in such a way violates the divine rights of the Church, entrusted to our custody; it is so contrary to natural law, that not only establishes religious freedom as the primary basis of civilization, but positively prescribes the individual and social obligation to worship God; it is so opposed, according to the opinion of eminent Catholic and non-Catholic jurists, to Mexican constitutional law, that in the face of such a violation of such sacred moral values, there is no longer any room for condescension on our part. It would be a crime for us to tolerate such a situation. And we would not want to come to mind in the court of God that belated lament of the Prophet: “Vae mihi, quia tacui.” “Woe is me, because I remained quiet.”
Who does not see that to convert acts prescribed or advised by God and therefore, most holy, acts protected by all the laws of educated peoples, acts that for centuries have been the soul and life of the Mexican nation? Who does not see, we say, that turning such acts into crimes, worthy of punishment, certainly more rigorous than those imposed on crimes against morality in general, against life, against property and other rights of citizens; is it a truly unprecedented offense that the last Executive Decree infers on divine rights, natural law, and the most treasured and sacred interests of Mexican nationality?
Who does not see that the Decree to which we refer does not aim at the best custody of the aforementioned rights, but only to make intangible and almost sacred the Querétaro document [1917 Constitution], whose reform ability, recognized by itself, is evident and for a thousand reasons longed for by the village? Is it not clear that said Decree, instead of promoting the common good and guaranteeing, as the Constitution itself mandates, freedom of worship, tends only to de-Catholicize Mexico and create for the same Government a very serious problem that has no reason to exist, leaving a sad inheritance to its successors?
For this reason, following the example of the Supreme Pontiff, before God, before Civilized Humanity, before the Homeland and before History, we protest against that Decree, counting on God’s favor and with your help, we will work so that this Decree and the anti-religious articles of the Constitution are reformed, and we will not cease until we see it achieved.
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As we said in our last Pastoral: “This behavior is not rebellious, because the Constitution itself opens the way for its reforms and because it is a fair compliance with mandates superior to all human law and a just defense of legitimate rights.”
In the impossibility of continuing to exercise the Sacred Ministry according to the conditions imposed by the aforementioned Decree, after having consulted with Our Most Holy Father, His Holiness Pius XI, and obtained his approval, we order that, from July 31 of this year, until we decide otherwise, the public worship that requires the intervention of the priest will be suspended in all the temples of the Republic.
We warn you, beloved children, that it is not a matter of imposing the very serious penalty of the interdict, but rather using the only means that we currently have to express our disagreement with the anti-religious articles of the Constitution and the laws that sanction them.
The temples will not be closed so that the faithful can continue to pray in them. The priests in charge of them will withdraw from them to exempt themselves from the penalties imposed by the Executive Decree, therefore being exempt from giving the notice required by law.
We leave the temples in the care of the faithful, and we are sure that they will conserve with total care the sanctuaries that they inherited from their elders, or those at the cost of sacrifices they built and consecrated themselves to worship God.
Since the law does not recognize Catholic elementary schools, the necessary guarantees to impart the religious education to which they are obliged as such, we burden the conscience of parents, so that they prevent their children from going to schools where their faith and good customs are endangered, and where the texts violate the religious neutrality recognized by the same Constitution. Redouble your efforts in the sanctuary of the home, in fulfillment of the very serious mission of educators that God has entrusted to you.
It is painful, moreover, for our paternal heart, to see ourselves obliged to take such serious measures, for which we assume exclusive responsibility. But from what has been said so far, you will understand that we cannot observe another line of conduct. Trust us, beloved children, as we trust your unwavering loyalty. And let’s all trust God. “We expect a lot,” the Supreme Pontiff said recently, “of Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Sometimes it seems that the Divine Pilot is sleeping, but he always comes at the right moment, to console those who trust him.
This trust does not serve as a pretext for leading a sterile life. Remember that Nineveh was liberated from destruction by prayer and penance. Insist before the Lord and the Immaculate Virgin, with fervent prayers, with fasts, penances and alms. Do not forget the poor priests who are left without the means to live. Outwardly manifest your grief, abstaining from worldly diversions. Seek by all lawful and peaceful means the repeal of those laws that take from you and your children the necessary and inestimable treasure of religious life.
It is evident that neither your social position, nor any mandates received nor any interests, would excuse a serious crime before God and before men, to those Catholics who cooperate with the very serious evils that the application of anti-Catholic laws brings with it.
And with much greater reason you should avoid the shameful attribution of traitor to religion and avoid the grave canonical penalties incurred by those who, protected by the so-called popular action, would dare to denounce sacred people or property.
We present some of the penalties incurred by the baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ.
They incur in excommunication especially reserved to the Holy See:
a) Those who give laws, mandates or decrees against the freedom or right of the Church (Canon 2334, paragraph 1);
b) Those who directly or indirectly prevent the exercise of ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the internal and external jurisdiction, resorting to civil authority (Canon 2334, paragraph 2);
c) Those who dare to bring their own Bishop before a lay Judge (Canon 2341).
They incur in excommunication reserved simply to the Holy See:
a) Those who give their name to Freemasonry or other similar sects, who plot against the Church or against legitimate civil authorities (Canon 2335);
b) Those who bring before a lay judge a bishop not his own or a major religious official of pontifical canon law (Canon 2341);
c) Those who usurp, by themselves or by others, ecclesiastical property of any kind, movable or immovable, or prevent those to whom it belongs by right from receiving its fruits or revenues (Canon 2346);
d) Those who steal, destroy, hide or imitate a document belonging to an Episcopal curia (Canon 2405).
They incur in excommunication reserved to the Bishop:
a) Catholics who marry before a non-Catholic minister (Canon 2319, paragraph 1);
b) Parents or those who take their place, who knowingly instruct or educate their children in a non-Catholic religion (Canon 2319, paragraph 4).
On the first day of August, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, His Holiness Pius XI, in union with the entire Catholic world, will pray for the Mexican Church; let us unite with the Holy Father and our brothers around the world, making that day a day of prayer and penance.
Finally, let us comfort our spirits by remembering those words of Christ Our Lord to His Apostles, in which he announces his approaching death and resurrection: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, where all the things that the Prophets wrote about the Son of Man will be consummated. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles, and he will be mocked and spit on. And after he has been scourged, they will kill him. And on the third day he will rise again.”
The life of the Church is that of its Divine founder. Thus, beloved children, the Mexican Church is today handed over to its bitter enemies, it is mocked, reduced to a state similar to that of death. But also the Mexican Church after a short time, will resurrect full of life, strength and exuberance, to such a degree, as our eyes have never seen. Have the most firm hope in this.
This Pastoral Letter will be made known as widely as possible to our people.
Finally, we cordially impart our pastoral blessing to you, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Given on the Feast of the Apostle James the Great, on July 25, 1926.
José Mora y del Río, Archbishop of Mexico.
Martín Tritschler y Córdoba, Archbishop of Yucatán.
Leopoldo Ruiz y Flóres, Archbishop of Michoacán.
Francisco Orozco y Jiménez, Archbishop of Guadalajara.
José Juan de Jésus Herrera y Piña, Archbishop of Monterrey.
José Othón Núñez y Zárate, Archbishop of Oaxaca.
José María González y Valencia, Archbishop of Durango.
Pedro Mariá Vera y Zuria, Archbishop of Puebla.
Ignacio Valdespino y Díaz, Bishop of Aguascalientes.
Francisco Uranga y Sáenz, Bishop of Cuernavaca.
José Amador Velasco y Peña, Bishop of Colima.
Jesús María Echavarría y Aguirre, Bishop of Saltillo.
Emeterio Valverde y Téllez, Bishop of León.
Ignacio Placencia y Moreira, Bishop of Zacatecas.
Miguel María de la Mora y Mora, Bishop of San Luis Potosí.
Vicente Castellanos y Núñez, Bishop of Tulancingo.
Manuel Fulcheri y Pietrasanta, Bishop of Zamora.
Juan María Navarette y Guerrero, Bishop of Sonora.
Francisco Banegas y Galván, Bishop of Querétaro.
Rafael Guízar y Valencia, Bishop of Veracruz.
Manuel Azpeitia Palomar, Bishop of Tepic.
Gerardo Anaya y Diez de Bonilla, Bishop of Chiapas.
Antonio Guízar y Valencia, Bishop of Chihuahua.
Leopoldo Lara y Torres, Bishop of Tacámbaro.
Francisco María González y Arias, Bishop of Campeche.
Agustín Aguirre y Ramos, Bishop of Sinaloa.
Nicolás Corona y Corona, Bishop of Papantla.
Pascual Díaz y Barreto, Bishop of Tabasco.
José de Jesús Manríquez y Zárate, Bishop of Huejutla.
Jenaro Méndez y del Río, Bishop of Tehuantepec.
Serafín María Armora y González, Bishop of Tamaulipas.
Luis María Altamirano y Bulnes, Bishop of Huajuápan.
José Guadalupe Ortíz y López, Auxiliary Bishop of Monterrey.
Maximino Ruiz y Flores, Titular Bishop of Derbe.
Luis María Martínez y Rodríguez, Titular Bishop of Anemurium.
Francisco María Campos y Ángeles, Titular Bishop of Doara.
Carlos de Jesús Mejía y Laguna, Titular Bishop of Cinna.
To prepare for the boycott – which would spark the executions – a meeting was hosted, on July 29, 1926, by the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, of which Morales served as president, Roldán as vice-president, Lara as secretary and Batiz as their spiritual advisor.
During the gathering, Morales addressed the audience of more than 500 faithful Catholics.
“The League should be peaceful and not interfere in political affairs. Our project is to implore the government to remove the articles of the Constitution that prevent religious freedom,” he explained.
After the meeting, Father Batiz had just arrived at the private home where he resided and was settling down for the night when a group of soldiers stormed inside.
But they did not surprise him. The day before, when told that soldiers were looking for him, he responded: “May God’s will be done, if He wants, I will be one of the martyrs of the Church!”
Accusing him of being a conspirator to overthrow the government by planning an uprising against the government, they arrested him and hauled him to the municipal hall in Chalchihuites, where they locked him up and tortured him.
A few days later, Lara called together a meeting at his home, with Morales and Roldán, to discuss how they could free the priest by legal means.
During the meeting, a group of soldiers broke into the home.
The chief shouted, “Manuel Morales Cervantes!”
“I am,” he said, stepping forward. “At your service.”
“Salvador Lara Puente!” someone called out.
“Here I am,” he answered.
And so, too, the name of David Roldán Lara was announced.
All captured and in custody, the three devout Catholics were dragged to the municipal hall where Father Batiz was held, and where all suffered beatings and torture.
After townspeople demanded the release of the political prisoners, the four men were escorted from their cells to the outdoors, where two cars waited, as the soldiers pretended that their captives were to be transferred to Zacatecas.
Instead, they were driven to the patch of scorched earth, at El Puerto de Santa Teresa, now known as Los Lugares Santos where their final words “Viva Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe!” are etched on the hillside. Each year, local Catholics commemorate the deaths of the four men, on the dirt forever stained with their blood, the blood of martyrs, who, on May 21, 2000, were canonized by Pope John Paul II as Martyrs of the Cristero War.
Theresa Marie Moreau, an award-winning reporter, is the author of Martyrs in Red China; An Unbelievable Life: 29 Years in Laogai; Misery & Virtue; Blood of the Martyrs: Trappist Monks in Communist China, and the forthcoming Cristero War: Mexican Martyrs.