Blessed are those who are persecuted for
righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute
you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my
account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in
heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets
who were before you.
When we sing “Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still,” we usually think of the Christian martyrs of ancient Rome.
Or, if we are more knowledgeable, realizing that the author was an English Roman Catholic who was cel ebrating the martyrs of his church during the reigns of the Protestant King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth. Most of us have no idea that the song could apply just as easily to martyrs right across our southern border. The little known story of the Mexican Revolutionary government’s persecution of the Catholic Church in the 1920s is told in this epic film set that often goes very melodramatic.
There are few details given as to the reasons for the Mexican president’s enmity of the Church. As in most Latin American countries of that time, it had allied itself with the wealthy and owned a large portion of the land. I suspect that this is because the film sides with the Cristada, as those supporting the Church are called. Why muddy the picture with anything that might suggest that the motives of the persecutors might include a desire for social justice?
Whatever the reasons for the anti-clericalism that fueled the persecution, we see at the start of the film the ruthless treatment of priests and the faithful laity who resist the government troops sent out to destroy churches. Thus the Cristada hire retired general Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia) to lead their ragtag forces against a vastly better equipped federal army. There are lots of battles and government torture of priests and even children, some of whom, the film’s “Afterward” tells us have been, or soon will be, accepted as saints. The Cristeros War, as it is called, lasted from 1926-1929 with a compromise agreement bringing an end to the persecution, Aside from Andy Garcia, the best-known face is that of Peter O’Toole whose Father Christopher is well named—” Christ bearer,” which he indeed does well when the Federal forces torture and kill him. Well, you might also recognize Bruce Greenwood, who plays the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Our government, of course, was keenly interested in the stability of the country for commercial reasons. The character that will tug at your heartstrings is the boy José Luis Sánchez del Rio, based on a real person who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
A better feel for this period can be gained from Graham Greene’s great novel about the whiskey priest, The Power and the Glory. Today, when the Church seems like a given in Mexican culture, it is hard to believe that there was a time when its very existence was at stake.
1. What do you know of the Cristeros War that raged in Mexico from 1926 to 1929? How do the filmmakers show what side they are on? Would you have liked more details of its cause?
2. What is Gen. Velarde like when we first meet him? Is he chosen because of his faith? How does he change as the story progresses?
3. How is Father Christopher typical of those who have given their lives for Christ? Why does he not flee? Compare him to the monks in Of Gods and Men, if you have seen this film.
4. What do you think of young Jose? Martyrs come in all sizes and ages, don’t they?
5. What do you think of the defenders of the church resorting to violence to defend it? Any contradictions implied in this? To the argument that the church would have been destroyed if its members had not resorted to arms, what might you say? Were efforts in the past successful in destroying it?