“I am innocent and I die innocent. I forgive with all my heart those responsible for my death, and I ask God that the shedding of my blood serve the peace of our divided Mexico.”
The last words of Mexican priest Father Cristóbal Magallanes on May 21, 1927, sum up what the Church celebrates in the lives of St. Cristóbal Magallanes and Companions: The holiness and devotion of the martyrs who are killed by evil governments, but whose deaths in Christ help unite their nations.
It’s an especially poignant lesson for Americans, since it points to recent history—what happened right on our doorstep — and religious conflicts we have, so far, largely escaped.
The life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton illustrates how religious freedom can unite a nation. Born in 1774, her Protestant family was on the British loyalist side of America’s first divide, but the Constitution that America’s founders drafted not only protected her family from political repercussions, but provided the freedom of religion that allowed her to embrace the Catholic Church as a young mother and then as a religious foundress.
The 1917 constitution in Mexico took a very different direction from that of America’s constitution.
The secularist revolutionary forces in early 20th century Mexico faced off against a Church that owned a lot of the nation’s land, ran nearly all its schools, and opposed independence from Spain. After five years of turmoil, a new constitutionalist government took power in 1915, and produced a Constitution that went into effect in 1917, solidifying Mexico’s independence while disallowing expressions of faith outside of churches, including processions, prayers, and even clerical or religious garb worn in public. Priests were no longer allowed to vote, and the Church was stripped of its schools and much of its land.
The May 21 feast is named for Father Cristóbal Magallanes because he was a major player in the Church’s spiritual response to the crisis. He founded a clandestine seminary and was arrested on the way to Mass, gave away his possessions and forgave his executioners, and four days later was killed by firing squad. His 24 “companions” were Mexicans killed for their faith between 1915 and 1937.
Many of the Mexican martyrs’ stories are well known. Father Mateo Correa was killed at age 62 the same year. He had given first communion to Miguel Pro, who later became the best-known Mexican priest martyr. Correa was arrested for bringing the Eucharist to a shut-in of his flock. In prison, he heard the confessions of captured Cristero soldiers — fighters in the Catholic counter-revolution — then was shot for refusing to reveal what the soldiers had said under the sacramental seal of confession.
Some of the martyrs were killed for engaging in political protest. Father José María Robles Hurtado was an active critic of the 1917 Constitution. Known as the “Madman of the Sacred Heart” in seminary because of his intense devotion, he promoted an initiative to erect a giant cross in the geographic center of Mexico, declaring Christ the king of Mexico, and wanted to make the Sacred Heart a central feature of Mexican identity.
He knew he would be killed for his efforts and his death is legendary. Arrested for praying in a private home, he was sentenced to be hanged from a tree and offered his executioners a votive candle to light the way to his place of execution. He even told his hangman, “Don’t dirty your hands,” and put the noose around own his neck, after kissing it like he would a priestly stole.
Many of the martyrs were priests but Manuel Moralez was not. He had entered the seminary but left in order to support his destitute family. He found work as a baker, married, and had three children.
Moralez was committed to living out his faith through the local Catholic Workers Union and Catholic Action group. He became president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty and, at an August, 1928, meeting, insisted that his group “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 was arrested a few days later, imprisoned, beaten and tortured.
After being told that he would be allowed to plead his cause to government officials, Moralez was taken outside of town, and offered a reprieve if he publicly accepted the legitimacy of the anti-religious laws. He refused and was shot. Before he was killed, a fellow prisoner pleaded for Moralez’s life, for the sake of his children. Moralez said, “I am dying for God, and God will take care for my children.”
One report says his last words were “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!” — a constant refrain for the Cristeros.
U.S. Catholics — so far — have escaped the fate of the Cristeros.
After falling into disuse for years, the anti-Catholic Mexican laws were finally taken off the books in 1992. Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe eventually had a greater power to unite Mexicans than the secular government did.
The United States, with a more diverse religious pluralism, cannot unite around Catholic figures the same way. Instead, our uniters are political leaders such as those represented on Mount Rushmore — each of whom accepted religious freedom in general (and Catholics’ freedom in particular).
Mother Seton’s life is a great example of the benefits of religious freedom. “Elizabeth Ann Seton was wholly American,” said New York Cardinal Francis Spellman in his introduction to the 1962 biography Mrs. Seton. “Both of her parents and two of her grandparents were born here. When our great Republic was born, she became a charter American citizen.”
The Mexican priests were social leaders who had to be expunged. Elizabeth Seton and other social leaders of her community were welcomed. Spellman describes how Elizabeth was “related by blood or marriage to New York’s first families.” Her father was New York’s first Health Officer and that her father-in-law was a member of the city’s first Chamber of Commerce. She met national leaders George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and John Livingston in New York.
Her prominence allowed her to establish New York’s first Catholic orphanage, and it’s likely that her connections helped her longtime friend Father John Dubois when he became New York’s bishop.
Elizabeth was an enthusiastic American along with her enthusiastic faith. “Oh joy joy joy a Captain B will take us to America!” she wrote, when she secured her passage home from Italy. She described how her daughter was “wild with joy” about going home, but often asked, “Ma is there no Catholics in America? Ma won’t we go to the Catholic Church when we go home?”
Yes, they could, and they did. We pray to St. Cristóbal and Companions and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton that our legacy of religious freedom will continue to allow faith to flourish in America.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Public Domain
To read all of our Seton Reflections, click here.