A few days prior to Benedict’s XVI’s apostolic trip to Mexico and Cuba, producers of the epic film Cristiada (For Greater Glory in English) arranged a private screening in the Vatican City State. I was among the many avid defenders of religious liberty who scurried over to the Augustinianum venue next to St. Peter’s Square at last-minute notice.
No doubt the film’s all-star Hollywood cast (Andy Garcia, Peter O’Toole, Eva Longoria and Eduardo Verastegui) was enough to draw us away from other competing events that evening (including dinner!).
Truth be told, many of us had not heard much about the Cristeros War, the civil rebellion led by priests and laity to resist the total elimination of religious liberty in Mexico in the 1920s under marxist President Plutarco Calles.
Our small sacrifice to come over to the Vatican that night in support of a little known war in defense of religious freedom was embarassingly miniscule compared to the super heroic sacrifices the film’s protagonists made to keep the Christian faith alive in their country.
In a Zenit interview, the film’s producer Pablo Barroso said that the planning for the $20 million production had been going on for three years and the timing for its early April release in Mexico was providentially perfect. “Who would have thought back then that the pope would be going to Mexico, much less to Cubilete (home to the national Cristo Rey monument and patron of the Cristero War heroes) to say his first Mass there. This (timing) really came from heaven”.
Cristiada was directed by the Titanic and Lord of the Rings special effects genius, Dean Wright. The film, therefore, has no shortage of spectacular action and breathtaking scenery. But it is the story of heroic martyrdom that will draw crowds to theaters.
The film begins in 1926 when Mexican Catholic rebels spontaneously organize bloody standoffs to President Plutarco Calles’s federales who ruthlessly and systematically shutdown all forms of Catholic worship in the state of Jalisco. At the time Mass, preaching the Gospel, catechesis, and administering the sacraments were all made illegal throughout Mexico.
President Calles’s plan to completely secularize Mexico had no patience for Church resistance and echoed what had happened in Bolshevik Russia following the October Revolution of 1917.
Calles, therefore, wasted no time in eliminating religious leadership that spoke out against loyalty to his government’s commands and in defense of God’s. Moreover, Calles was deeply weary of Rome’s indirect influence over the populace’s thirst for fervent religious expression, while Pope Pius XI continued to forcefully denounce the secularization of education in Europe and the Americas.
In 3 years of Calles’s presidency the total priestly population was reduced to some 350 among Mexico’s 15 million Catholics. Several hundred priests were brought to the federales’s firing squad, hung from their church towers and thousands of religious leaders were expelled from Mexico to the United States and abroad.
Calles’s anticlerical regime was so cruel that is “simply amazing not even many Mexicans know about the Cristeros rebellion”, Barroso told to the screening’s attendees and remarked on how the revolt is not mentioned in Mexican school curricula.
Not a few martyrs lost their lives to keep the Church alive, including Mexico’s most famous twentieth century general, Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) who, despite his atheism, eventually values religious freedom higher than state-enforced secularism. Gorostieta, inspired by a tortured little boy’s unbending faith and martyrdom, undergoes a conversion of heart and charismatically leads the rag-tag Cristeros soldiers to impassioned underdog victories.
When the film hits US theaters this June, I highly recommend seeing it, especially those Catholics who see their liberty under carefully organized attack by the Obama administration and other forms of hostile government. What happened in Mexico nearly 100 years ago is an extreme example of what governments can do, yet should serve as a powerful reminder of their dangerous potential to wipe out liberty altogether.