I Cry for the Heroes: Remembering the Cristero War

The year was 1926, and newly elected President Plutarco Calles of Mexico feared that the Catholic Church was too powerful an influence in Mexican society. In June of that year, President Calles signed the “Law for Reforming the Penal Code,” restricting religious freedom in that nation.

Under the new law, foreign-born Catholic priests and bishops were immediately expelled from the country. Priests and nuns could be heavily fined for simply wearing church attire, and could be jailed for criticizing the government in any way. Churches were closed, and no public masses could be said.

But Mexico was a Catholic country. Against this harsh restriction of religious liberty, the people protested—first through economic boycotts, then local uprisings. When retired General Enrique Gorostieta, an agnostic, agreed to lead the Cristero army, the rough and tumble renegades became a formidable force, fighting and dying for their faith.

Between 1926 and 1929, the uprising claimed the lives of more than 90,000 Mexican citizens. Peace finally came in 1929, brokered by U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow under the direction of President Calvin Coolidge. For the first time in three years, Mexicans awoke to the sound of church bells.

* * * * *

The story of the Cristero War is told for the first time on the big screen in For Greater Glory, which opens in theatres on June 1.

Director Dean Wright—whose previous film credits include special effects work in Titanic, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Chronicles of Narnia—plumbs the depths of human experience, eliciting from each actor a singularly authentic performance. The star-studded cast includes Academy Award nominee Andy Garcia (as General Gorostieta), Eva Longoria (as the general’s wife, Tulita), Peter O’Toole (Father Christopher), Eduardo Verastegui (Anacleto Gonzales Flores), and the talented 14-year-old Mauricio Kuri (as Blessed Jose Luis Sanchez).

There are many reasons to fall in love with For Greater Glory.

  • The setting. From the stark beauty of the high desert to the simple warmth of the homes, in stone and stucco and adobe—For Greater Glory offers a glimpse into everyday Mexican life.
  • The characters.  Each faces his own personal struggle, but in the end, each makes the courageous decision to follow Christ and to defend His Church.
  • The unveiling of history suppressed.  The Cristero War is not well known, even in Mexico—where the story of the Mexican government’s assault on its own people has been suppressed and does not appear in history textbooks.
  • The applicability to constitutional issues in our own country

For me, though, I was most energized by seeing the bold heroism of ordinary people: impassioned men and women who, when faced with the prospect of imprisonment or even death at the hand of a godless regime for practicing their faith, refused to permit the persecution to go unchallenged.  And For Greater Glory is not simply a well crafted tale; no, the people were real citizens of Mexico, real lovers of God, some of whom became real saints in the Church’s lexicon. 

Dean Wright expressed it well: “The events are Mexican but the story is for the world. It’s an entertaining story which I hope shows how we are all connected in our thoughts, our feelings, our values and our willingness to sacrifice when the moment demands it.”

I pray that such an assault on religious liberty will never be seen in America.  And I pray that should such a cloud of hate and ignominy ever fall on this land, there would be bold warriors—women, men and children—armed with faith, compelled by passion, inspired by love, and ready to stand and fight.

From the Knights of Columbus Museum: A painting by renowned Mexican portrait artist Martha Orozco features six priests – members of the Knights of Columbus – who were canonized by Pope John Paul II on May 21, 2000

This post is part of Patheos Movie Club for “For Greater Glory,” a sponsored conversation in partnership with Grace Hill Media.

Poor Mr. President—There’s Just Too. Much. News.

Well, I’ll bet Mr. Obama is sputtering into his beer.  Just as it seemed things were getting kinda quiet on the religious liberty front, along come the Catholics to stir the pot. 

By now, you’ve heard the news:  Forty-three Catholic dioceses and organizations filed suit today, asserting that the HHS Mandate is unconstitutional.  Dioceses including Washington, New York; the Michigan Catholic Conference (representing all the dioceses in the state).  Universities including The Catholic University of America and—yes!!—Notre Dame.  High schools, health care consortiums, publishers, social service agencies. 

Hear this, Mr. President: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Hear this, America:

This is not about contraception.  This is about our fundamental First Amendment rights, and whether we can permit our public officials—any public officials—to take away those rights. 

Our Sunday Visitor, in its statement on the lawsuit, explained the issue for those in the mainstream media who may have missed the point the first time around:

We know that many Americans — and even many Catholics — are confused about this debate. Politicians and elements of the news media have sought to make it a war against women or contraception, and they have portrayed the Church as seeking to impose its values on others or as being covertly political.

We also acknowledge that many Catholics do not understand the reasons for the Church’s moral opposition to contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. This lack of understanding points to a significant catechetical need that the Church should address internally.

We reiterate, however, that this is not about the legality of such practices in society, nor is it about how many Catholics understand the Church’s position. It is about the Church’s right to practice what it preaches. 

Mr. Obama may have hoped, before today, that we were losing our sense of urgency—that the June 8 protest rallies organized around the country would not attract the numbers that we’d seen on March 23.  But no, Mr. Obama, it didn’t turn out that way:  Led by our bishops, Catholics have drawn together as never before in this country, in solidarity against your repressive policies.

Today, May 21, we celebrate the feast days of St. Cristobal Magallanes Jara and the 25 Mexican martyrs who died during the Mexican Cristero War, and who were canonized by Pope John Paul II on May 21, 2000.

In just a few weeks, on June 1, the movie For Greater Glory will be released in theatres across America. This deeply moving account of the Cristeros’ fight for freedom of religion in Mexico in the 1920s is very much a story for our own times. 

Archbishop José M. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, has said,

It is my earnest hope that people of faith throughout our country will rally behind For Greater Glory, and in doing so, will highlight the importance of religious freedom in our society.

Mark your calendars:

June 1 – Support For Greater Glory by attending a showing on opening weekend.

June 8 – Stand up for religious freedom by attending a rally against the HHS Mandate in your area.  (Find a rally in your area by clicking here.)

This post is part of Patheos Movie Club for “For Greater Glory,” a sponsored conversation in partnership with Grace Hill Media.

 

 

With a Spark in Their Hearts: Verastegui’s Vision

It was my privilege last month to attend a Hollywood screening of For Greater Glory, with a talented cast including Andy Garcia, Eduardo Verastegui, Ruben Blades, Eva Longoria and the young Mauricio Kuri.  The film, which opens in theatres on June 1, was screened before an audience of broadcast and print journalists; then the following day, we were given the opportunity to interview actors Andy Garcia, Eduardo Verastegui and 14-year-old Mauricio Kuri, and director Dean Wright.

My full review of For Greater Glory will be published soon; for now, suffice it to say I loved it! More than a historical film, more than a war film, more than a personal drama, For Greater Glory is an inspirational saga about the fight for religious liberty in Mexico—a story which has been largely ignored in the history books.   

My story tonight, though, is about the stalwart faith and determination of its star, Eduardo Verastegui.

There is no question about Verastegui’s faith. “I am from Mexico,” he begins his story, “so I am Catholic.” He confessed, though, that for many years his faith wasn’t a major part of his life. In his personal life and in his career as a successful soap opera star, Eduardo admits, he just went along with the culture.

At some point, after studying English with a devout Catholic voice coach, he realized that he was part of the problem; and he vowed to act only in films which helped to edify and build up the body of Christ.  He became a staunch defender of the unborn, opening a crisis pregnancy center in Los Angeles. 

Verastegui vowed that he would no longer participate in any creative project which did not inspire and encourage viewers to grow in their faith or to become better persons.   He refused roles in films which conflicted with his beliefs; and with Leo Severino and Alejandro Monteverde, he co-founded the production company Metanoia (the Greek word for ‘repentance’) and produced the pro-life film “Bella”.  He wanted people to leave the theatre having been entertained, but also with a spark in their hearts. 

For Greater Glory provides that spark.  It’ll be in your local theatre on June 1; don’t miss it!

This post is part of Patheos Movie Club for “For Greater Glory,” a sponsored conversation in partnership with Grace Hill Media.