By Eric Cyr
All this week we will be sharing portions from the novel “Image an Likeness”, set in the time of the Cristero War in Mexico. The story follows a Catholic family, and their struggles and faithfulness during that time.
Prelude to a War
In 1917, seven years of revolution that had started in order to end the ruthless Porfiriato finally produced a comparably stable president in Venustiano Carranza. One reason his presidency could claim a certain level of legitimacy is that it produced in that year a new constitution that has survived—in altered form, true, but still not superseded—until today. This constitution outlined in its many articles, among other things, the socialist and nationalist ideals of its creators. As part of that nationalism, it also included at least seven anti-clerical and anti-Catholic articles that gave the State ownership of all churches and church property, outlawed any worship outside of church buildings, banned foreign priests and limited the number of priests allowed in Mexico, closed down religious schools, and outlawed religious orders, among other things.
To the Catholics of Mexico, these posed severe threats to their way of life. To the men who created the constitution, they were necessary steps to ensure the unity and nationalism of a progressive and revolutionary nation. They saw the Church foremost as a political threat, as a group united under the dictatorship of a dangerous foreigner in Rome who interested himself more in political power than in the well-being of his followers, and who certainly had no interest in the success of this new revolutionary government.
Of course, to paint the Mexican Church this way is to turn a Picasso into a Pollack. Truly, many priests did speak out against the government from the pulpit, and many Mexican Catholics brought their religion into their political lives, usually against these socialist and nationalist revolutionaries. And always there are those whose actions betray the beliefs they claim to hold, who dishonor with their wickedness the goodness they claim to defend. So it is that many in the Church at the time reticently decried their belief in the truth and publicly displayed their hypocritical lives. We must look no further than the fathers who walked from church building to cantina, spending the money their children needed for bread, coming to mass hung over Sunday morning, attacking and killing petty enemies, and believing sincerely that they did all they needed to live a good life, to be saved, if they received their sacraments and paid their tithes to the church. They scrupulously followed certain letters of the law of their Church, so in their eyes their religion had no bearing on what they did in their lives outside the church building. It is understandable, then, that those who disagreed with them used these hypocrites to disprove the truth of God, the truth of the Church—but Truth cannot lose its veracity through the failures and wickedness of those who believe it.
Even as its own members pierced the head and side of the Church with the thorn of sin and duplicity, it also contained those who remained faithful to the truth it taught and the God it sought, and who complicated the State’s one-dimensional view of the Church as an enemy of itself and of the people. But regardless of any nuance, the exertion of power and force by the State uniformly marched the nation toward continuing fighting and civil war.
For several years, though, the growing tide rose only slowly and in certain states. The constitution did not outline any punitive measures for breaking its anti-religious articles, so enforcement was left to the will of the governors, which was fierce only in some states such as Jalisco, Tabasco, and Colima. In many areas of Mexico, Catholics continued to practice their religion in relative freedom and safety. Thus the religious tension took a back seat for many years to the relentless political turmoil in the volatile and revolutionary nation.
It was the rise of General Plutarco Elias Calles—a skilled former soldier, governor, and statesman—to the presidency in 1924 that led to the worst religious persecution and the nascent Cristiada. It would be wrong to say that President Calles did no good for Mexico. His strongly nationalist agenda found many supporters and aided many in his country. Written on walls and spread by word of mouth throughout his Mexico was the slogan “Expel the foreigners. Mexico for the Mexicans!” This he carried out in various ways, from enacting oil embargoes and altering trade deals to deporting mission priests and stifling the work of the Rome-influenced papists.
Despite the growing fear and routing of priests, and perhaps in part because of it, in January of 1924 Emmanuel Francisco Puente left the family ranch to study for the priesthood at the seminary in Zamora. He wrote often to his parents back in San José, sending them encouraging news of his life unmolested by the federales. It seemed strange to him to enter a world where God was the common topic of discourse each day, where he didn’t have to whisper prayers in secret and hide his crucifix under his coat. For a time, within the seminary and without, it seemed that the fear of Calles was greater than the actual persecutions of his presidency.
Then, in February of 1926, El Universal, a widely distributed periodical, published an interview given by Archbishop José Mora y del Rio in 1917 just after the signing of the new constitution. In this interview, which had been shelved for nine years, he condemned the constitution’s anti-clerical articles. Published in 1926 at a time when churchman and statesman looked at each other more and more as enemies and not as compatriots, the interview set off a destructive chain reaction. Enforcement of the articles intensified as the government took control of church buildings and all church property, Catholic schools were either closed or forced to teach a state-controlled secular curriculum, convents and monasteries were closed and requisitioned, and priests were limited in number and deported from the country.
The fatal stroke came that summer when El Presidente signed into effect what became known as Ley Calles or “Calles Law”—formally, the Law for Reforming the Penal Code. It applied fines, jail time, and even execution for breaking the anti-religious articles of the constitution. The church and nation began preparations for this law to take effect on August 1. The Episcopal Committee, comprised of all of Mexico’s bishops, published a decree on July 25 stating that all public services would be suspended starting August 1. Not to be outdone, the State responded by banning not only public services but any form of private worship as well. Thousands of Catholics flooded the churches for the sacraments leading up to that day, all the way until 11:59 pm on July 31, their last chance to receive God on their tongues before Calles cut off the hand that fed them.
Follow along tomorrow with Part 2.
Eric Cyr currently teaches at Stella Maris Academy in Duluth, MN, where he lives with his wife and two children. After college, he spent two years teaching Creative Writing, Trivium, and Religion in Benque Viejo, Belize, before returning to Minnesota. He spends his extra time writing songs and stories, performing on the trombone and guitar, and changing poopy diapers.