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Spiritual Heroes


by Brian Caulfield

After nearly a year and dozens of stops, the Order’s pilgrimage of the Mexican martyrs’ relics proved to be a faith-filled tour of evangelization and instruction.

Tucscon (Ariz.) Council 1200 commissioned a stained-glass window depicting the six priest martyrs and donated it to St. Ambrose Church.

Six 20th century saints brought the faith to life for the thousands who turned out to venerate the relics of the Knights of Columbus Mexican martyrs. At each stop during the yearlong pilgrimage through Mexico and the United States, the relics inspired words of praise and bridged a gap between countries and cultures. The six small pieces of bone embedded in a cross-shaped reliquary told a modern story of heroic priests who gave their lives while defending the faith and their flocks.

The relics pilgrimage also underlined the role of the Knights of Columbus in resisting the Mexican government’s brutal persecution of the Church during the Cristeros era of the 1920s and 1930s. At each stop, a Fourth Degree honor guard accompanied the blessed remains, and Knights turned out in large numbers to pay tribute to their fraternal forbears.

“When I heard about the relics tour, I made sure to bring them here to the cathedral because we have, in a sense, bragging rights more than any other place in the United States,” said Bishop Armando X. Ochoa of El Paso, Texas, which is situated along the border with Mexico. He is a member of El Paso Council 638.

One of the martyrs, Father Pedro de Jesús Maldonado Lucero, fled persecution in Mexico before becoming a priest, and was ordained in El Paso’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he also celebrated his first Mass. Father Maldonado Lucero, a member of Council 2419, later returned to Mexico and was killed in 1937.

“Having the relics here [in late March] was a great gift for us,” said Bishop Ochoa. “Relics have not been too much a part of our people’s religiosity here in the United States. It was a teaching moment in the diocese, and it showed how the Knights continue to offer programs for the benefit of everyone in the Church.

The other five priest-Knights who were killed in Mexico during the Cristeros era were: Father Luis Batiz Sainz of Council 2367, Father José Maria Robles Hurtado of Council 1979, Father Mateo Correa Magallanes of Council 2140, Father Miguel de la Mora de la Mora of Council 2140 and Father Rodrigo Aguilar Alemán of Council 2330. Pope John Paul II canonized them in May 2000, along with 19 other Mexican martyrs from that period.

Sponsored by the Supreme Council, the tour began in Mexico City in September 2005 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and traveled throughout Mexico before coming to the United States in March of this year. The final stop was the 124th Supreme Convention last August in Orlando, Fla. The reliquary was a gift to the Supreme Council from the Knights of Columbus of Mexico.

Arizona State Deputy Michael H. Kingman presents Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix with a framed picture of the Mexican martyrs.

Arizona State Deputy Michael H. Kingman presents Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix with a framed picture of the Mexican martyrs.

Family connections ran deep throughout the tour. When Maria G. Longoria heard that the relics were coming to San Antonio in mid-June, she brought her 80-year-old mother, Josefina Martinez Gallegos, to see them at San Fernando Cathedral. Her mother is a second cousin of two canonized Mexican laymen, St. David Roldán Lara and St. Salvador Lara Puente, who were killed in 1926 with Father Batiz Sainz.

“It was a portal for us to go back in time and see exactly what they went through, and to be so proud that they died for their faith,” Longoria said. “Seeing the relics of the priests gave our family a way of touching that period, which seems to have been forgotten by most people. We were told stories of our cousins who were martyred when we were growing up, and we knew that they were canonized in the year 2000, but it wasn’t until we saw the relics of the Knights of Columbus that we were able to put it all in perspective. They died for the faith — that’s what Our Lord did for us.”

Also in El Paso, the relics were brought to two cloistered nuns who are nieces of Father Maldonado Lucero. Laypersons recalled the priest giving them first Communion or witnessing their marriages.

Immigration Issues

The reach of the relics went far beyond the family, however. Prompted by wide media coverage at almost every stop, tens of thousands of Catholics viewed the relics, most of them hearing about the Mexican martyrs for the first time.

Not only those of Hispanic background turned out. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, Lucie de Perein, who was born to French-speaking parents in Martinique, was fascinated by the story of the Mexican martyrs.

“I saw a show about the relics on EWTN, and then read that they were coming to the cathedral,” she said. “Nowadays we have to suffer for our faith; the relics are here to wake us up to defend our faith. They tell us that God is alive, and so are his enemies. These things happened recently, and not very far away.”

The relics also touched on current issues involving the United States and Mexico. Touring the two countries during a time of political debates over immigration and border security, the relics offered an opportunity to view the issue from a moral perspective. Bishop Ochoa brought the relics to El Paso to coincide with the launching of the diocese’s “Justice for Immigrants” campaign, and displayed the reliquary during a press conference. He said that since Father Maldonado Lucero had crossed the border from Mexico to escape persecution, he was a patron of Mexicans who come to the United States seeking a better life.

“Having the relics at the press conference was relevant to the whole discussion on immigration,” the bishop said. “There is an anti-immigrant spirit in some places, and it is important to say that immigrants can be heroic, like San Pedro Maldonado, and bring so much to the places where they settle, wherever that may be.”

Living Witnesses

On Saturday, July 29, the pilgrimage made one of its last stops at St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, a largely Hispanic parish in Brooklyn, N.Y. The reliquary was also on display the next day at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Brooklyn church was chosen because a Spanish-speaking Knights of Columbus council is being formed there. “We are so proud to bring the relics of our martyred brother Knights and priests here to this church,” said Juan Gonzalez, Hispanic coordinator for the New York State Council. “We are very close to forming a council here, and this will help us spread the word about the Knights.”

After Communion, Father Cesar Rubiano, a member of Hightstown (N.J.) Council 6284, talked about the life and death of the six saints. “They were executed for the Gospel,” he said, speaking in Spanish and English. “None of them was afraid. They did not say ‘Spare me.’ They said, ‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ Long live Christ the King!” Many in the congregation shouted “Amen!”

“Yet so many of us today are ashamed to say we are Catholic,” Father Rubiano continued. “We are ashamed of [Christ], but he is never ashamed of us.”

In St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the reliquary was placed for most of the morning at a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico and all of America. A Fourth Degree honor guard carried the reliquary in the opening procession of the main morning Mass and placed it in the sanctuary.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan, a member of St. Frances X. Cabrini Council 4096 in East Bridgeport, Conn., said that the six priests were tortured and killed during the “ferocious persecution of the Church in Mexico.”

“This morning we have these relics to celebrate the Church in Mexico,” he told the congregation, “to remind us of the heroism of the Mexican Church and especially of these priests, these Knights of Columbus.”

Brian Caulfield is managing editor of Columbia.