In the late 1920s, Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles began to enforce the anti-clerical articles in the country’s 1917 constitution and initiated one of the worst eras of anti-Catholic persecution in history. Calles considered Catholics hostile toward the government and went on a crusade banning religious practices, confiscating Church property, closing down Catholic schools and ordering the killing of thousands of people.
Manuel Albert, a member of Santa Ana (Calif.) Council 1842, grew up hearing stories about the persecution of Catholics in Mexico from his grandmother, Maria Vargas. One day, while Vargas was hiding priests in her house, she was shot in the neck by agraristas, landowners who sided with the Mexican government for fear that their land would be taken away. Vargas was gravely wounded, but thankfully, she recovered. She married, raised seven children and lived until age 96.
It was no coincidence to Albert that his grandmother died on Nov. 25, 2001, the Solemnity of Christ the King. The three-year war that erupted in response to the persecution initiated by President Calles became known as La Cristiada, and the rebel soldiers became known as Cristeros because of their battle cry: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long Live Christ the King!).
It is also no coincidence that Albert felt a deep emotional connection when the film For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada hit theaters earlier this year. Produced by Pablo José Barroso of Dos Corazones Films and directed by Academy Award-nominated visual effects producer Dean Wright, the film features an all-star cast that includes Andy Garcia, Peter O’Toole, Santiago Cabrera, Ruben Blades and Eva Longoria.
Albert received his first Communion in Sahuayo, Mexico, at the same church where Blessed José “Joselito” Sanchez del Rio (played in the film by young actor Mauricio Kuri) was held prisoner and where his remains are located. After joining the Cristeros as a flag bearer, Blessed José was captured, tortured and killed at age 15. Pope Benedict XVI beatified him and declared him a martyr in 2005.
Likewise, Albert and his wife were married at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Guadalajara, where the martyrs Blessed Anacleto Gonzáles Flores (portrayed in the film by Eduardo Verástegui) and Miguel Gómez Loza (played by Raul Mendez) are buried.
“These people were willing to die because they were denied holy Mass and the opportunity to receive the sacraments,” said Albert. “How many of us today complain because there is not enough parking or no air conditioning in our churches? We don’t stop to contemplate about what these people went through so that their country would not be a Godless nation.”
While watching the movie, he could not help thinking: If I were in the same situation, would I be so brave? And he is not alone. Many others have asked themselves the same question after seeing For Greater Glory, which premiered in Mexico and the United States in April and June, respectively.
“The movie made me question myself on how far I would be willing to go for my faith,” said Patricia Ros, 22, whose father is a member of St. Mark Council 13045 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “What impacted me the most was [the character of] Joselito. He refused to denounce his faith and he accepted death. I pray for the strength if I had to do that someday.”
Since he was so deeply affected by the film, Albert wanted to make sure that the sacrifice that so many men and women made for their love of God would not be forgotten. He helped promote For Greater Glory in Orange County by visiting parishes, organizing private screenings, driving people to the theaters, sending email announcements and posting information on social media. Other Knights also took up the cause, mobilizing their families and friends across the United States to help contribute to the movie’s success.
“I was delighted that the movie played for over three weeks in our area,” said Ellen DeKleva. Her husband, Chuck, belongs to St. Michael Council 8980 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and helped promote the movie.
Jeff Reiter, a member of Father John Rossiter Council 9385 in Holmen, Wis., also did his part to spread the word about For Greater Glory. He said that the film inspired many of his fellow Knights, adding, “I heard several brother Knights say they needed to examine how they give of themselves to Christ.”
Randy Hain, a Catholic author and a member of St. Peter Chanel Council 13217 in Roswell, Ga., believes that viewers can take lessons from the movie regarding the importance of religious liberty.
“We would be well served to study the events of this time in Mexican history and avoid the actions that allowed such an extremist regime to take power,” said Hain. “We are not at the same place as the Cristeros, but we need to make a stand now to defend our religious freedom.”
In the introduction of a short book companion to the movie, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles warns how in the United Sates and in Mexico today we don’t face death for practicing our faith, but we do confront softer “forms of secularist bullying.” In these times, the archbishop concludes, we need to ask for the strength to be Cristeros.
“By their dying, they show us what we should be living for. We need to make that our prayer.”
LIZETTE M. LANTIGUA writes from South Florida. She is the author of Mission Libertad (Pauline), a historical fiction novel for young adults.
Among those killed during the persecution of the Church in Mexico were approximately 70 members of the Knights of Columbus, nine of whom have been beatified or canonized as martyrs. A K of C-produced documentary, which tells the story of the Knights’ response to the Calles regime, is featured on the DVD/Blu-ray version of For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada, which was released in September.