It was midnight in West-Central Mexico as the soldiers hung a rope over a mango tree in Ejutla's town square and wrapped a noose around the neck of Father Rodrigo Aguilar Alemán. Padre Rodrigo blessed the hangman's rope, loudly forgiving his executioners, even as the soldiers shouted at him, "Who lives?"
"Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe," Padre Rodrigo confidently responded. "Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe."
The soldiers repeated the process again, giving the priest several chances to recant his Catholic faith, first tightening, then loosening the noose around his neck, asking each time they dropped him to the ground, "Who lives?"
But instead of renouncing his faith and pledging allegiance to the government, which would have spared his life, Padre Rodrigo boldly gasped the same answer each time, "Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe!" — until finally he was lifted high on the mango tree and died. The date was Oct. 28, 1927.
Following the 1910 revolution — and the virulent anti-Catholic articles of the 1917 Constitution — Catholics in Mexico were viciously discriminated against and tortured for their faith. Pope Pius XI referred to the "cruel persecution" and "great evils" in Iniquis Afflictisque, his 1926 encyclical about the Mexico crisis.
Throughout Mexico, the government seized Catholic schools and seminaries, stripping the Church of any property. It banned monastic orders, expelled missionaries and prohibited any form of public worship. Priests and nuns were barred from wearing religious garments, banned from voting, and forbidden from criticizing the government or commenting on public affairs.
Because of its organized and outspoken resistance, the Knights of Columbus was a particular target of the Mexican government. The Order was outlawed and Columbia magazine banned from the Mexican mail.
Padre Rodrigo Aguilar Alemán was one of thousands who died proclaiming their faith during this dark time in Mexico's history. By the end of the 1930s, as many as 50,000 Catholics from every socioeconomic background had been killed or martyred, including 90 priests. Many Mexican Knights died while standing up for their faith during the civil war between the government and the underground rebels, known as Cristeros for their battle cry: "¡Viva Cristo Rey!" ("Long Live Christ the King!").
To the government of Mexico, this declaration of faith, often proclaimed as last words by Cristeros before their death, was clearly rebellious and treasonous. Yet, Pope Pius XI affirmed their cry by establishing for the universal Church the feast of Christ the King in 1925, at the height of the Cristeros era.
Despite the threat of death for its members, the Order not only survived in Mexico during this period, it thrived — from 400 members in 1918, to 43 councils and 6,000 members just five years later. Some of these members would become heroes for their faith. Padre Rodrigo, as well as five other K of C priests, were among 25 Mexican martyrs canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
The word "martyr" comes from a Greek word meaning "to witness." These Mexican martyrs witnessed not to what they had seen with their eyes, but to what they knew in their hearts. They believed and they witnessed in life and death.
Each martyr's account proclaims an underlying challenge to those of us who hear his story: a request to follow in his steps and to remember who it is we live for. The Mexican martyrs took a stand when it was the most difficult thing they could do. Yet, it was one moment that followed a lifetime of moments of choosing to live for Christ.
María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda is a freelance writer and author living in Norman, Okla. Her books include The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim (Loyola, 2004).
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