“Viva Cristo Rey!” “Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” Almost a century after these fervent cries of the Mexican martyrs vocalized an unwavering love for the Catholic faith, they continue to be proclaimed by Catholics around the country.
Atop Guadalajara’s Cerro del Tesoro (“Treasure Hill”) sits the Sanctuary of the Martyrs of Christ the King, a massive monument dedicated to those who were killed during the 1920s persecution of Catholics by the Mexican government. It is the first site to permanently house relics of all the canonized and beatified Mexican martyrs. Among them are nine Knights of Columbus, including six priest-martyrs whose feast is celebrated May 21. Construction on the shrine began in 2007; though the work is not finished yet, it has already become an important place of pilgrimage for the Knights and other Catholic faithful in Mexico.
The shrine church features a unique roof with three overlapping domes — the highest of which stands almost 200 feet tall — and a stunning 164-foot stained-glass window, the largest in Latin America. The Sanctuary of the Martyrs completes a triangle of Catholic holy sites in Mexico, along with the Cristo Rey Shrine in Guanajuato and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
“What we want is for pilgrims to have an encounter with God,” said Father Gerardo Aviña Ortiz, rector of the shrine. “Such an encounter that they return to their families and daily lives strengthened to continue testifying to the faith as the martyrs did so long ago.”
Francisco Alonso Moreno, state deputy of Mexico West, said that Knights and their families see the shrine as a source of spiritual inspiration and strength.
“Knowing the lives of these holy martyrs cultivates a deep devotion,” said Moreno. “Their intercession is requested by members of the Knights of Columbus and their families throughout Mexico. By sharing the testimony of these martyrs, we promote a vision of living lives of a charity that evangelizes.”
‘CHURCH OF THE CATACOMBS’
In the 1920s, Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles embarked on a campaign to eliminate what he considered to be the “fanatical” influence of the Catholic Church. Beginning in 1926, Calles implemented a series of anti-clerical laws significantly restricting the religious liberty of Mexicans and harshly punishing priests and laity who dared to defy his orders.
No practicing Catholic was safe from the government’s persecution. In many cases, the slightest hesitance to answer a government official’s question could spell one’s doom. And if it were discovered that a man was a Knight of Columbus, a death sentence was even more likely.
“When the soldiers, the federales, would come into the towns, they would ask two questions: Where is the priest? Where are the Knights of Columbus?” said Francisco Sáenz, director of fraternal mission in Mexico and a member of San Ignacio de Loyola Council 16799 in Querétaro. “Catholics were brutally murdered for their defense of religious freedom. The Church in Mexico became a Church of the catacombs.”
Pope Pius XI’s proclamation of the feast of Christ the King in 1925 became especially significant.
“One year after Pius celebrated this feast for the universal Church, we were commemorating the feast with the shedding of the blood of our martyrs,” Sáenz explained. “How fitting that the last words of many martyrs was that same title of Our Lord. Their blood liberated us, purified us, and taught us how we should live out our faith.”
St. José María Robles Hurtado was one such martyr. A brilliant young priest from Guadalajara, he founded a religious community now known as the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, constructed schools and hospitals, and wrote prolifically championing the faith in a way that the government considered dangerous.
He was also a member of Council 1979 in Guadalajara and had an affinity with the Order’s founder, Blessed Michael McGivney.
“Father Robles identified very much with Father McGivney,” said Mother Rosa of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. “He wanted to join the Knights because of his great work of charity for those most in need, like Father McGivney did with his Knights.”
On a summer day in 1927, Father Robles was arrested as he prepared to celebrate Mass. Early the next morning, as he was brought to the tree from which he would soon hang, he forgave his executioners and even placed the noose around his own neck so that someone else would not have to.
As stories of executions such as Father Robles’ were made known, Catholics all over the world sought ways to support the persecuted Mexican faithful. The Knights of Columbus was at the forefront, spreading awareness of the Mexican Church’s plight and raising $1 million in 1926, a huge sum at the time, to support refugees and exiles. These efforts were recognized by Pope Pius XI, who praised the Order in his 1926 encyclical Iniquis Afflictisque for its work promoting Catholic education and the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which aided Mexican Catholics in presenting “a united invincible front to the enemy.”
THE FRUITS OF FAITH
Long after Calles’ regime was overthrown and religious restrictions were slowly lifted, the lives of Catholics who had died for their faith remained a source of hope for the Mexican Church.
St. John Paul II, who had lived through totalitarian regimes and religious persecution in Poland, wanted the lives of the martyrs examined so that they might be proclaimed blesseds and saints. He eventually canonized 25 of the martyrs, including St. José Maria Robles Hurtado and five other K of C priests, in 2000. Five years later, Pope Benedict XVI beatified 13 more Mexican martyrs, including two priests and a layman who were Knights. More than 60,000 people attended the beatification Mass in Guadalajara.
While relics of several martyrs could be venerated in many places, there was nowhere someone could venerate and pray before all of them. Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, archbishop of Guadalajara from 1994-2011, decided that such a place needed to be built, and that Guadalajara was the proper place for it.
“Guadalajara has long been a lung of our faith as Mexican Catholics,” explained Sáenz. “It is in a region blessed with the blood of many martyrs and a spiritual bastion for our Catholic Church in Mexico, Latin America and the whole world.”
Thanks to the generosity of many donors, including $2 million in grants and a subsequent $1 million loan from the Supreme Council, construction on the Sanctuary of the Martyrs of Christ the King began in 2007. When fully completed, it will include a shrine church that can accommodate 12,000 people and an atrium for 50,000 more, as well as a retreat center, making it the largest shrine complex in Mexico.
Two reliquaries with relics of the canonized and beatified martyrs are housed at the shrine. One remains there at all times, but Knights bring the other to parishes all over the country. Upon arriving at a parish, the reliquary is often greeted with cheers and fanfare from Catholics eager to pray with the martyrs.
“The Knights of Columbus, through this great apostolate, spreads the message of the Mexican martyrs throughout the country and beyond,” said Father Ortiz. “The martyrs are Mexican, but they belong to the universal Church. The martyrs are a fruit of the faith of the people.”
K of C leaders in Mexico also began an annual tradition in 2016. In June, Knights throughout Mexico and their families set out for the shrine on pilgrimage. Participants prayed the rosary as they marched down the hill, before attending Mass and venerating the relics at the shrine church. The 2020 pilgrimage was held virtually due to the pandemic, and K of C leaders are preparing for virtual participation this year as well.
“The Mexican martyrs gave testimony of their faith, and today our society asks for witnesses who live out that same faith,” said Father Eduardo Salcedo Becerra, state chaplain of Mexico West. “Catholics are called to be creative, active and committed. We see that in the holy martyrs, and we also see it in those who embrace the Knights of Columbus.”
Father Salcedo also sees a close connection between the Mexican saints and blesseds and Father Michael McGivney, who has joined them in being raised to the honor of the altars.
“Father McGivney, like the Mexican martyrs, knew how to transform the reality of his time with the teachings of the Gospel, transforming injustice and oppression through faith and charity,” he said.
More than 130 years since Father McGivney’s death and nearly a century since the Mexican martyrs sacrificed their lives, Knights are similarly called to put their faith into action.
“We must live our faith, but we must also transform our community,” Sáenz affirmed. “We must have the audacity, the courage, of the martyrs to take risks for the good, for the service of others.”
ELISHA VALLADARES-CORMIER is a freelance writer from Vermilion, Ohio, and a member of Bishop John Mussio Council 9804 at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
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