By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 4/27/12 in The Madera Tribune
My grandfather Higinio Lozano, son of Trinidad and Gorgonia, first saw the light in Atotonilquillo in the Mexican state of Jalisco on Jan. 11, 1897. His only sibling, 2-year-old Reynalda, died later that year, but eight more would be born in time.
His family lived in the city of Tepatitlán, also in Jalisco. The state lies in the western part of Mexico, which along with the north was considered especially religious. Ranchera music, the mariachi tradition, and tequila all originated in Jalisco, a land of grasslands, evergreen and oak forests, scrublands, beaches, rivers, and lakes.
Years passed and Higinio, who never had a formal education beyond a third grade level, became a voracious reader. If his family visited friends, Higinio would look for any books they had, sit, and read. His father, upset at such presumption, stopped taking him places.
But when a school teacher visited to test children for grade placement, Higinio could already read everything the teacher had. So the teacher appointed the boy to teach other children. A local priest also had Higinio, who served at Mass in Latin, assist in instructing children in their faith.
These peaceful years would not last.
In 1910, President Porfirio Diaz allowed free elections for the first time since seizing power in 1876. Unlike leaders before him, Diaz had not persecuted the Catholic Church, but that would change as a failed revolt in late November ignited a revolution. Escaping the rising disorder and violence, Diaz fled to Paris and one leader after another took control yet could not keep it.
Finally, Alvaro Obregon, known to imprison priests and nuns and take church property, recaptured Mexico City in 1920 and began to rule Mexico. His handpicked successor, fellow revolutionary Plutarco Elias Calles, became president from 1924-1928 and continued to govern behind the scenes for seven years after he stepped down.
Under Calles, Mexico’s anti-religious constitution would be fully enforced. New laws against clergy were added June 14, 1926. Religious orders were outlawed, ministers lost basic civil liberties, and church property was snatched by the government. In some parts of Mexico, attending Mass could be punished by death. Most priests were imprisoned, killed, hid, or fled.
By now, my grandfather Higinio journeyed from village to village in Jalisco on donkey or horseback with a plainclothes priest who secretly administered sacraments to Catholics.
Higinio also would distribute literature on the Catholic faith in public together with young adults. They’d select a street corner to do so and hastily moved on if they thought soldiers were coming. Several times he was caught and jailed, and close friends had to get him out.
Across Mexico, the more people resisted, the more violent the government became. One could not travel from one town to another without seeing bodies hanging from trees or telegraph poles — a warning to would-be opposition.
Naturally conversations turned more and more to the dangers of my grandfather’s volunteer ministries. Under pressure from those who loved him, Higinio and his brother Natalio agreed to emigrate to the U.S.
They traveled on foot through Western Mexico by day and rested by night. One morning the brothers discovered they had unintentionally camped in a cemetery and slept, and another time they awoke to a mountain lion sniffing their bedrolls.
Yet they made it safely to Texas where their younger brother Trinidad already worked. Along with more than a dozen men, the three brothers set and repaired rails that ran from Texas to Oklahoma. They rode flat cars, slept in tents, and worked long days miles away from any town.
My grandfather lacked the strength and stamina to wield sledge hammers or lift rail, so he carried water and helped cook.
Back in Mexico, the cleverest victory by Cristeros (rebels against the persecution) over government troops happened April 19, 1929, in my grandfather’s home city of Tepatitlán. There 900 defeated 3,000.
That summer U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow helped negotiate a truce in which the Cristeros would lay down their arms in exchange for a pardon, some priests could register with the government and minister, and religious instruction would be allowed in private.
The Cristeros did so, and Calles then had about 500 Cristero leaders and 5,000 other Cristeros shot, often in front of their spouses and children.
Before the conflict, 4,500 priests served in Mexico. By 1934, only 334 priests were licensed to serve 15 million Catholics. A year later, 17 states had no priests at all.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 4/20/12 in The Madera Tribune
I watched a special pre-screening Monday night of the Mexican action film “For Greater Glory,” which will be in theaters June 1. Nearly a week later I am still processing my emotions about it.
The passionate movie attempts to summarize the true but generally forgotten story of the Cristero War, a 1926-1929 rebellion in Mexico sparked by the officially atheistic government’s attempts to crush Christianity. The film is well done and yet the slivers of history glimpsed are horrific enough that it is appropriately rated R “for disturbing images.”
Costing an estimated $20 million, it is allegedly the most expensive Mexican movie ever made.
The cast list is almost a “who’s who” of actors and includes Academy Award nominees Andy Garcia, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Peter O’Toole as well as Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives”), Santiago Cabrera (“Heroes” and “Merlin”), Oscar Isaac (“Drive” and “Robin Hood”), Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek” and “Super 8”), Nestor Carbonell (“The Dark Knight Rises” and “Lost”), Eduardo Verastegui (“Bella”), and others.
I think I cried often during the movie but I also felt sad whenever there was any killing, even when arguably in defense of liberty. On rare occasions a war may be just, but I would hesitate to claim any were or are holy. Thankfully the movie itself makes efforts not to whitewash its main protagonists.
For me, the movie wasn’t simply entertainment or education though. It is family history. My grandfather, Higinio Lozano, lived through part of it before fleeing his homeland to escape being killed by the government for teaching Catholicism, assisting clergy, and distributing Catholic literature, “crimes” for which he had already been imprisoned repeatedly.
After its independence from Spain, Mexico adopted two constitutions in 1857 and 1917 that significantly restricted or eliminated legal rights of the Catholic Church, of monks and nuns, and of priests and ministers for any religion. (Mexico’s 1917 constitution was used as a model for the one approved by the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic a year later.)
In the 20th century, these laws ultimately enabled the government to seize and sell nearly all of Mexico’s monasteries and convents. They also banned clerical clothing and religious celebrations in public, limited the use of church bells, kept religions from gaining or managing property, and more.
This conquest of religion perhaps reached its most visible stage in the 1920s under President Plutarco Elias Calles, an atheist who admitted “I have a personal hatred for Christ.” Existing anti-religious laws were fully enforced and more added. Holy objects were desecrated, foreign-born ministers expelled, and religious schools, convents, and monasteries closed. In the state of Chihuahua only one priest was allowed to minister.
I should note that Catholics weren’t the only ones affected. For example, the Anglican church in Mexico was forced to rely on laymen to officiate for some services due to the loss of non-native clergy. Nonetheless, Catholicism suffered the brunt of the anti-religious laws as the dominant faith in Mexico.
In response, Catholics organized a strong boycott of non-essentials to pressure Calles, and similarly the bishops of Mexico voted to impose an “interdict” — suspending all religious services, especially the sacraments — in Mexico. It began August 1, 1926.
Two days later, 400 armed Catholics shut themselves in a church in Guadalajara, Jalisco, but surrendered after a shoot out with federal troops. A day later, 240 government soldiers stormed the parish church of Sahuayo, Michoacan, killing priests and others. Ten days later, the government wiped out a Zacatecas chapter of a Catholic youth organization and executed its chaplain. That outraged a band of ranchers who rebelled and took over northern Jalisco.
More uprisings and government reactions followed, and matters escalated. Yet a proposed amendment of the constitution’s anti-religious parts was rejected by Mexico’s Congress on Sept. 22, 1926.
In November, Pope Pius XI joined the voices in protest with his encyclical, “Iniquis Afflictisque,” but Calles stayed firm. By the end of the year the general mood had turned to armed rebellion, although no Catholic bishop ever endorsed such a response.
Organized opposition erupted in January 1927. In the next three years, more than 50,000 Mexicans fought against the government, which mockingly dubbed them “Cristeros” because they refused to say “Long live President Calles” and instead made “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”) their identifying cry.
More than 250,000-300,000 Mexicans were killed, but only 90,000 in the war. Most died after a mid-1929 compromise ended the Cristero rebellion.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 4/16/12 in The Madera Tribune
Users of the online messaging system Twitter provided plenty of seasonal humor a week ago… or at least the jokes died trying. Tom Jamieson tweeted, “Typo in the cast list meant I rather spoilt our local Church’s performance of The Passion (of Jesus) with my swashbuckling turn as Pontius Pirate.”
Keir Shiels punned, “At least you were in the right place. I turned up in the gym for Pontius Pilates.”
Pete Sinclair noted the popularity of the “R.I.P. Jesus Christ” tweet on Good Friday and remarked, “You’re all going to look pretty silly in three days time…”
That flood of wit is now a trickle, such as comedian Jack Black joking Wednesday, “Every Easter, I’m like ‘Uhhh, spoiler alert! Some of us haven’t finished the Bible yet!’”
A more common tweet this week is disappointment or surprise that Easter is already past. Such a lament superficially fits. Stores and media have moved on to marketing other events, and discounted Easter sweets are disappearing. The Easter holiday or spring break has finished and life as usual resumes for most.
Nonetheless it isn’t so. Lent may be 40 days, but traditionally the Easter season tops it with 50 and extends from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday.
Why so long a celebration? Quite simply: Easter is the peak of the Christian year and of all history as well. Despite the hype, Christmas can’t compare. There simply is no greater mystery or festivity for those who believe God incarnate died and rose again for the sake of us all.
In paragraph 654, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “By his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life.” That life is one empowered by the help of God, grace, to share in divine love, goodness, truth, and beauty.
Isn’t that a universal dream? Which one of us aspires to be ugly or unappreciated? Who prefers to be deceived or ignorant? Who among us does not hunger for true love? Or to be a hero?
Moreover, Christians believe the risen Jesus is a trailblazer for those who follow after. His resurrection is the source and principle of our own awaited reconstitution in the flesh at the end of history. His glorious revival will be our own.
His was no mere return to earthly life like that of Lazarus and others restored from death only to later perish. After the resurrection, Jesus had no difficulty, for example, leaving a sealed tomb or entering by a locked door despite having a genuine physical body. He was able to appear and depart suddenly, walk on water, and rise into the air. Yet, no ghost, he ate when he wished.
In short, his body and ours will be in complete harmony with our spiritual souls. No longer will our spirits be hobbled by our bodies.
Furthermore our souls will no longer be hidden by our bodies. As in Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor (Matthew 17:2), the loveliness of our spirits will be seen in our bodies as if through a window. “The just shall shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Mat. 13:43)
Let us rejoice!
Englishman Maurice Baring (1874-1945) reported on the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) firsthand for the London Morning Post. A few years later, the longtime agnostic became a Catholic — “the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted.” He served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, and would write plays, poetry, articles, and novels.
Baring had an immense sense of humor and loved practical jokes. But in his last 15 years of life he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, which initially causes movement-related difficulties but eventually causes other problems and can lead to death. He wrote the following poem in 1937.
“My body is a broken toy / Which nobody can mend / Unfit for either play or ploy / My body is a broken toy; / But all things end. / The siege of Troy / Came one day to an end. / My body is a broken toy / Which nobody can mend.”
Four years after, however, he wrote a second verse.
“My soul is an immortal toy / Which nobody can mar, / An instrument of praise and joy; / My soul is an immortal toy; / Though rusted from the world’s alloy / It glitters like a star; / My soul is an immortal toy / Which nobody can mar.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 4/06/12 in The Madera Tribune
From noon onwards, dark clouds from the Mediterranean Sea had blanketed the metropolis of Jerusalem. For those crammed within the city, bustling with pilgrims, it was a bit cold but tolerably so. For those outside the walls, it must have felt far chillier.
Then there were the condemned criminals who hung from crosses on the roadside hill of Golgotha, north of the capital. They were naked except for perhaps an improvised loincloth, the former veil of a mother now grieving for her child. Even the hard justice of Rome could tolerate a mother’s compassion to that extent.
This was the first Good Friday.
By Jewish reckoning it was probably the 16th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan in the year 3791. It was also the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The sabbath would begin at nightfall.
Using the Julian calendar, Romans would have marked that date as the 7th of Aprilis in the 783rd year after the founding of the city of Rome and the 16th year of Roman Emperor Tiberius’ reign. But the only Romans in Jerusalem were occupiers of a foreign land.
About four decades later, Jerusalem would be sacked after a siege by Roman soldiers in retaliation for the Great Jewish Revolt. But for now many in the city were making final preparations for the oncoming sabbath. So many visitors were there for the religious festival, the Passover. Those who were poor came in large groups to ease the burdens of the trip.
Yet the practical concerns fell especially on women, so it was likely that mostly men had the time and inclination to attend the spectacle of Roman justice that morning at the open air stone platform outside the Praetorium, the equivalent of Jerusalem’s city hall under Roman rule.
At the time, justice under Rome was personified by the aristocrat Pontius Pilatus, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea. According to the ancient Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, he was insensitive to Jewish customs, stubborn, a taker of bribes, cruel, and had a fiery vindictive temper.
Pilatus once spent money from the treasury of the rebuilt Temple of Solomon to build an aqueduct, according to ancient Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Such funds were meant for the needs and upkeep of the lavish Jewish temple and its ministers. When a group of Jews protested, Pilatus had soldiers hidden within the crowd beat and kill random members of it to silence them all.
In about a half dozen years, Pilatus would be recalled to Rome to respond to a charge that he had suppressed a Samaritan rebellion with excessive brutality. So I expect it wasn’t a complete shock when locals heard he scourged and condemned the popular rabbi Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) to death for the treason of claiming to be a king.
Less than a week before, many in the city had heralded Jesus as a messiah with joy, but now the mood had shifted and grown as dark as the afternoon sky above. On the path through the narrow city streets to execution, mockery dominated, and it persisted to the end.
Many men may have watched his trial, but it was his female devotees who remained with Jesus on that cold hill for the agonizing three hours before his death, his mother among them. As for his dozen apostles who had journeyed with him for years of ministry, only John — the youngest — could be seen.
Compared to most victims, Jesus died quickly. Most of the crucified died after losing days of battles against suffocation, unable to maintain adequate breathing on a cross and tormented by spectators, thirst, and hungry birds. But Jesus had already been severely weakened by his abuse at the hands of soldiers already.
At 3 p.m. he died and the earth trembled.
Yet on that tragic Good Friday we Christians believe Jesus died not merely as a blameless man but as God incarnate, and that he sacrificed himself in the place of each and every human who has and ever will live.
We all have the potential for moral evil, aka sin, and sins are destructive to our own selves, each other, and our relationship with God. Nothing we can do alone can make perfect amends for even the least evil we willingly do. So God, acting as our surrogate, offered himself in the flesh for our sakes.
By doing so, Jesus won for us true forgiveness and healing — if we will embrace it. Do we?