By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 6/02/12 in The Madera Tribune
Yesterday the movie “For Greater Glory” debuted in U.S. theaters, which include nearby Fresno Stadium 21 and Manchester Mall 16. The film tells the widely forgotten story of Mexican resistance to a nation’s attempt to suppress Catholicism. While it is a tale of heroes, it also features more flawed characters such as a Catholic priest, Rev. Jose Reyes Vega, who fought in the war against the government of Mexico. Of the 4,500 priests in Mexico at the start of its persecution, Vega and one other, Rev. Aristeo Pedroza, became generals and perhaps three others joined the fight.
The church itself wanted a peaceful solution and worked to end the conflict. Moreover, its Code of Canon Law prohibits those who voluntarily murder anyone from being ordained or exercising the ministries of a clergyman. While killing combatants in a just defensive war would not be considered murder, at least one incident of the war may have crossed that line, and it involved a priest.
It would be the worst outrage committed by those who rebelled against Mexico’s persecution of Catholicism — the Cristeros.
On Tuesday, April 16, 1927, Vega led a holdup in the Mexican state of Jalisco. According to the Associated Press days later, Cristeros derailed a train engine and defeated federal soldiers, who according to witnesses fought from inside the passenger cars amid cowering innocents — human shields. Vega’s brother died in the attack, which lasted more than two hours.
Next the rebels seized a shipment of money intended for the Bank of Mexico, robbed passengers of $100,000 in valuables and cash, and ordered non-combatants to exit the train, which was then drenched with fuel and set afire. Unfortunately, not all were able or willing to obey. When Cristeros realized this, they reportedly helped rescue those they could, both the wounded and the dead.
Even so, about 46 soldiers and 50 or so passengers were burnt to death.
Mexico’s government used news of the disaster as “proof” the Catholic Church directly promoted violent fanaticism and that existing anti-religious legislation was justified. Support for the Cristeros weakened. All Catholic bishops were expelled from Mexico.
Now I could easily list government cruelties against Catholics in Mexico during this era, such as a priest who died after soldiers cut off his hands on Oct. 29, 1927, “to prevent him from ever again saying Mass.” Thousands were martyred for their faith in God.
But by reciting such injustices I fear I might downplay a genuine tragedy. The film “For Greater Glory” is honest enough to show blemishes of the Cristeros, and I think it is important to do so.
We Christians claim to know divinely revealed truths, yet we often fall short of divinity. This should be no surprise to us, because Christianity — like a hospital — exists for the healing of those wounded, albeit spiritually. Nevertheless how hard it can be to admit imperfection.
What’s more, the perfection we aspire towards as Christians is not that of comic book superheroes, mythological demigods, or the latest American idol. Rather it is the perfection of supernatural love, a love that demands a whole gift of self to God and others.
Missionary sister Mother Teresa once said, “In loving and serving, we prove that we have been created in the likeness of God, for God is love and when we love we are like God. This is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’” (Matthew 5:48).
Giving one’s self often means vulnerability and exposure. It could be no other way. Only an open container can give or receive. But there is treasure to be won!
Like many today, Jessica Powers (1905-1988) longed for escapades and romance on the high seas as an 18-year-old: “I would have wed a pirate chief, / had I lived long ago, / and made my home a ship that rides / wherever winds can blow!”
Instead she became a published poet before entering a Discalced Carmelite convent in December 1941 and becoming Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit.
Her daring love affair would be with God.
In her poem “Beauty, Too, Seeks Surrender,” she wrote: “God takes by love what yields to love, / then pours a glowing allness / past the demolished walls and towers / into the spirit’s smallness.
“God’s beauty, too, surrender seeks / and takes in the will’s lull / whatever lets itself be changed / into the beautiful.”
The gift of divine love is worth its risks, for God is never outdone in generosity.