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.