Photo by Leonid Andronov on Adobe Stock

The Virgin Mary is our
protector and defender when
we are afraid. She will vanquish
all demons at the cry of
“Long live Christ the King!”

Cristero slogan

The two brothers did not sleep that cold September night, for they knew in the morning they would both face the firing squad. One would be executed for having assassinated President-elect Alvaro Obregón, the other simply for being a priest.

It had all seemingly happened so suddenly, although their common fate had been years in the making. Felipe Espinosa had opposed President Plutarco Elías Calles’ anticlerical laws from the beginning. Initially, he had protested peacefully as a member of both the League for the Defense of Religious Liberty and the Association of Catholic Youth. As President Calles’ actions against Catholicism became worse and worse – looting and closing churches, incarcerating priests for saying Mass, forbidding the religious instruction of children even at home – Felipe had become increasingly radicalized and eventually joined an army under the banner of Christ the King in order to oppose President Calles’ so-called “reforms.” After two years as a soldier, Felipe had reached the decision to become an assassin. While the newly elected Alvaro Obregón had been sitting in a restaurant called the La Bombilla café – the former general had been handpicked by President Calles as his successor – Felipe had approached him and asked if he could draw his portrait. Obregón had mirthfully agreed but Felipe had extracted a pistol rather than a pencil from his satchel and had shot the anti-Catholic politician point blank in the throat. As he did so, Felipe had shouted out, “Long live Christ the King!” Felipe had been immediately arrested and soon thereafter so was his brother, Father Martín Espinosa, although there was absolutely no evidence against him. But that did not matter to the military authorities. Father Martín would be neither the first nor the last of Mexico’s religious to be singled out for execution during the time of la cristiada.

The prospect of being killed by a firing squad was not a surprise to either brother, since both were staunch Christians and each in his own way had opposed President Calles’ persecution of the Church in Mexico. President Calles had done everything to assure the wrath of the country’s Catholics, first by confiscating Church property and desecrating temples and religious symbols, then forbidding religious instruction of children by priests or nuns, then the closure of monastic orders, and finally imprisoning priests for so much as wearing a cassock in public or saying Mass in the homes of the faithful. The giant statue of Christ the King in Guanajuato had been destroyed in a huge act of symbolic sacrilege by the hammers and pickaxes of government soldiers. President Calles had even praised a militant atheist who had exploded a bomb beneath the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe so beloved by the people of Mexico, especially its Indians (although the tilma had miraculously remained unscathed). There were also credible reports of nuns raped in their convents and of clerics being tortured before their executions. In response to such abuses, Felipe had joined the Cristeros, a motley group of rebels – mostly peasants – who took up arms against the Calles government and used guerrilla tactics in a war of attrition meant to restore the Catholic Church in Aztec lands.

For his part, Father Martín had also openly defied President Calles and his military, blatantly ignoring all of the restrictions placed on priests. Since he could not say Mass or deliver the sacraments to the Catholics in church, he did so in the believers’ homes. He rode his bicycle with various disguises and went from house to house, carrying consecrated hosts in a knapsack, for he knew the Catholics were in desperate need of the Eucharist now that the churches were all closed. He also knew there were people desperate to have their Confessions heard, couples to be married, children to be baptized. In a single day, he listened to over two-hundred Confessions and secretly officiated over ten Masses if not more, crisscrossing Mexico City, all on the old ramshackle bicycle he called Rosinante after Don Quixote’s nag. By doing so, he was openly spitting in the face of the Calles government.

After the two played cards for a while, Father Martín paused and looked fixedly at the eyes of his younger brother.

“You know what awaits us tomorrow, don’t you?” he asked.

“The firing squad,” Felipe responded dryly. “I’ve witnessed executions in the past. We shall be martyred for Christ the King.”

“Well, that gives you a golden opportunity,” Father Martín intoned. “Don’t you realize it?”

“What do you mean?” asked Felipe.

“You know the moment of your demise and you can die a holy death,” the priest responded. “Few are given such a marvelous opportunity. In many cases, death appears unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, finding many unprepared. In your case you know when and how you will die. Before dying you can settle your affairs with God.”

“Do you mean Confession?” asked Felipe.

“Indeed,” responded Father Martín. “You have also been blessed to have a priest with you on the evening before your death so a Confession is possible even in this prison.”

“Well, I have nothing to confess. I haven’t been with a woman in years, and I suffer neither from pride nor lust. Even when I was hiding in the mountains with the Cristeros, I prayed the Rosary every night and attended Mass wherever a chaplain was available.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” probed the priest. “The Fifth Commandment commands you not to kill. The blood of Alvaro Obregón is on your hands.”

“He was an enemy of the Christ. Don’t forget Obregón was the one responsible for the destruction of the statue of Christ the King at Guanajuato and the expulsion of the bishops. He was the one who enforced the law prohibiting religious processions in public, age-old traditions so near and dear to the hearts of Mexico’s Catholics. It was no sin to murder him. Didn’t Father Miguel Hidalgo and Father José María Morelos kill their enemies in battle under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe to oust the Spanish usurper in the nineteenth century? And Obregón was preparing to continue in the oppression of the Church begun by President Calles. He even wanted to force Catholic priests to marry. There was no alternative but to take his life.”

“There is a difference,” Father Martín responded in an even voice, “between what Hidalgo did and what you did. It is one thing to kill in battle, quite another to engage in the assassination of someone sitting in a restaurant. I’m sorry to tell you this, Felipe, but you have engaged in a grievous sin, no matter what your motives. But God in His mercy gives you the opportunity to repent.”

“I could go through the motions of a Confession,” answered Felipe, “but I would be dissembling. I can admit to you in Confession that I shot Alvaro Obregón in the head, but it wouldn’t profit me. To make a valid Confession you have to firmly repent of your sin and promise not to sin again. Well, I don’t repent of killing Obregón. If I had not killed him last week, I would do so now. And the same goes for that scoundrel, Plutarco Elías Calles. Some brave Cristero should put a bullet in his heart. Were I not in prison, I would be the one to do it.”

“You are gambling with your soul,” Father Martín said sadly. “You have such little time.”

“I did it all for Christ the King,” Felipe responded as he nonchalantly lit a cigarette.

***

Father Martín had just arrived in Guadalajara one week before the wedding after studying theology at the Jesuit novitiate in Barcelona and being ordained a priest. His brother Felipe had waited patiently for him, postponing his marriage to Carolina Herrera several times in the anticipation that his brother could officiate at the wedding ceremony. President Calles had recently announced the promulgation of the Calles laws, which strictly forbade any acts of public worship, including Catholic weddings, but nobody knew to what degree the new laws would be enforced. Felipe, for one, thought that the laws were merely a symbolic repudiation of the Catholic faith and that they could not possibly be put into practice. After all, the churches of Mexico had already been closed. If it was also impossible to marry at one’s home, the Mexican government would be forcing Catholics to ignore deeply held beliefs and live in open and manifest sin. A civil wedding meant nothing to Felipe. He wanted his love for Carolina to be sanctified by God.

The marriage ceremony was intended to be a small affair, with no more than forty people attending. Still, Carolina had hired mariachis at the last moment and soon the entire  neighborhood figured out there was a wedding party being celebrated. Soon large crowds appeared, and someone must have informed the police about the illegal Catholic wedding. A policeman arrived in the courtyard of the home in the middle of the ceremony when the lazo had already been placed around the bride and groom in typical Mexican fashion and the arras – gold or silver coins – had already been exchanged by the wedding couple. The only thing undone was the actual consecration of the wedding by Father Martín. When the policeman arrived, Felipe was sure that he could reason with him.

“This is the day of my wedding,” Felipe said. “We don’t mean any disrespect to the new laws. But I am in love, do you understand me? I don’t want to postpone my nuptial night or my honeymoon until after all the religious issues are resolved in this country. Who knows how long that process is going to take? How long will it take before church services are resumed? Would you just look the other way and allow the wedding ceremony to proceed?”

“I don’t know,” said the policeman. “President Calles detests religion and has sworn to vanquish the Catholic faith. If I don’t follow his dictates, it is I who could be punished.”

“What if I give you a little something,” implored Felipe as he extracted a wallet from the pocket of his tuxedo. “These are three-hundred pesos. And I invite you to stay at the ceremony and participate in the festivities.”

“I shall have to run it by my boss who’s sitting outside in a police vehicle. I think that he’s a Catholic himself, but he doesn’t want higher authorities to know.”

Suddenly, a gruff man in whiskers arrived at the patio of the home where the wedding was taking place, surrounded by a large group of other men in uniform. He was the man in charge of the policemen and immediately told Felipe the wedding ceremony had to end. Worse than that, he told Felipe his brother would be arrested.

“Arrested? For what crime? He’s merely exercising his duties as a priest. If you are a believer, this will weigh heavily on your soul.”

“I survive because I keep my peace and do as I am being told. President Calles has forbidden priests from officiating religious ceremonies in public homes. I am just a little cog in the vast government machinery. If I didn’t take the priest to prison, another would take my place. My personal beliefs have nothing to do with it.”

“You are the very definition of a coward,” Felipe spat out. “If you are willing to take a priest to prison for presiding at a wedding, there’s no limit on the depravity you can do in order to keep your job.”

The head of the policemen – his last name was García – then approached Father Martín. “Come,” said the policeman. “You are going to come with us.”

Father Martín was befuddled. He had just arrived in Mexico and did not know to what extent the anticlerical laws would be enforced. Surely it was just the beginning of the persecution. Father Martín feared the worst would happen later.

“Can I at least consecrate their marriage before I leave? Then I would be willing to go wherever you take me.”

“Well, all right,” said the policeman. “But whatever you do, do it quickly.”

Before Father Martín left, the policeman ordered him to change his vestments and dress like an ordinary man. Father Martín quickly complied. Nothing was said as the priest was driven to the prison. Soon he found himself in a small cell with a Spanish priest who had been incarcerated for delivering the Eucharist in private homes.

“They are trying to make it impossible to practice the Catholic faith,” lamented the old priest. “How could people lead virtuous lives if even the Eucharist is denied them? It is God’s greatest gift to man. President Calles’ new laws are meant to lead the Church into extinction. Don’t doubt for a minute that that is the purpose of the Law for Reforming the Penal Code, which even forbids priests from wearing clerical garb in public. President Calles is trying to persuade the masses that priests and other religions simply do not exist. The whole country is becoming a sepulchre for the Catholic Church.”

“What are they going to do with us?” asked Father Martín. “Is there going to be a trial? I mean – what are the penalties?”

“As for me,” responded the old Spaniard, “I suppose they will put me before the firing squad.”

            “For delivering the Eucharist?” queried the confounded Father Martín. “When I was in Spain, I heard that some priests were being executed in Mexico, but I always thought it was for engaging in insurrection or revolutionary activities.”

“What could be more revolutionary,” asked the Spanish priest, “than giving believers the blood and body of Jesus? And they’ve come up with some trumped-up charges, accusing me of arming the Cristeros.”

“Will that be my fate as well?” inquired Father Martín. “All I did was officiate at my brother’s wedding.”

“That is against President Plutarco Elías Calles’ vision of Mexico as well. He wants a country where all couples live in free unions, unburdened by the obligation to marry. He claims that chastity is against nature and that marriage makes slaves of women. Baptizing children and marrying couples have both become crimes. In many Mexican states, a Mass has not been said in months. In Chihuahua, a law has been enacted such that there is only one priest in the entire state. Most Catholic bishops have been expelled to the United States. And Calles has ordered that all churches in Jalisco should be bolted shut.”

“So, they’ll shoot me too?” asked Father Martín incredulously. “This man Calles is a tyrant.”

“That and more,” replied the old Spaniard. “But before they kill you, they’ll give you the opportunity to recant. I’ve seen many priests in this prison who have saved their lives by abjuring their faith in Christ the King in a written declaration.”

“Well, I shall never do so. I’d prefer martyrdom to renouncing Jesus.”

“Thus said Peter,” said the priest.

The next morning, the Spanish priest was taken from his cell and led to the courtyard where he was blindfolded. Father Martín saw everything through a large-barred window. The old man kneeled and stretched out his arms in the shape of a cross. Then he cried out in a loud voice, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing” before his body was riddled with bullets. As he expired, he exclaimed, “I die but God does not. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!”

In the afternoon of that same day, a slight man in horn-rimmed glasses appeared in Father Martín’s cell. He looked like a typical government bureaucrat, undistinguished in every way. Father Martín was not intimidated by his presence, though he knew his life was probably in the hands of the bespectacled bureaucrat.

“You saw what happened to Pedro,” said the bureaucrat, not even calling the doomed Spaniard “Father” Pedro.

“Yes, I saw it. I had never seen a man be killed. And for what? Because he delivered some hosts to a group of Catholics.”

“He was executed for sedition,” said the bureaucrat. “Even after being given the opportunity, he obstinately refused to pledge his allegiance to President Plutarco Elías Calles or to give up his role as a devious proselytizer. President Calles never sends people to the firing squad before giving them the opportunity to repent. All Pedro had to do was renounce his superstitions and he would have been spared.”

“You mean renounce his faith in God.”

“Call it what you will. The fact is he chose to die rather than recant.”

“And so shall I,” responded Father Martín, “if you came to ask me to renounce my faith.”

The bureaucrat took some papers from his briefcase.

“You can choose what you will, but please consider this offer seriously. President Calles doesn’t want to kill all the priests but simply to enlighten them.”

“Well, let me read this,” said the priest. “I, Martín Espinosa, do hereby abjure my faith in Christ the King, the woman of Guadalupe and the Catholic Church. I voluntarily abandon my priesthood and all the superstitions of the Catholic faith including the vow of chastity. I swear my allegiance, now and forever, to President Plutarco Elías Calles. ¡Viva Mexico!”

“What do you think?” asked the bureaucrat. “It’s a lot easier to sign a declaration than to suffer through the bullets of our military. You can take some time to think about it.”

“I don’t need more time. I am a Christian priest and will be one until the day I die. You can kill my body but not my soul. I shall gladly accept martyrdom for the cause of Christ. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!”

That night Father Martín couldn’t sleep. He remembered Father Pedro in front of the firing squad, then imagined being there himself. It would be so easy to sign a declaration, he thought. After all, what did it mean? Mexico wouldn’t benefit from one less priest. In fact, the country needed more priests. How many souls he would save if he remained alive!

When the bureaucrat arrived the next morning to take him to the courtyard for his execution, Father Martín stopped him in his tracks.

“I’m willing to sign the declaration,” said Father Martín, “if you will spare my life.”

“Gladly, gladly,” said the bureaucrat. “I’m glad you have come to your senses. After signing the declaration, you can leave the prison at once. But remember, if you ever return to your old life, only bullets will await you. Find yourself a pretty woman to live with and may life reward you with many children.”

Once he left the prison, Father Martín heard a cock crow in the distance, and he began to weep bitterly.

He had denied the Christ!

***

Felipe only joined the Cristiada after he felt there was no nonviolent alternative to armed insurrection and after certain bishops had spoken publicly about it. In particular, Archbishop Gonzalez y Valencia of Durango had issued a pastoral letter defending the Cristeros.

“We never provoked this armed movement,” he wrote, “but now that this movement exists and all peaceful means have been exhausted, to our Catholic sons who have risen in arms for the defense of their social and religious rights, we must say be tranquil in your consciences and receive our blessing…”

Be tranquil in your consciences. Those were the words Felipe needed to hear. He had always been a man of peace, and now he felt forced to participate in an act of war. The bishop of Zacatecas had also pronounced that “the tyranny of the authorities justifies the resolution of the Catholics to defend themselves by armed force.” Although most of the other prelates were undecided or said nothing, and many opposed the military actions taken by the Cristeros, Felipe felt that the words of the bishops of Durango and Zacatecas – coupled with the dictates of his own conscience – allowed him to participate in the Cristiada without feeling any remorse or guilt. The Catholic Church had always believed in the just war doctrine – otherwise, how could Joan of Arc have been made a saint? – and Felipe felt no war was as justified as that launched by the Cristeros to rescue the Catholic Church in Mexico from the depredations of President Calles and his cohorts. As Archbishop Ruiz y Flores put it, “Armed defiance has had the glory of being a live and effective protest, of keeping the religious question alive…” Archbishop José Francisco Orozco of Jalisco, the state where Felipe lived, had not praised the Cristeros outright but certainly gave them moral support and had decided not to abandon them, instead administering an underground archdiocese on the run from the Calles government. So Felipe thrust himself headlong into the war and decided to take up arms, learning how to use a rifle and a bayonet for the first time, learning how to kill despite the fact it was deeply inimical to his nature.

As soon as Felipe joined the Cristeros, he was assigned to a platoon led by General José Reyes Vega, an indigenous priest whose moniker was “Pancho Villa in a cassock.” The man was hardly a shining example of priestly virtues, since he was a womanizer and a heavy drinker, as well as a ruthless combatant, but he was celebrated for his military prowess. The rumor was that Father Vega with one hand gave absolution in articulo mortis to the wounded, while with the other hand he finished them off with his pistol. He was also known for sending federal soldiers to the firing squad without mercy. Felipe was troubled that he would be waging war under the direction of such a man but told himself he shouldn’t give credence to unfounded rumors about his sinfulness spread by the enemies of the Cristeros. After all, General Reyes Vega was a man who had decided to risk all for the sake of defending the Catholic Church.

The first few weeks went well. Father Reyes Vega was a skillful strategist and easily defeated the federal government troops in a number of skirmishes. Soon, Felipe would participate in the federal government’s greatest defeat, the battle of San Julián. The Cristeros controlled much of the Altos de Jalisco area and were ready when the Mexican military, under the command of General Rodríguez Escobar, attacked San Julián in order to force the Cristeros to abandon their base of operations. The Cristeros were vastly outnumbered, and initially the federales had the upper hand in battle. The Mexican military was relentless in its efforts to capture San Julián and had no compunction about looting homes, raping women and killing captive Cristeros. But the Catholic insurgents would not desist, and soon hundreds of Cristero reinforcements descended from the nearby hills, whereupon they proceeded to decimate the government forces. In the end, seven hundred soldiers had been killed while the Cristeros had suffered three hundred casualties. How Father Vega managed to make an effective fighting force of a ragtag bunch of peasants armed only with old muskets and no military training whatsoever was something Felipe would never understand. And yet that is exactly what Pancho Villa in a cassock did in San Julián, and he would do it again and again. Perhaps the good Lord was aiding him in achieving the impossible.

Felipe felt a strange exhilaration when he participated in battle, and it troubled him overmuch. Yes, he was fighting for the barque of Peter, for Mexico’s beleaguered Church, but that was no reason to derive joy from his grim and deadly work. Did the Crusaders rejoice when they plunged a lance into the body of a Moslem? Did the soldiers of Saint Joan of Arc feel exalted upon killing an enemy? Surely, they should not have. A war is always a failure in the eyes of Christ, thought Felipe, a mass killing at odds with Jesus’ directive to turn the other cheek. And yet Pope Pius XI himself had declared that the grievances of the Cristeros were justified and that there was no prospect for a peaceful solution. In his encyclical Iniquis Afflictisque, the Pope had written that “there existed no hope or possibility of relief from the sad and unjust conditions under which the Catholic religion exists today in Mexico.” He pointed out that “the Mexican Government, impelled by its fanatical hatred of religion, continues to enforce more harshly and violently from day-to-day its unjust laws.” He spoke of the “insane tyranny of the enemies of the Church.” Under such circumstances, was it sinful to take up arms? Was it wrong to wage battle against Herod the oppressor? And yet despite the justice of the cause, Felipe felt remorse in reflecting that he treated the war as a soccer match. If he killed a soldier, he celebrated. If one of President Calles’ platoons was entirely annihilated, he exulted in triumph. Surely, the good Lord Jesus was not pleased. Perhaps passive resistance was the sole response available to the believer.

One day, the La Barca train en route from Guadalajara to Mexico City was attacked by the Cristeros under the direction of the sanguinary Father Reyes Vega. He had information that the train carried a great deal of money, as well as bars of gold and silver, all protected by a retinue of federal soldiers. Once the train was stopped, a firefight ensued, and Father Reyes Vega’s seventeen-year-old brother was shot in the head. The rebel priest then ordered his men to decimate the soldiers, even those who had already been captured. Angrier than ever, the ruthless Father Reyes Vega shot a good many of them himself. Once it was clear that the Cristeros had defeated the soldiers, the remaining ones hid in a wooden boxcar near the caboose of the train, expecting the Cristeros would simply leave with their valuable loot. But Father Reyes Vega, still crying over the death of his brother, gave his men an order before departing the scene on his white steed. Felipe was tending to an injured Cristero on the ground and hadn’t heard the order, but suddenly he was shocked by what he saw.

A group of Cristeros was pouring gasoline on the boxcar where the soldiers had been hiding. Felipe instantly guessed what their intentions were. They planned to burn the boxcar with everyone inside.

Felipe instantly protested.

“What are you doing? Have you gone mad?”

“We’re acting at the orders of Father Reyes Vega. Don’t worry about it. Everyone in the boxcar is a soldier. It’s no different from killing them in battle.”

“It’s not the same at all,” replied Felipe. “And I’m not so sure everyone hiding in that boxcar is a federal. You can hear the voices of the women.”

As he saw the boxcar consumed by the spiraling flames, Felipe wept in silence.

He did not celebrate with the other rebels.

***

After being released from prison, Father Martín became bold, even foolhardy, in his defiance of the Mexican police. Every day he would participate in what he called his twelve stations of the Cross: visits at twelve different homes where he would say the Mass, deliver the Eucharist and hear Confessions, all in clandestinity. He threw himself courageously into his work, for he felt he had to atone for a great transgression. Knowing that he had denied the Christ had sunk him into a great depression which sometimes bordered on despair. Now he hungered for martyrdom, knowing that many of his fellow Catholics were being sentenced to death for trifles. Oh, what a glorious death that would be! He knew all the martyrs would be rewarded in Heaven, but it wasn’t Heaven that he sought in risking arrest and execution. He merely wanted to share in Jesus’ suffering during His Passion. President Calles’ fiercely anticlerical laws gave him the opportunity to do so. It was not that he no longer feared the firing squad. He was simply making a deliberate decision to choose faith over fear. He prayed that when the moment came, he would not flinch.

Immediately after leaving the prison, he had moved into his mother’s home in Mexico City. The Jesuit Mexican Provincial Father Carlos Meyer had told him he would be safer in the capital, and there he could continue with his ministry. He soon discovered, however, that he could not sleep in the same place every night, for President Calles’ police were somehow onto him. One day, when he was already in bed, a policeman appeared in his room, accompanied by his mother, who had fear painted on her face. Surely, she feared the worst, for she knew of all the other religious killed for doing a lot less than what Father Martín was doing. He was ignoring all of President Calles’ laws and acting as if the Catholic faith was not the object of persecution, preaching the Gospel all over the capital. When he saw the policeman – a gruff, dark-skinned man with an enormous paunch – Father Martín was certain that he would be arrested and then taken to his death.

“Let me get dressed and I’ll go with you,” said the priest in a calm voice. “What are the charges against me?”

“I need to talk with you,” responded the policeman.

“Yes, fine. What do you want to speak about?”

“I can only do this on my knees,” the officer said as he kneeled in front of Father Martín’s bed. “I have come for you to hear my Confession.”

Father Martín was surprised beyond measure.

“Let me put on my cassock,” he said.

After the priest got dressed, he asked the policeman a question.

“What do you have to confess?”

The policeman began to sob gently as he prepared to answer Father Martín’s question.

“I have persecuted the Christians,” he said amid his tears. “I have shot priests in the head. I have raped a nun. I have plotted your own death.”

“For how long,” asked the priest, “have you been a policeman?”

“Three years,” said the officer. “But it wasn’t that bad at first.”

“And what has led you to repent?”

“I have a five-year-old daughter, my dear Maritza. I cannot look into her eyes without shame. How can I teach her anything about God if I torture and kill his representatives on earth? I’m not even sure why I came to see you. I’m sure my sins are too great to be forgiven. But at least I wanted to give you a warning. The police intend to raid your home this weekend.”

“Your sins are not too great to be forgiven. God’s mercy is endless. But you must make a firm resolve to never sin again. You must quit your job and look for another line of work. And then you can raise your daughter as a Catholic without feeling any guilt.”

“Thank you, Father. That’s what I intend to do.”

“Well, I hereby grant you absolution for all your sins. You are righteous, forgiven! Just say the Rosary every night this week as an act of Penance.”

“Father,” muttered the policeman, “one last thing.”

“Yes?”

“Be careful. The police have photographs of you. If you keep traveling about town on your bicycle, they will surely find you.”

“Thank you for the warning,” said Father Martín. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Thereafter, Father Martín began sleeping in different houses every night and traveled about town in a disguise. He hid his blonde hair with a black wig and put on a false beard and moustache. He put on the orange uniform of a street sweeper or the blue pants and white shirt of a high school student. He often asked a friend to drive him about town instead of traveling around on his bicycle. After doing all that, he simply put it in God’s hands. God would know whether he would remain alive in order to satisfy the needs of his flock or whether he would be called to martyrdom instead. Gaining Heaven had never seemed so likely.

***

After the incineration of the train at the orders of Father José Reyes Vega, Felipe briefly thought about quitting the Cristeros, but he couldn’t do it, for the persecution of the Catholics was growing steadily worse. In the span of little more than two years, about forty priests had been killed without trial, to say nothing of hundreds of members of the Catholic laity. Priests had been murdered in every corner of the country even though the vast majority were noncombatants: Father Luis Batiz Sainz of Zacatecas, killed by a firing squad; Father Rodrigo Aguilar Alemán of Ejutla, killed by hanging; Father Agustín Caloca Cortés of Cototlán, killed by a firing squad; Father Román Adame Rosales of Yahualica, tortured and killed by a firing squad; Father Atilano Cruz Alvarado of Cuquio, shot while praying; Father Justin Orona Madrigal of  Cuquio, killed by dragging his naked body through the central square; Father Miguel de la Mora of Colima, killed by a single bullet as he was praying the Rosary; Father José Dionisio Luis Padilla Gomez of Guadalajara, murdered while in prayer; Father Cristobal Magallanes Jara of Cototlán, Jalisco, killed  by hanging; Father Mateo Correa Magallanes of Durango, shot through the head; Father Margarito Flores García of Tuliman, killed by bullets; Father Miguel Pro, killed by a firing squad; and on and on. If the Cristeros didn’t continue to fight until they achieved victory, every priest in Mexico would be silenced, exiled or killed. So, Felipe quietly left the platoon led by the homicidal Father José Reyes Vega and enlisted in the columns of the prim and proper Father Aristeo Pedroza.

It was after a successful battle in Jalisco led by Father Pedroza that Felipe considered for the first time the possibility of assassination. He was playing cards with Miguelito Robles when Robles told him it would be better to shoot President Plutarco Elías Calles in the public square rather than continue to kill and die in a fratricidal war. The idea intrigued Felipe although he had qualms about it for two reasons. First, he told Miguelito that it might be a mortal sin to murder President Calles even if he certainly deserved it. Second, Calles’ term in office was almost over and he could not be re-elected. If Calles were killed, he would be replaced by his henchman Alvaro Obregón, who had already demonstrated he hated the Catholics as much as Calles if not more. So, it was Obregón rather than Calles who needed to be assassinated. Miguelito looked at him fixedly in the eyes.

“Would you do it, Felipe, even though you think it is a sin?”

“I’d have to consult Father Pedroza. He’s a priest but he’s also a man of war.”

“You already know what he would say. So don’t waste your time. You know he is punctilious about such matters. Why not consult Father Reyes Vega instead?’

“Surely you jest, Miguelito. Father Reyes Vega already has a foot in hell.”

“Didn’t the priests and bishops of the Mexican Inquisition send men to their deaths for much lesser crimes? Is it wrong to kill one man when by doing so you would spare thousands of others? I would assassinate Obregón without compunction, but I don’t want to do it alone.”

“I’ll have to pray over it. Hope the Lord inspires me. You are asking me to make the biggest decision of my life.”

“Good!” said Miguelito in response. “I’ll see you at seven when we get together with the other soldiers of Christ the King to pray the Rosary to Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

As expected, President Plutarco Elías Calles gave el dedazo – the “long finger” – to Alvaro Obregón. Mexicans use the expression to refer to when a president chooses his successor as if pointing at him with his finger. With Obregón thus selected, it was virtually certain that he would be elected the next President of Mexico. Still, Felipe was unsure whether he would participate in his assassination. Then something happened which resolved all his doubts. The fourteen-year-old José Sánchez del Río was murdered after being tortured by the federales. Given such brutality, it was no longer the time for half-measures. He had decided to go all in with Miguelito. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!”

The young José had been traveling with the Cristeros in the mountains of Jalisco. Although he did not participate in battle given his tender years, he performed sundry tasks for the rebels  – polishing their boots, oiling their guns, and cooking for them. He was also the bugler and the one assigned to carry the flag of the Cristeros on his horse at the side of their General Morfín. After a skirmish with the federales, General Morfín’s horse was killed, and little José gave his horse to the General and told him to escape. Soon thereafter, the boy was himself captured. He was taken to Sahuayo, locked up in a church taken over by President Calles’ military, and given a chance to save his life. All he had to do was say, “Death to Cristo Rey,” the soldiers told him, and he would be freed that very day. But the boy balked at such a demand.

“Say it!” one of the soldiers ordered in a teasing voice. “Otherwise, you will join your fellow Cristeros in the cemetery.”

“I shall never blaspheme my God,” the boy countered. “I shall die proclaiming ‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ Do with me what you will.”

The federales then proceeded to slice the soles of his feet with a knife such that the boy could only walk with great difficulty. The pain was intense, but the boy did not cower.

“Are you now ready to say ‘¡Viva el Presidente Calles! ¡Death to Cristo Rey!’”

“President Calles is an enemy of the Church and a foe of Christ the King!” said the boy. “I shall never render homage to him.”

The soldiers then took the boy to a scaffold in the main plaza of Sahuayo and put a noose around his neck as they forced him to stand on a stool.

“Save your life now, young Cristero,” they said in a laughing tone. “All you have to do is say ‘Death to Christ the King’ and you’ll be spared. Surely, you’re no fool.”

“I shall be a fool for Christ!” exclaimed the young boy. “I shall say it again and again. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!”

The soldiers were suddenly furious. Rather than hanging him immediately, they took him down from the scaffold for further torture. And yet the young José continued to resist. Even as his voice weakened, he kept repeating the same mantra. ‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ ‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ ‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ He derived a great strength from saying those three simple words and wanted to die with those words on his lips. Ultimately, the soldiers were all too happy to accommodate him. They shot him in the head in the cemetery where he had been forced to dig his own grave after having given him one last chance to renege his faith in Christ.

“President Calles and his henchman Alvaro Obregón are now resorting to killing Catholic children,” Felipe said to Miguelito. “Would it not have been justified to assassinate Herod before he killed the Holy Innocents? We should take the next train to Mexico City and there do justice to the fourteen-year-old José Sánchez del Río and to all the other innocents.”

***

Father Martín did not just engage in the spiritual works of mercy by taking care of the souls of the Catholics of Mexico City – secretly saying the Mass, delivering the Eucharist, hearing Confessions – but he also engaged in the corporal works of mercy – tending to the poor, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick. Sometimes he was even bold enough to visit the imprisoned in disguise, though the Jesuit Mexican Provincial discouraged it, as he felt it was too risky. But Father Martín believed the prisoners were in the most need of spiritual consolation, that many of them were incarcerated merely for following their faith, and that his fate was in the hands of God anyway. One dies on the day chosen by God and not the night before says an old Mexican proverb. Father Martín no longer feared being killed for his works of mercy. On the contrary, he decided to double down. He courageously recommitted his efforts to help his beleaguered flock, and there was no risk to be avoided. If President Calles’ police force captured him as he was making his rounds, so be it.

The help provided by the fearless Doña Juana de Armendariz was instrumental in the accomplishment of his designs. She was a member of the Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc, also known as Women Soldiers for Christ, and her nom de guerre was General Margarita.  At the time, the brigades were composed of fifty-six squadrons, totaling twenty-five-thousand women, most active in Guadalajara and Mexico City. They were indefatigable in aiding the Cristero cause, helping to nurse the wounded, secretly relaying messages to the front lines about the movements of President Calles’s soldiers, and providing food and shelter to the Cristero combatants. A great many were imprisoned after their activities were uncovered, and there were even rumors that certain women in the Saint Joan of Arc brigades engaged in battle. They took their name from the French saint-warrior because, like her, the women of the brigades were fiercely Catholic and yet were forced to participate in war. “In God’s strength,” they quoted Saint Joan of Arc, “I will dare and dare until I die.”

General Margarita was especially useful because she was one of the few persons to own a truck in Mexico City at the time. With a truck, it was possible to transport huge quantities of food to the widows and orphans of dead Cristeros and to other indigent Mexicans. The only problem was that she was busy with her work with the Saint Joan of Arc brigades during the week and only could help Father Martín on Fridays. Truth be told, her house was a veritable center of operations for the Women Soldiers for Christ. She had maps posted to the walls of her home, which showed the locations of the Cristero bases as well as the encampments of the military enemy. These maps were updated on a nearly daily basis, for General Margarita’s spies gave her reports about the positions of the soldiers for Christ and their foes several times each week. With such reports, General Margarita easily knew where to send her female cadres to help the Cristeros wherever they were.

Every Friday, Father Martín made his way to General Margarita’s mansion. She was the heiress of one of Mexico’s greatest fortunes and that allowed her to bribe very high-ranking military and police officials with generous sums of money to look the other way. They figured – incorrectly – that the Saint Joan of Arc brigades were little more than a nuisance and that their role in helping the Cristeros was minimal at best. In truth, without the help of the female brigades, the war would have long been lost by the Cristeros. So, Father Martín appeared on his trusty bicycle at her door every Friday, and they would soon embark on their mission to collect the food for the needy. They first went to the homes of certain wealthy Catholics where the priest had often delivered the Mass. After he had made his most recent visit to their homes, he had asked them to buy plenty of goods for the families of the dead Cristeros. And most of them agreed to supply Father Martín with a room full of food: turkeys, chickens, beef, ham, plenty of cheese and tortillas, roasted pork and even flan for those who enjoyed desserts. Once Father Martín and General Margarita collected all the food, they traveled the length and breadth of Mexico City to deliver it.

One Friday afternoon, however, everything changed. As they were driving through the city, two policemen appeared at an intersection with guns drawn and forced them to step outside the truck. They asked them what they were transporting, and they responded that it was food. One of the policemen inspected the cargo of the truck and came back saying, “You have food enough for five months.” Then suddenly one of the policemen took Father Martín by the neck while the other put handcuffs on his wrists. They managed to throw him on the ground and gave him a quick kick to the head.

 “Freeze! Hijo de la chingada,” they cried out. “You’re under arrest.”

“For delivering food to the needy?”

“That is not why you’ve been arrested, friend. And you know it.”

“Then what for?” asked Father Martín as he lay on the ground.

 “We’re taking you to police headquarters, you son-of-a-bitch, because you participated in the assassination of President-elect Alvaro Obregón.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve had zero involvement in that death.”

“Well, that’s not what your brother Felipe says. He was caught red-handed after shooting Obregón in the throat at a public restaurant.”

“Felipe? I had no idea he was even in Mexico City. I thought he was in Jalisco with the Cristeros. But if he murdered Obregón as you say, I had no knowledge of it. I’m a priest for the love of God. How could you ever imagine I would participate in such a crime?”

“Priest or not, your own brother confessed that you were the mastermind behind the plot.”

  “I’m sure you tortured him to obtain such a confession. It’s manifestly untrue. He would never implicate me in a crime unless he was forced to do so.”

“You can argue your case before the general in charge. But frankly I doubt that will save you from the firing squad. President Calles himself will demand it. Obregón was his right-hand man.”

“I’ll get you the best attorney in town,” cried out General Margarita as they whisked the priest away.

***

The attorney arrived at Father Martín’s prison cell at nine in the morning. He was already in his seventies, with languid eyes hidden by thick spectacles. His voice was very calm, almost a whisper. He belonged to the party of Plutarco Elías Calles and had numerous contacts within his administration. After the assassination of Obregón, President Calles was arranging things so that he could remain in power despite the Mexican law forbidding consecutive Presidential terms. The period after the murder of Obregón would be called El Maximato because Calles would be el jefe maximo, the maximum leader who would control future presidents as if they were his puppets. The prim attorney – Doctor Joaquín Alcantara – told Father Martín that there was a slight possibility that Father Martín could avoid execution and only be given a five-year prison sentence.

“There is nothing I can do for Felipe,” said Doctor Alcantara. “Your brother performed his black deed in public and he has no defense. Not only is President Calles going to order his execution, but he plans to make a big show of it before the public. He has already announced that he will allow the death of your brother by firing squad to be witnessed by the press and even photographers will be allowed. The President wants to send a message to any radical Catholics that such behavior shall be violently repressed. I think he’s thinking of saving his own skin. Frankly, I think he was surprised that your brother decided to kill Obregón instead of him.”

“How is it possible that I’ll be given a five-year prison sentence and not be executed?”

“I think I might convince the President to spare your life if you submit a sworn declaration admitting your role in the assassination and swearing that from now on you will support President Calles.”

“But I had no role in the assassination.”

“Look, we’re going to have to do it his way,” responded Doctor Alcantara. “I think he’s demanding a confession. That will tarnish all the priests and prove his contention that it is the Cristeros who are committing crimes rather than the military. You know he never ceases to talk about the fifty-one persons burnt alive in a train by Father José Reyes Vega. I think he will try to use the assassination of Obregón to his own advantage.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” replied Father Martín.

“What is there to think about?” queried the attorney. “I am going to save your life. You shouldn’t worry about signing the confession. After all, what do you think will happen if you refuse to do so? Not only will you be put before the firing squad, but before that they’ll obtain your confession any way. Do you understand?”

“You mean they’ll torture me like they tortured my brother?”

“To the man who understands well,” replied the attorney, “few words suffice.”

“I’m not sure that I can sign a declaration declaring my allegiance to President Calles in good conscience. The way he’s persecuted the Catholics reminds one of what happened to the Christian martyrs in the times of Saint Paul.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” responded Doctor Alcantara. “I think you are being – what is the term you religious use? – I think you are being overly scrupulous. What do you lose by pledging your allegiance to President Calles when you know that will save your life?”

“I want to consult this matter with Jesuit Mexican Provincial Father Carlos Meyer. I can write him a quick letter. I don’t desire to be killed although I think of martyrdom for the faith as something glorious. But we’ll see what Father Meyer says. Can you get my letter to his hands? I’ll just be telling him about your proposal. You can even read it if you wish.”

“I’ll see that your Provincial gets the letter. But tell him that time is of the essence. President Calles wants this matter to be resolved as soon as possible.”

Father Martín wrote a brief letter outlining Doctor Alcantara’s proposal and handed it to the attorney.

“This is the way I like it,” the priest smiled as the attorney departed with the letter. “I’m putting the decision in the hands of God.”

Within forty-eight hours, Doctor Alcantara was back in the prison cell with Father Meyer’s response.

“In view of the circumstances,” wrote the Provincial, “I think it might be best for you to sign the declaration even if it pains you to praise President Calles. As your attorney says, they’ll get such a declaration one way or another. Don’t lose any sleep on this matter. The Christ does not want you to lose your life over a trifle.”

“I’m all in,” said the priest to his attorney. “Father Meyer has given me permission to sign it.”

“I think that’s the wisest course,” responded Doctor Alcantara. “I’m glad your Provincial sees it my way.”

That same day, the attorney arrived at Father Martín’s prison cell with the typewritten affidavit.

“We don’t have any time to lose,” said Doctor Alcantara. “The execution is scheduled for tomorrow morning. I need to get this declaration into President Calles’ hands before sundown. I should tell you that he’s doing you a great favor. Many of his advisors urged him to let your execution go forward. But he feels this way he’ll show the Mexican people his magnanimity.”

“As well as the perfidy of the Church,” muttered Father Martín under his breath.

After the attorney handed the three-page declaration to Father Martín, he quickly read it.

“What is this?” exclaimed the priest. “How can I sign this? This doesn’t reflect what we discussed yesterday.”

“Your own Provincial told you to sign it. Let’s not split hairs. Don’t get lost in the minutiae.”

“Minutiae! Have you read this?”

“It’s basically what we discussed,” responded the attorney.

“I, Father Martín Espinosa,” the priest began to read out loud, “am hereby admitting under oath that I helped plot the assassination of President-elect Alvaro Obregón at the insistence of certain bishops who will remain unnamed. I hereby acknowledge that the Mexican Church has cowardly ordered their superstitious followers to launch an illegitimate war against Mexico’s duly elected government. I hereby swear my allegiance to President Plutarco Elías Calles and abjure the Catholic faith. I no longer say, ‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ I say, ‘Death to Cristo Rey!’ and to all of his besotted followers known as the Cristeros.”

“Like I said,” insisted the attorney, “it’s basically what we discussed yesterday. Some of the language is a little strong. But by signing it you will be saving your life. And as I told you before, the federales will force you to sign it any way, under torture if necessary. You’ve already heard what happened to your brother.”

“I won’t sign this even if I am tortured for a hundred years. I renounced the Christ to save my life in the past, but I shall not do so a second time. Tell President Plutarco Elías Calles to let my execution go forward! ¡Viva Cristo Rey!”

***

The two brothers hadn’t slept knowing it was the last night of their lives. The authorities had only allowed the two men to sleep in the same cell on the night before their execution. Felipe smoked one cigarette after another while Father Martín comforted himself with a bit of brandy. At some point, Father Martín suggested they pray the Rosary and Felipe assented. They knew they would have to use their fingers instead of beads to count the prayers for no Rosary was at hand. When they prayed the Our Father, both meditated briefly at its last line, the one that asks the Father to deliver us from evil.

“Deliver us from evil,” Felipe repeated. Then, looking at his brother, he asked abruptly, “Do we still have a chance? Maybe some sort of final reprieve? What do you think?”

Felipe thought the dreaded moment would come soon, as the lambent light already appeared through the barred windows of the prison.

“You can always pray,” said Father Martín. “All things are possible with God.”

“I don’t want to die, Martín. I have a wife and kids to take care of. And I have a war to fight. Let us pray with all our hearts for a reprieve.”

“Oh, my little brother, you should have thought about that when you first hatched your plan to eliminate Alvaro Obregón. What did you expect would happen? That you would just return to Carolina and the kids after assassinating the second most powerful man in Mexico? But we can definitely pray for a last-minute reprieve. More importantly, we should pray for the courage and grace to accept our impending executions without succumbing to despair or reneging of our God.”

“I’m already desperate. To put it bluntly, I am terrified. Do you feel no fear? You seem so calm.”

“I have made my peace with this situation. I have made my peace with God. If you truly believe, death loses its sting, my dear Felipe. The Passion of the Christ was followed by the Resurrection. I still think you should go to Confession. Then I can give you the sacrament of Extreme Unction. At this moment, I am more concerned with your soul with our bodies.”

Felipe hesitated.

“I guess our deaths are imminent, aren’t they? I have nothing to lose and everything to gain if you hear my Confession.”

“Good,” said Father Martín. “Do you have a piece of bread in your little knapsack?”

“I do. Why do you ask? Are you suddenly hungry? I have some cheese as well.”

“Yes, I am hungry for the Eucharist. I can consecrate the bread so that it becomes the body of Christ, and we shall both be fortified by taking it. Didn’t the good Lord say that whenever two or three come together in His name, His presence is with them? I tell you, He is here with us in this moment of tribulation.”

“I’m still thinking my Confession would be dubious, Martín. How can I offer a sincere Confession when I don’t regret having assassinated Obregón?”

“Well, we’ll leave that in the hands of God. It is for Him to determine whether or not your Confession is worthy. Come, let me hear you. Seek solace in God and then we’ll have a feast with this hardened piece of bread!”

“Our last supper,” said Felipe. Suddenly he was a bit calmer.

“Indeed,” replied the priest. “You’ll see, this will make us stronger. The Eucharist always makes you stronger. And we’ll need much strength this morning. Don’t forget our mother will be in the crowds when we’re forced to face the firing squad. We have to be courageous in order to inspire her own valor. She will suffer as Mary suffered at the foot of the Cross when she sees the bodies of both her sons riddled with bullets.”

“I’m so sorry I got you into all this,” Felipe offered. “My death in some sense is comprehensible but not yours. If they hadn’t violently tormented me, I would never have leveled the accusations which I proffered against you. But I didn’t see an end to the torture.”

“Save that for your Confession, Felipe. As for me, I had long ago concluded that I’d end up in front of a firing squad in one way or another. If they didn’t have the assassination of Obregón as an excuse, I’m sure they would have come up with another.”

Father Martín then heard his brother’s Confession and delivered the Viaticum. Then he said the briefest of Masses for he knew their executioners would come within an hour. He lifted the holy Eucharist in the air and repeated the words of the Master during the Last Supper: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.” Then he swallowed a piece of bread and gave another to his brother. When the guards knocked at their door, both were ready for what was to come.

There were large crowds outside, for President Calles had decided to make a spectacle of the execution. A few were weeping, but some were as excited and giddy as if they were preparing to see a bullfight or witness a marvelous athletic event. The press was there in large numbers as well, and a little gray-haired woman pushed her way through the throngs in order to be as close to the two condemned men as possible. Father Martín, who had refused to be blindfolded, recognized her as his mother. He blew her a blessing and a kiss. She ran towards him and before the guards knew what was happening, she was giving him a hug and crying in his chest.

“Here,” said la señora Espinosa before the guards moved her away. “I have brought these for you.” In one hand she held a Rosary and in the other a crucifix.

“Thank you, Mother. I’ll pray for you in Heaven.”

The woman continued to weep as they pushed her son in front of the firing squad. Father Martín asked the guards for a minute to kneel and say a brief prayer.

“Into your hands I commit my spirit,” said the young priest as he stood up to face his executioners.

He stretched both arms wide like Jesus on the Cross.  In one hand, he held the Rosary, in the other the crucifix. Then, when he heard the order to shoot, he cried out in his loudest voice, “Long live Christ the King!”

His younger brother followed suit.

Some among the crowds started to chant as the two cadavers were hauled away like a dead bull after the estocada.

“¡Viva Cristo Rey!”

About the Author

Sandro F. Piedrahita

Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic author of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent, with a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College. Most of his stories revolve around Latin American mythical or historic themes, told with a modern twist. Mr. Piedrahita's short stories have been accepted for publication in The Write Launch, The Acentos Review, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Carmina Magazine, Synchronized Chaos, The Ganga Review, Limit Experience Journal and Foreshadow Magazine.