Faith in the Face of Fear with St. Cristóbal Magallanes Jara and Companions
Cristóbal (Christopher) Magallanes Jara and his fellow martyrs are some of the lesser-known heroes of La Cristiada, or the Cristero War in Mexico (1926-1929). They were canonized by St. John Paul II in 2000. Many had their introduction to the Cristero War in the 2012 movie “For Greater Glory.” Out of that conflict, 26 people have been canonized and 14 have been beatified. That is the tip of the iceberg in terms of lives lost: about 90,000 died at the hands of the Marxist government.
Cristóbal was born in 1869 to a farming family. He was ordained a priest at the age of 30, first assigned a post as a school chaplain in Guadalajara. He later returned as pastor to his home village of Totatiche. He ministered there for about 20 years until his death. Cristóbal had a great zeal to evangelize those in his town, as well as the local indigenous population, the Huichol people. In addition to the spiritual care of his fellow Catholics, Cristóbal started a wood mill and worked on a dam to provide for the town.
The government started restricting religious practices in 1914 and closed all seminaries. Undeterred, Cristóbal opened a clandestine seminary in his parish in 1915. That seminary still operates today in Totatiche.
On the way to celebrate Mass on a farm in 1927, Cristóbal was suddenly taken prisoner. Whatever the official charges against him, his crime was being a priest. Four days later with no trial, Cristóbal was shot by a firing squad, and thus passed into eternal life.
Notice the gap between the opening of the clandestine seminary and Cristóbal’s death! Once the government decreed that all public worship was a criminal offense, priests had two options: go into hiding or register with the government. Only a minority of priests did not register. Although the “safer” option was to register with the government, the rules changed from state to state. The governor of the state of Tabasco, for example, only allowed six priests to remain in his state—covering about 9,500 square miles. Not only were those priests severely restricted, but they were forced to violate their vow of celibacy and take wives (see Chistopher Check, ¡Viva Cristo Rey!).
In some instances, the Church and a hostile government can work together toward some similar ends. But no amount of dialogue or companionship can reconcile a government hostile to Catholicism. Just a cursory history of martyrs unveils problem after problem—and that compromise of truth advances nothing. This is not confined to any particular part of the world; nor a single era in history. Whether the government is pagan, pluralistic, Protestant, Muslim, atheist, Marxist, fascist, or any other variety, martyrs have risen. Sooner or later, the Church becomes an enemy to hostile governments.
The converse is also true: when the Catholic Church encounters a society hostile to the faith, it starts to fight against the tide. In ancient times, the Christians “fought” against Roman persecution with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. They contested with their own blood, laying it down in sacrifice in fidelity to Christ. Martyrs in other ages gave their lives over to Christ in the missions, in foreign lands, and in their home country.
Serve God with What He Gave You
Many saints dreamed of martyrdom out of exceptional love for Jesus. In La Cristiada, many received that opportunity. St. José Sánchez del Rio begged to join the Cristeros at the age of 15, and he was allowed after all attempts to turn him away were exhausted. His martyrdom is depicted in the movie “For Greater Glory.” His passion for the cause of Christ led to a painful death. As powerful as it was in the movie, it was toned down quite a bit from what actually happened. Another martyr during La Cristiada, Bl. Miguel Pro, S.J., grew up the practical joker in his family. When the sacraments were outlawed, Bl. Miguel was famous for ministering in secret. He travelled from house to house in disguise, one time even going into a police station to ask for directions. He ministered for over a year before getting caught. His last words were the battle cry of the Cristeros: ¡Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!)
St. Cristóbal worked in his parish, preached non-violent resistance, and went about his priestly duties conferring the sacraments. Although he may not have had the fiery passion of St. José, or the escape artist skills of Bl. Miguel, St. Cristóbal was faithful to his vocation to the end. He remained faithful to Christ when first going underground; every time he celebrated Mass or a baptism, he renewed that pledge of fidelity.
Properly Preparing for Our Passing
Martyrdom or no, death comes for us all. St. Cristóbal knew the times he was living in, and likely expected martyrdom as a possibility. Right before his execution, he gave away his only possessions to his jailers. Right before facing the firing squad, he offered words of comfort to Fr. Agustin Caloca Cortés, who ran the seminary in Totatiche, His last words were, “I die innocent, and ask God that my blood may serve to unite my Mexican brethren." St. Cristóbal stared death in the face and was a man at peace. Pause for a moment to consider the grace that the Lord bestowed upon him.
We cannot look at our death out of context. It’s easy to focus on the pain, the suffering, and the scary details of death. If we look at it in that vacuum, yes, it’s an awful thing worthy of great fear. However, there is so much more to the story for Catholics. The suffering does not disappear, but we are joined to the cross of our Savior (see Colossians 1:24). Jesus transformed death, opened heaven to us, and waits for us on the other side. Grace also piles on, as well as the fruits of suffering. Those divine elements inject hope and deliver us from despair.
One other way we can avoid despair is to prepare our souls on a daily basis. We don’t know when our time will come. When it does, the only certainty is that it will be too late to get ready. The best we can do at the moment of death is ask for forgiveness, implore the Divine Mercy, and entrust ourselves to Jesus. A holy life makes that moment far less heavy, and even joyful.
St. Cristóbal and his companions show us the way through the pain and the suffering: trusting in Christ, staying faithful to Him, and embracing their cross.