What San Joselito's shining example teaches us about persecuted Christians

by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda

North Texas Catholic

A tapestry of new Mexican St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, who was martyred at the age of 14 in 1928, hangs from the facade of St. Peter's Basilica during the canonization Mass for seven new saints celebrated by Pope Francis at the Vatican Oct. 16, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)                                                                                 


Editor’s Note: The story of St. Jose Sanchez del Rio brings to our attention not just the persecution often experienced by the Church in its past, but the ugliness of religious persecution continuing today. In 2016 alone, 90,000 Christians were killed for their faith according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. We encourage you to pray for all those persecuted for their faith.

On an ordinary evening in February of 1928, a teenager known fondly to family and friends as Joselito stood fearlessly facing a group of armed Mexican Federales who demanded that he renounce his Catholic faith.

José had already been brutally tortured, the skin on the soles of his feet sheered off. Forced to walk on salt through the streets of his hometown, he must have known the destination would be his grave.

Yet even as each step caused the 14-year-old to scream in pain, he would not give in.

“If you shout, ‘Death to Christ the King,’ we will spare your life,” the soldiers tried one last time, demanding that José deny his faith and instead pledge allegiance to the government.

“¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!” Joselito confidently countered, “Long live Christ the King! Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe!”

On February 10, 1928, José Sánchez del Río was ultimately shot and martyred for professing his Catholic faith at the cemetery in his hometown of Sahuayo, in the state of Michoacán, Mexico.

He was six weeks shy of his 15th birthday.

A Country in Chaos

In the 1920s — led by oppresive President Plutarco Elías Calles — the historically Catholic country of Mexico became deeply immersed in a violent, dark tempest of religious persecution.

By the middle of the decade, Catholic activitists founded La Liga Nacional de la Defensa de la Libertad Religiosa, or National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, in an attempt to challenge peacefully the growing religious discrimination.

But as anti-Catholic pressure increased, the"Calles Law," as it came to be known, insisted on swift and uniform enforcement throughout the country of the Constitution's anticlerical and anti-Catholic articles.

St. Jose Sanchez del Rio

Threatening severe sanctions for violations and for government officials who failed to enforce them, Calles vowed, "As long as I am President of the Republic, the Constitution of 1917 will be obeyed," mockingly adding that he would not be moved by the "wailing of sacristans or the pujidos (groans) of the over-pious."

As strict “enforcement” turned into open discrimination, persecution, and torture of Catholics, underground rebels took up arms against Calles’ military, the Federales. The rebels became known as Cristeros because of their battle cry — “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long live Christ the King!”

But to President Calles and his viciously anti-Catholic government, this declaration of faith, often proclaimed as last words by many Cristeros before their deaths, was clearly rebellious — and treasonous.

During this dark and vicious period, as many as 50,000 Catholics from every socioeconomic background were killed or martyred, including 90 priests, for standing up for their faith.

A Saint is Born

José Sánchez del Río was born on March 28, 1913, into a devoted family deeply committed to living out and proclaiming their Catholic faith.

Once President Calles’ virulent anti-Catholic practices reached the faithful community of Sahuayo, on the western side of Mexico, Joselito begged his mother for permission to follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers who had already joined the Cristero movement.

When his mother objected, pointing out that he was too young, José replied, "Mama… do not let me lose the opportunity to gain Heaven so easily and so soon.”

It took him much pleading before Cristero General Prudencio Mendoza allowed him to enlist in the ranks — as a flagbearer.

During a battle on February 5, 1928, Joselito was captured and imprisoned in the rectory of his town’s church. José prayed the Rosary and sang songs of faith to encourage not only himself, but also other Cristero prisoners. 

In an attempt to intimidate him, the Federales made him watch as they threatened and hung a fellow Cristero. But instead of backing down, José encouraged his friend with words that echo those spoken by Christ on the cross when he addressed the thief hanging next to him: “You will be in heaven before me. Prepare a place for me…Tell Christ the King I shall be with him soon.”

A few days before his death, Joselito wrote a letter to his mother telling her of his imprisonment. The handwritten note, dated February 6, 1928, reads in part: 

“I am resigned to the will of God. I die very happy because I die beside Our Lord. Do not afflict yourself because of my death since to die for God gives me joy. I send greetings to my brothers and ask them to always follow the smallest wish of God. I ask you to send me your blessing together with that of my father. I greet all for the last time. I send you love from your child’s heart and desire so much to see you before dying…”

On June 22, 2004, José was recognized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II. He was beatified on November 20, 2005, by Pope Benedict XVI.

And on October 16, 2016, José Sánchez del Río was one of seven “witnesses” canonized by Pope Francis, who noted in his homily that these men and women “fought the good fight of faith and love by their prayers. That is why they remained firm in faith,” the pope emphasized, “with a generous and steadfast heart.”

The story of Joselito the young Cristero was recently featured in the 2012 Andy Garcia movie, “For Greater Glory: the True Story of Cristiada.”

He is considered the patron saint of persecuted Christians, children, and adolescents. His feast day is February 10.

Dark Times for the Church in Mexico

Catholicism has been a part of Mexico’s history for almost 500 years, second oldest in the Americas only to Cuba and the Caribbean islands.

Ironically, Mexico was also the setting of one of the most violent and blatant anti-Catholic persecutions in history.

Following the 1910 revolution—and the virulent anti-Catholic articles added to the1917 Mexican Constitution, Catholics were viciously persecuted—with the greatest violence taking place under President Plutarco Elías Calles.

A painting by Mexican artist Martha Orozco features six priests – members of the Knights of Columbus – who were canonized by Pope John Paul II May 21, 2000. The priests were among 25 martyrs of Mexico's anti-Catholic persecution during the 1920s. (CNS photo/courtesy of Knights of Columbus)

Not only did President Calles strip the Church of all property, appropriating Catholic schools and seminaries, hospitals, universities, and homes for orphans and the aged, but the government also banned monastic orders, expelled missionaries and seminarians, and prohibited any form of public worship. Priests and nuns were barred from wearing religious garments, banned from voting, and forbidden from criticizing the government or commenting on public affairs, either in writing or word of mouth. And if charged with violation of the law, they were denied trial by jury.

Mexico’s bishops were expelled and many of the clergy were exiled for years, some returning clandestinely to work and minister “underground.”

In his encyclical, Iniquis Afflictisque, Pope Pius XI addressed the horrific situation in Mexico, declaring what was taking place as a “cruel persecution,” and deploring the “great evils” of President Calles’ government.

In 1925, and at the height of the Cristeros battle cry, Pope Pius XI established for the universal Church the feast of Christ the King.

Joselito’s miracle

In 2016, during Pope Francis’ February visit to the Cathedral of Morelia, capital of Mexico’s Michoacán state, the pope stopped to talk with seven-year-old Ximena Guadalupe, a young girl with a direct connection to Joselito.

As a newborn baby, Ximena Guadalupe Magallón Gálvez contracted pneumonia and tuberculosis. At three months, she had a stroke, developed meningitis, and experienced epilectic seizures. To reduce constant spasms, the doctors induced a coma and told her parents that 90 percent of Ximena’s brain was dead.

Ximena’s mom, Paulina Gálvez Ávila, requested to hold her child while the doctors disconnected life support. “At that time I put my baby in the hands of God and the intercession of Joselito,” she told the official Mexican news agency Notimex. The baby instead “opened her eyes and smiled, looked at the doctors and started to laugh.”

After an official investigation, Ximena’s cure was declared a miracle and attributed to the intercession of José Sánchez del Río, clearing the way for Joselito’s canonization. 

On an ordinary evening in February of 1928, a teenager known fondly to family and friends as Joselito stood fearlessly facing a group of armed Mexican Federales who demanded that he renounce his Catholic faith.