Sometime in the 1970’s I became familiar with the name Fr. Miguel Pro; I learned of him from a book my mother was reading. She told me that he was a priest-martyr from Mexico. How she came to know him, I do not know, but I know she had a devotion to him. Later, probably in conversations with her, I learned about the Mexican Cristero movement that had occurred in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Since then, the life of Fr. Pro and the tale of the Cristeros has always been of interest to me.
Even with this interest I had not taken the time to read-up on the Cristeros. So, when the opportunity to review Msgr. James Murphy’s recent book, Saints and Sinners in the Cristero War (Ignatius Press, 2019) came my way, I jumped on it; am I glad I did! If you know absolutely nothing about the Cristero movement, Msgr. Murphy succinctly walks you through it. I consider it a primer on the Cristero War. He does not detail battles and campaigns. He discusses the ideologies of the Mexican governments against the Catholic Church and the reactions of the rebels.
Msgr. Murphy walks you through the history of Mexican politics and politicians and their attitudes towards the Catholic Church from the 19th century into the 20th century. He discusses how the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, dramatically influenced the social justice teaching of the Church, especially in Mexico, and how this teaching clashed with the constitutions of Mexico. He writes how the United States government had a hand in trying to end the conflict. Not least, he talks about the “sinners and saints” of the era.
One “sinner” is Plutarco Calles, a president of Mexico in that era. A large portion of the book details his policies and attitudes toward the Church. Murphy also discusses other prior and subsequent Mexican presidents, but Calles looms large. Naturally, one cannot discuss the Cristero movement without mentioning Fr. Miguel Pro. Though not an active participant in the politics of the movement, his ministry is unforgettable. I learned about other “saints” who I had never heard of; namely, Archbishop Francisco Orozco and St. Toribio Romo.
Even though I enjoyed the book, I felt that some of the background information should have been combined and not scattered throughout the book. For instance, Msgr. Murphy early-on spoke about the women who were involved in the movement. A few chapters later he briefly touched on them again, but it seemed like he was being repetitive. I also felt that he needed to add more dates through his narrative for perspective. There was a Chronology in the back of the book; it helped a bit.
For me, the pace of the book really picked-up beginning with Chapter 7 on Saint Toribio Romo. It almost seemed like I was reading another book. The stories began to flow beautifully. I was turning pages even more quickly than I had before. I really appreciated the references to other sources that Msgr. Murphy provided. They are good launching pads for further reading.
The sinister take-aways of Saints and Sinners in the Cristero War are 1) how recently all this happened to our neighbor to the South and how the majority of us in the United States know nothing about this history; 2) how it impacted the Mexican and American Churches; 3) how easy it can potentially be for anti-religion, specifically anti-Catholic, ideologues in political power to impose their beliefs upon the masses; and 4) how cruel and diabolical unfettered hatred can overtake a society.
Perhaps my mother learned of Blessed Miguel Pro and the Cristeros from older acquaintances and friends she knew who might have had first-hand knowledge of the events occurring in Mexico. I will never know. But I am sure glad that she taught me what she knew. I am glad that I kept the interest and that Msgr. Murphy’s book gave me greater insight into the events that happened in Mexico less than 100 years ago. It is certainly knowledge I hope to pass on to others.
¡Viva Cristo Rey!
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Copyright 2019 Michael T. Carrillo