For Greater Glory
Star-powered new film explores religious freedom and the martyrs who made it possible . . .
by Sabrina Arena Ferrisi
Imagine living in a country where the government has closed every single Catholic parish. There are no church bells, no Masses, no Confession and no Church weddings. Proclaiming your faith in public can get you thrown in jail or worse — killed.
That’s exactly what Catholics in Mexico were dealing with 85 years ago. It’s shocking to many who know Mexico as a deeply Catholic country. However, Mexico has a long history of anti-Catholicism, which reached a violent zenith from 1926-1929.
The severe repression of the Catholic faith and the subsequent rebellion by Mexican Catholics — the so-called Cristeros War or “Cristiada” — is the subject of the new movie “For Greater Glory.” It hits theaters on June 1 with an all-star cast, including Peter O’Toole, Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria and Eduardo Verástegui, a member of Legatus’ Hollywood Chapter.
“As a Mexican, I had never heard about this struggle. It was not until I was 28 years old on a five-day spiritual retreat at St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California,” Verástegui told Legatus magazine.
Verástegui, who hails from Tamaulipas, Mexico, was on the retreat to discern what story he should be telling the world as an actor and newly “awakened” Catholic. A priest suggested he do a movie on the Cristeros and gave him books on the subject. Verástegui was shocked to learn the facts about the war — a conflict that took about 100,000 lives.
“Regarding the Cristiada, there was no reference to it at all in Mexican history books or textbooks in either public or private schools. It was explicitly hidden from our history and purposefully demeaned as a bunch of crazy people assaulting villages,” said Flor Hinrichsen, a mother and housewife from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Only devout Catholic families remember the Cristiada — particularly in the hardest hit areas.
When Verástegui went to Mexico and spoke to childhood friends about the Cristiada, none remember ever studying it.
“The Cristeros rebellion is hugely significant,” said Julia Young, who teaches history at Catholic University of America. “It was a response to new restrictions which had existed since the 1917 Constitution. These were anti-clerical laws designed to limit Church influence.”
Catholicism’s influence in Mexico had been very strong since colonial times, playing an active role in all aspects of society. Many political leaders came to believe that the Church had too much power and influence.
“There was no separation between Church and state,” Young explained.
Rise of the Cristeros
The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was designed to oust longtime autocrat Porfirio Diaz, but it also led to increased anti-clericalism.
“The articles written within the 1917 Constitution said that the clergy could not wear clerical garb,” Young said. “They couldn’t vote, and education had to be free and secular. The Constitution represented the most left-leaning perspective of the Revolution.”
The anti-clerical articles were sporadically enforced for the first nine years, but that changed when atheist president Plutarco Calles was elected in 1924.
“He had a personal vendetta against the Catholic Church,” said Young. “He blamed the social development problems of Mexico on the Church. He was part of a group that said Mexicans were fanatical and stunted by the Church. But his vendetta was also about other things. Porfirio Diaz had been conciliatory in his relations with the Church, and Calles was against Diaz.”
Calles enforced all of the Constitution’s anti-clerical articles. Convents, monasteries and religious schools were closed. The government seized Church property. If a priest criticized the government, he could be imprisoned for five years, and no priest could appear in public wearing clerical garb.
Mexican bishops made the difficult decision to suspend worship on July 31, 1926. Although the Church collected one million signatures and presented them to the Calles administration, the government refused to rescind any aspect of the law. Economic boycotts against the government had minimal effect.
“You can imagine how every Church was flooded day in and day out during those final days,” said Ruben Quezada, a historical consultant on For Greater Glory. “Blessed Miguel Pro, one of the martyrs, writes about how he was hearing Confessions all day long. All foreign priests were expelled. Those who stayed behind were celebrating Masses underground, but it was totally illegal. They could be shot. The faithful were incarcerated and fined. The government was trying to asphyxiate the Church.”
In 1927, the first rebellion in favor of the Church began in Jalisco and snowballed from there to other regions. Mexican bishops were conflicted about the rebellion — whether to support a violent response or not. The Cristero movement had begun.
The Mexican conference of bishops has thrown its support behind the film. They asked parish priests across the country to promote it before the national premiere on April 20. Filmmakers saw the hand of God at work when it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI’s first Mass on Mexican soil on March 25 would take place under a 75-foot statue of Christ the King — the symbol for the Cristeros who cried out “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King) before running into battle.
Verástegui says For Greater Glory, which was shot in English with Spanish subtitles, was a labor of love for everyone involved.
“When I read the script, I cried. It blew me away,” he said.
Verástegui plays a layman named Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, a civilian leader of the Cristeros. He was captured by government forces, tortured and killed for his faith. Pope Benedict beatified him in 2005.
“All of his friends were killed in front of him and he refused to fight back,” said Verástegui. “He tried to defend his religious freedom in a peaceful way. They call him the Gandhi of Mexico. He’s an incredible man.”
Many pundits, including the movie’s producer Pablo Jose Barroso, believe For Greater Glory is highly relevant because of contemporary challenges to religious freedom in the United States.
Quezada, who has made over 500 presentations on the Cristero War in the U.S. and Mexico, is frequently asked if it could happen again.
“I say yes. Three or four years ago I couldn’t have imagined what is happening now in our country. I see an awakening here. I see how bishops are responding. This is how the persecution in Mexico began. When Calles began to enact the articles of the Constitution, the bishops responded in the same way as here. Do I see a correlation? Yes. You better believe it.”
But others are slower to draw parallels.
“I would be uncomfortable making that comparison,” Young said. “In Mexico, it was so draconian in 1926. The fact is, we are having a dialogue here. The Catholic Church could not write or publish in the press. I can’t see the majority of U.S. Catholics taking up arms now.”
The producers of For Greater Glory hope the film will strike a chord with all audiences and educate them about this terrible period in Mexican and Catholic history.
“I have been praying for a film like this for years. I’ve seen it now — and the story itself is phenomenal,” said Quezada. “Every Catholic in the world must learn about this period in Mexican history because no one has the right to take away religious freedom.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer. For more on the film, visit ForGreaterGlory.com