Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI preceded Pope Francis in beatifying or canonizing saints who were martyred during the Mexican Cristero War (1926-1929). The holiness of these saints was proven in the circumstances of a religious persecution.
The Catholic Church was severely weakened by the Mexican government in the Cristero War. Church properties were seized, schools and other Church institutions were closed, and priests were exiled or murdered. Not just priests were martyred during this tragic period of history in the Mexican Church, however. Many laypeople suffered death to defend the right to religious freedom, and one of the Church’s newest saints was among them — St. José Sánchez del Rio.
He’s commonly referred to today as “Josélito,” a diminutive and endearing form of his name that recalls his young death. At first denied permission to join the Cristero rebel movement because of his young age, the boy didn’t relent. When his mother expressed her opposition, he said, “Mama, do not let me lose the opportunity to gain heaven so easily and so soon.” José’s persistent desire to give his life for Christ and others won out, and the general permitted him to be the troop’s flagbearer. Members of his troop gave him another nickname — Tarcisus — after the young early Christian saint who sacrificed his life to protect the Eucharist from sacrilege.
In late January 1928, José was captured by government officers. It was a sad circumstance: He had given his horse to the general of his troop, sought shelter and fired at the enemy until he ran out of ammunition and was captured.
The young prisoner of war was taken to a makeshift cell in the sacristy of a nearby church. According to the witness of childhood friends, while there, he prayed the Rosary daily and prepared for his impending death. He was ready to do God’s will, emphasizing this in a heart-wrenching letter to his mother. His father attempted but failed to secure his release.
José never had a trial but was offered the chance to live if he would renounce his faith. He refused. Hoping to weaken him in his determination, his persecutors brought him to witness the hanging of a compatriot. Instead of recanting his faith in Christ, José heartened him, saying they’d soon see each other in heaven.
The night of Feb. 10, 1928, José was forced to walk through town in his own Way of the Cross. His Calvary would be the local cemetery. Before he set out, they cut the bottom of his feet, and as he walked, they inflicted several wounds upon him with a large blade. It was torture. He shouted in pain. He shared in Christ’s passion and death, offering himself for the good of others and love of God. Again they tried to cause him to renounce his faith, “If you shout ‘Death to Christ the King,’ we will spare your life.” José had nothing of it. “I will never give in. Viva Cristo Rey!”
Finally, they reached the cemetery — the place of his death — and, with bayonets, his persecutors stabbed him repeatedly. Their commander, however, shot him, frustrated with the slow, agonizing death his underlings rendered the boy. Just before dying, José traced in the dirt. It was a cross, which he bent down and kissed.
Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez contextualized the role of the young man’s heroic holiness: St. José helps us realize that we “can do great things for Jesus, no matter how young you are. It doesn’t mean necessarily suffering death, or pain, or sorrow,” he said. St. José teaches us how to “live as God wishes us to live.”
His feast day is Feb. 10.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic.