Rome, October 16, 2004
To All ECYD Members
My Very Dear Friends in Christ,
I send you my most affectionate greetings. I am writing to let you know that, starting now, Blessed José Sánchez del Río, better known as “Sahuayo’s Martyr”, will be the new ECYD patron, together with the current boys’ patron, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, and the girls’, Saint Agnes. José was a 14-year-old boy executed during the Mexican Cristero War for defending and proclaiming his faith in Christ.
For a long time I had wanted to offer José as an example for you to follow as ECYD members, and I do so now with this letter, taking advantage of the fact that Pope John Paul II promulgated his decree of beatification on June 22, 2004.
José Sánchez’ witness is very appealing and full of lessons for us to apply in our own lives. Moreover, as a model of holiness he is a lot closer to us, not only in time, but also, as I shall explain, in the beginnings of my vocation and the foundation of the Legion of Christ and ECYD. José and I were good friends even though he was seven years older, and from the time I met him I deeply admired him.
1. Hero, Soldier, and Martyr at 14
José Sánchez was born on March 28, 1913, in Sahuayo de Díaz, a small village in the state of Michoacán, near Cotija. He was the third of four children. His family was of Spanish descent and well-off. He always did all he could to help the poor and the needy. He liked horses and was an outstanding rider. He was always surrounded with friends and got along with everyone. He never used his height or strength to control his companions. I remember him as a healthy, likeable boy, active and mischievous, pleasant and simple, very obedient and affectionate towards his parents. But above all he was very fervent in his faith; he received the sacraments often and prayed the rosary every day.
When he was 13, what became known as the Cristero War broke out. It was the bloodiest, cruelest persecution that Mexico has ever known, one as cruel as those of the first centuries of Christianity. But these were also the years in which the pages of greatest heroism and gallantry in my country’s history were written. They were hard times, times for courageous, through-and-through Christians. Many bishops were expelled from their dioceses, as happened to my uncle, Blessed Rafael Guízar y Valencia,. Priests were persecuted and killed in barbarous ways, Church properties were confiscated, seminaries were closed, churches were used as stables or prisons, sacred images were burnt and tabernacles desecrated. The government’s hatred for Christ and his Church stopped at nothing, not even sparing women and children.
I myself saw dozens of Cristeros hanged on posts by the road, and the firing-squads often used our village square for cruel executions. I’ll never forget the faces and hanging bodies of those men. They are so etched in my memory that even now, almost eighty years later, it’s as if I can still hear them shout out, “Long live Christ the King!” before the firing-squad’s volley or hangman’s rope cuts their life short. A lesson of faith and love for God, stamped in fire on my young soul!
Mexican Catholics found no other alternative than to take up arms to defend what they loved most, their faith in Christ and their Church’s rights. With the rallying cry of “Long live Christ the King, long live our Lady of Guadalupe!” an army of soldiers for Christ quickly gathered, coming from all social classes, the large cities and the remotest villages. They were the Cristeros, and the bishops and even Pope Pius XI supported them. José Sánchez – or José Luis as we his friends called him because this was his battle name – was one of those soldiers who were not afraid to give their lives for the sake of heaven.
A few months after he joined the Cristero army, which had been difficult because they wouldn’t accept him for being so young, they had an intense clash with the federal troops. In the Battle of Cotija the Cristero general’s horse was shot from under him and without a moment’s hesitation, José Luis jumped off his own horse and told the general to take it to make his escape. “General,” he said, “take my horse and get away, the cause needs you more than me.” With these words he pronounced his own death sentence. He knew he would surely be executed, since the government’s orders were to do away with any Cristero taken prisoner. José Luis, rifle in hand, faced the enemy and covered the general’s retreat until he ran out of bullets. “You took me,” he said to his captors, “because I ran out of bullets, but I will not surrender.”
Our friend began four days of agony, before his last and most difficult battle: the one for heaven. Tortures, interrogations, beatings, sleepless nights, barely a thing to eat, attempts at bribing to make him betray his faith… No use. In answer he prayed more intensely, and he replied to his torturers after each beating or interrogation, “I’d rather die than betray Christ or my country.” Taking after his Master during his Passion, José Luis remained steadfast and faithful to Christ and to his conscience.
February 10 came, 1928, the day he would enter eternity. There was no trial and they gave him no chance to defend himself. They led him out with his hands tied. It was about eleven at night. His executioners chose that time, after curfew, because they wanted nobody to find out what they were going to do to the boy. With a knife they slowly pared the skin off his feet and forced him to walk on salt. Then they led him out a stony road towards the cemetery.
On the way there, trying to make him deny his faith, the soldiers punched and pushed him on and, as if he were a bull in a bullfight, they jabbed his body with small, pointed knives. At every stab, José Luis shouted louder: “Long live Christ the King, long live Our Lady of Guadalupe!” The stones on the path were stained with blood. The people inside their houses heard the shouts and wept at what the soldiers were doing to him. Some of us followed him and saw it all. They wanted to stab him to death so as not to make noise with gunshots. Seeing that he wouldn’t stop shouting, “Long live Christ the King!” one of the soldiers struck José Luis so hard with his rifle butt that he broke his jaw.
When they came to place of his “Calvary”, the cemetery, they forced José Luis, with what little strength he had left, to dig his own grave. Then, since they couldn’t get him to deny his faith and instead he continued to proclaim his faith in Christ, the officer in charge, out of patience by now, walked up to José Luis, took out his pistol and shot him point-blank in the head. His last words were “Long live Christ the King and Holy Mary of Guadalupe!” His body, covered in blood, fell to the ground. They threw a few shovelfuls of dirt on him and left. A piece of paper with his name written on it in a bottle next to his body gave proof that there lay a hero of the nation, a soldier for Christ and a martyr of the Church, a mere 14 years old.
2. José Sánchez, role-model for ECYD Members
a) Passionate love for Jesus Christ
For José Luis, Jesus Christ was always his great friend, his best friend, his companion in his exploits and battles. He talked with him throughout the day, more naturally than with his friends. He told him his problems and difficulties, and he liked to celebrate with him his times of joy, when he got good grades in school or won a game. They did everything together. Both of them, Christ and he, had made a pact of friendship that they would stay together forever—not even death would separate them.
José Luis’ fidelity to this friendship, however, came at the price of his blood, he pronounced Jesus’ name with his martyrdom. While he was imprisoned he said to his guards, “Even if you cut out my tongue and tie me hand and foot, every motion and movement of my body will be my way of shouting, “Long live Christ the King!” His only goal in everything he did was to transmit Christ, to proclaim him, and to be a witness of this love to everyone: friends, parents, siblings, the Cristeros, and even his executioners.
During his imprisonment, they tempted him with all sorts of promises and blackmail to have him betray Christ. They offered him money to go to the United States and live in peace, they offered a brilliant military career with all the perks…. Nothing swayed him. The result was always the same: “I’ll die first!” He even told his father not to pay one cent of the five thousand gold pesos the government demanded as ransom. Nothing and nobody could get him to kill his conscience or sell out on Christ. He was a solid, undivided Christian.
José Luis was a true leader. Wherever he went his very presence spread love for Christ, he was an apostle even in the least favorable circumstances. Immediately he won the love and respect of the Cristeros, who christened him Tarcisius, not only because he was very young, but also because of his example of piety and love for the Eucharist. He showed special devotion as he knelt down to “present arms” to Christ in the Eucharist as the priest walked down the lines blessing the Cristero troops with the Blessed Sacrament before they entered battle. His most ardent request, a few hours before dying, was to receive Holy Communion so as to be able to face the final stretch of his sufferings with Christ in his heart. The Eucharist was always his nourishment and strength, the regular place where he would open his heart to his friend Jesus Christ.
b) Courageous and Filial Love for His Mother the Church
Out of charity, he would never fight with his siblings or friends; he used his strength only when Christ and the Church had to be defended, when his faith was trampled on. And there was no-one to best him at fighting for his faith. Courage is not measured by muscles, words or appearances, but by the ability to be faithful to your convictions in the midst of the greatest trials. And José Luis was a coherent Christian. His faith and love for Christ didn’t leave him in peace, he couldn’t be a bystander, he had to do something to defend the Church.
He didn’t take to the mountains in search of adventure or for fun but, like the rest of the Cristeros, because they weren’t being allowed to practice their religion freely, and priests were being persecuted and maltreated. This is what detonated the Cristero War. They could not tolerate Christ and his Church being trampled on in this way in his ministers and churches. Don Rafael Picazo, the Government deputy who had him imprisoned (a neighbor of José Luis and, before the war, a friend of his family and sponsor at his First Communion) kept three fighting cocks on the main altar of the Church where Jose Luis was imprisoned, the same church where he was baptized and confirmed. José Luis didn’t hesitate to kill the cocks and clean the place up with his shirt. When the furious Picazo asked him: “Do you know how much they’re worth?” he answered: “All I know is that the house of God my Father is a place of prayer, not an animal shelter.” That answer cost him a good punch and several teeth.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons that José Luis gives us is that when it comes to being a great saint and an apostle, doing great things for Christ and for the Church, age is not a factor. It doesn’t matter either if what you do is eye-catching or not, only the faith and the love with which you do it. “You are still very young, you’re not even strong enough to carry a rifle around,” the Cristero general said to him, “this life is very tough for a boy like you, used to your mother’s pampering and fancy sheets on your bed.” “It doesn’t matter,” José Luis insisted, “I can help the soldiers to take off their spurs or saddle up the horses, I can fry beans, take care of the horses, or oil the weapons.” His resolve and the sincerity of his words won the confidence and appreciation of the general, who accepted him into his ranks. He made José Luis the Cristero flag-bearer and bugler.
c) To Desire Heaven More than your Own Life
“It’s never been easier to win heaven than now,” he said to his mother when she asked him why he wanted to leave and fight for Christ. To encourage his fellow-prisoner, he said, “Don’t quit. Our sufferings will be over in the blink of an eye.” And to comfort himself and overcome his fear during the long nights of his captivity, he would sing the song: “I want to go to heaven, to heaven!”
José Luis never lost sight of the fact that heaven was his life’s goal and that it was well worth any sacrifice or suffering to get there, for he knew that in heaven he would enjoy God for all eternity. That is why he was able to give up his life to receive it back for heaven. Fourteen years of life were enough for him to live it to the full and win the prize. Following the Gospel’s advice he did not fear those who could kill the body, but only those who could destroy his faith and friendship with Christ, rob him of the purity of his body and heart, or make him betray his convictions (cf. Luke 12,4-5). Death rather than sin. And so he preferred a short life with Christ to a long and comfortable one without him and without eternal life. He died as he had always lived: on his feet, fighting like a true Christian, with the lamp of his faith and love burning.
A few days before his departure, my friend Jose Luis asked me: “Marcial, won’t you go with me?” With all my heart I would have loved to, to fight for the Church and give my life for Christ, but my mother wouldn’t let me, I was only seven. Later, when I got to the age José Luis was when he died I understood why. God had another mission for me, to give my life as a priest in the service of others. He was asking me for a different kind of martyrdom: to die every day, minute by minute, a martyrdom of love and limitless self-giving. God asked him to die out of faith; he asked me to live in faith, to help my Mother the Church through my self-surrender. I must admit that even though for sure this life has been hard, it has also been very beautiful, so much so that I would choose it again a thousand times over. But I can’t deny I choke up simply thinking of my friend José Luis, how I would have liked to die such a death myself!
God may not ask you either to shed your blood like José Luis did; but, like me, he will ask you to be faithful Catholics, authentic men and women, coherent in your faith. What use is your life if you don’t spend it for Christ? I know many young people who at the age of 12, 13, or 15 didn’t hesitate to leave everything to give their lives as priests or consecrated souls, for Christ and their neighbor. You need to be ready in your heart to do the same should God ask it of you.
Dear ECYD members, if you really want to be soldiers in Christ’s army, understand that you need to love Jesus Christ passionately, more than yourselves. You must be ready for any sacrifice if only you can make him reign in as many hearts as possible. You are not going to sit around while your faith or Mother Church are persecuted. The Church needs courageous men and women in love with Christ and sure of their faith; apostles who battle to be faithful to Christ, and when they fall or are wounded do not stay down but get up and continue fighting even more fiercely; people unashamed of Jesus when someone points at them or laughs at them, who will not throw down their arms in the face of difficulty, and are prepared to overcome evil with good and charity. Essentially, if you want to be a good son or daughter of the Church as an ECYD member you must have only one motto, from the first to the last moment of your day – My life for Christ! And only one mission – to help Christ save souls.
Dear young people of ECYD, from now on José Sánchez del Río will be your patron. Get to know him, look at the example he set, ask him to help you remain faithful in your friendship with Christ and your life of grace, but especially try to live as he did. May the last words he wrote to his mother hours before going to his death always echo in your hearts, “Christ lives, Christ reigns, Christ rules! Long live Christ the King and Holy Mary of Guadalupe!” Pronounce these words with your courageous witness.
I pray to our dear Mother in heaven, the Most Holy Virgin Mary, to make you every day more like this great imitator of her Son Jesus Christ.
With all my love in Christ