Watching the Holy Father celebrate Mass in León, Mexico, inevitably stirred up searing memories for people in Mexico and elsewhere. From 1926 to 1929 some 90,000 Catholics were killed in that area, as they rebelled against the secular and anti-Church government of the time. Those martyrs were called Cristeros, and their call was, often as they were being killed by firing squads, “Viva Cristo Rey,” in English, “Long Live Christ the King.”
The Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven features stirring depictions of these heroes as they were killed. The statue of Christ the King, seen on the mountain overlooking the Mass of the Pope, with hundreds of thousands participating, is a later rendition of the monument. The original one was destroyed by the enemies of Christianity at the time.
Some background may be helpful here. In 1985 Mexico City was heavily damaged by a severe earthquake. In its aftermath the Catholic Church in the United States took up a collection to assist in the recovery. Some $20 million were raised. It was sent to the Catholic Church in Mexico, but the Mexican government placed strictures on the spending of the money. It could not be used for so called Church and pastoral services, but only for secular purposes: housing, water services, electrical supplies, transportation help, etc. The Catholic Church established secular agencies to provide these services.
The Church did the work so effectively that the government allowed it to expand its work, involving assistance from other countries as well. It was in this context that the government declared the Church to be legal in the early 1990s. It had been declared illegal in 1860 and suffered terrible atrocities in various parts of the country over the generations as a result.
Graham Greene’s novel, "The Power and the Glory," written in 1938, depicts the atmosphere dramatically, highlighting the persecution of priests. Yet there is resurrection. The last three paragraphs narrate the arrival of a new priest.
In the midst of persecution, martyrdom, and natural disasters, the Church came to know more clearly its relationship with Jesus and its fundamental identity. Following the suffering and death of Jesus, and His Resurrection, its people came to know more profoundly the incarnation, death, and resurrection of their own lives and their call to be of service to others.
And so the story of death and resurrection continue. We all experience this reality in our celebration of Holy Week: Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Chrism Mass on Tuesday, in which our priests renew their commitment, the sacramental joy of Holy Thursday, the sacred services of Good Friday, the wonder of Resurrection in the Easter Vigil and the Masses of Easter.
At the same time we are beset by a hostile government attitude, given the edict on health care insurance made on January 20th by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and confirmed with an inadequate “accommodation” by President Barack Obama on February 10. Employers, including Catholic and other religious employers, would still have to provide insurance for surgical sterilization, contraception, and drugs that would induce abortions. They say that an exemption would apply to parishes and schools which, in our case, would teach only Catholic children. Other institutions, e.g. hospitals, colleges, universities, Catholic Charities, nursing homes, and some schools might have insurance companies cover the costs. What they neglected to see was that most of these institutions are self-insured. We would, therefore, be paying for services that are contrary to our basic beliefs.
What is especially startling is that government is attempting to define religion in confining it to parishes and Catholic schools. What they do not seem to understand is that these other services are expressions of our fundamental religious convictions and practices. We affirm again that after government, the Catholic Church in Connecticut and many other states is the largest provider of educational services, social services, and medical services. These services express who we are as a religious people before God and our neighbor. Whether it is housing and water services in Mexico or food and medical services in the United States, the sources in our case are the religious commitments of our people. Are government officials, by their own narrow definition of Church, telling us by edict and mandate to abandon these services and commitments? Are they defining religion for us?
The issue is clearly that of religious liberty. We must all continue to fight for that fundamental right, basic in the history of our country. We must always work for resurrection to overcome the threat of death.
Most Rev. Henry J. Mansell is the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.