José Luis Sánchez: A Congregation's Inspiration

Interview With Legion of Christ Founder Father Marcial Maciel

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ROME, NOV. 20, 2005 ( Among those who witnessed the 1928 martyrdom of a now-beatified teen-ager in Mexico was a friend who went on to found the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement.

Marcial Maciel was only 7 years old when he saw the execution of his 14-year-old friend José Luis Sánchez del Río. José Luis was among 13 martyrs beatified today in Guadalajara, Mexico.

José Luis had joined the Cristeros, a large group of Mexican Catholics who rose against the religious persecution of the government of Plutarco Elías Calles.

In Part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Maciel, now 85, recalls his friend’s martyrdom. Part 2 of this interview will appear Monday.

Q: You were a witness of José Sánchez del Río’s martyrdom in Mexico. After almost 80 years, what do you remember of those moments? How did you meet José?

Father Maciel: José Luis — as we, his friends, called him — was from Sahuayo, Michoacan, a village not far from Cotija, my native village.

My maternal grandmother, Maura Guízar Valencia, had her home there, and we often went to visit her. I was six years younger than José Luis. He liked to organize games for the children. He would speak to us of Jesus. I remember that he took me to visit the Blessed Sacrament. He was very good.

When the religious persecution began, he wanted to join the Cristeros to defend the faith. He asked for permission several times, and in the end was received.

In February 1928 — I was 7 years old, almost 8 — I was in Sahuayo when we learned that José Luis had been arrested and had been locked in the parish’s baptistery.

One of the windows looked out on the street and from there we could hear him sing: “To heaven, to heaven, to heaven I want to go,” while awaiting his sentence. The federals were using the parish as a prison, and also as a corral. Rafael Picazo, who controlled the village of Sahuayo, put as a condition to release him that he deny his faith before Picazo himself and his soldiers.

We all heard about this, and we were very worried and in a tremendously emotional and sad state. We, his friends, met together to pray for him. We cried a lot, asking the Most Holy Virgin that he not be killed but, at the same time, that he not renounce his faith. In fact, José Luis wanted no part in [renouncing the faith].

And at the end of two days we learned, in the afternoon, that he had been taken to the Refuge inn. That night they cut off the soles of his feet and forced him to walk barefoot to the cemetery, which was several blocks away.

We — a few relatives, friends, village acquaintances — followed him from a distance. I remember the stains of blood left by his footsteps. He went with his hands bound behind his back and I remember the federals pushing him, insulting him and demanding that he stop crying out “Hail to Christ the King!” And his answer was always to cry: “Hail to Christ the King and Holy Mary of Guadalupe!”

We were only allowed to go to the cemetery’s wall. They put him next to the grave. They say he was stabbed several times and that they kept insisting that he renounce his faith, but he answered: “Hail to Christ the King and Holy Mary of Guadalupe!” His father wasn’t with us. He wasn’t there. And they asked him mockingly: “What do you want your father to be told?” He answered: “That we will see each other in heaven.”

Finally they shot him in the temple. I heard the shot that put an end to his life. You can imagine the profound impression this made on us, especially the children.

I have a very beautiful, profound memory of this friend of mine who gave his life for Christ; he has always been for me a testimony of what authentic love of Christ means. I also remember him with some nostalgia, because I would say to Our Lord: “Why did you choose him to be a martyr and leave me behind?”

Q: How did that testimony of martyrdom influence you in your personal life and in the work you would later undertake to found the Legionaries of Christ and the lay movement Regnum Christi?

Father Maciel: As I said, José Luis’ martyrdom left a profound, indelible mark on me. His death contributed to root in me the certainty that faith is worth more than life. It spoke to me of the eternal value of a life totally given for love of Christ, it stirred in me a longing for eternity … but it was not only José Luis.

In my village of Cotija, during the Cristero war, we often saw those who were hung in the square or witnessed the shooting of Cristeros who died crying out, “Hail to Christ the King!” They were leaving behind, perhaps, a family, children, a mother — how many mothers encouraged their children not to renege on their faith!

I witnessed the martyrdom of Antonio Ibarra, a musician from by village, of Leonardo and several others. I still have engraved in my mind some of those faces and scenes, especially when they took Antonio down from the gallows and placed him in the arms and lap of his mother, Isabel Ibarra. And it was all kinds of people who were martyred in many villages of Mexico: children, youths and adults, men and women, rich and poor, priests and lay faithful.

I think the testimony of martyrdom of so many Christians, who preferred to shed their blood before betraying Jesus Christ, influenced my own life very much and my mission as founder, as it was a testimony that, so to speak, made one live the heroic faith of the early Christians.

That testimony helped me to understand that, to be coherent, a Christian life must be fully committed to Jesus Christ. A half-baked Christianity, of compromises, which “lights a candle to God and another to the devil,” as the popular saying says, is not Christianity.

I would have liked to have given my life, as José Luis Sánchez did, as hundreds of thousands of Cristero martyrs did; but I understood that God was asking another kind of martyrdom of me, that of living the Gospel to its ultimate consequences. And it is this, in the end, that is behind the foundation of the Legion of Christ and of the Regnum Christ Movement: to help other people also to commit themselves to know, live and transmit the love of Jesus Christ.

When the time came to choose the name for the congregation that the Holy Spirit was inspiring me to found, I thought of several names in my mind, but the memory of the testimony of the Cristeros was an element that helped me to understand that the name that would best express our mission was that of Legionaries of Christ — men who join the struggle for the Kingdom of Christ without keeping anything for themselves, men who are prepared to give their lives.

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