Mexico was embroiled in a nasty internal conflict between the Catholic Church and the State government  — the “Cristero War,” named by faithful Catholics for “Christ the King” — that lasted from 1926-1929.  It was part of larger, ongoing tensions between Church and State in Mexico dating back to the country’s 1857 and 1917 Constitutions, considered by the Catholic faithful to be anti-Church and anti-clergy.

Popular, grass-roots resistance to this governmental threat to religious freedom was organized and powerful, taking government forces by surprise.  A young Mexican boy, José Sánchez del Rio, emerged as an unlikely hero and eventual martyr of the struggle, sacrificing his life as a witness to his Catholic faith.

Related Video: Bishop’s essay on St. José Sánchez del Río

José Sánchez del Río was born in the western Mexican state of Michoacán de Ocampo on March 28, 1913.  When the Cristero War erupted in 1926, he begged his mother to allow him to join his brothers as a soldier supporting Catholic efforts.  She refused but he persisted.  Even at his tender age, José possessed a remarkable faith.  When his mother relented, the boy performed menial tasks for the Cristeros forces.  His dedication to Christ the King — mature beyond his years — never wavered.  Despite governmental prohibition of the public practice of religion, José attended Mass whenever possible, received Holy Communion and never hesitated to proclaim his faith.

During one battle, a Cristero leader, General Guizar Morfín, lost the horse he was riding to enemy fire.  Young Del Rio offered his own horse to the General to prevent his capture by federal troops but, in the process, was himself apprehended.  The anti-Cristeros soldiers imprisoned and violently tortured him.  Efforts to free him — for example, the intervention of his godfather and the proposal of family ransom by his captors — proved unsuccessful.  José refused all attempts to rescue him, proclaiming “my faith is not for sale.”  He prayed the Rosary daily throughout his imprisonment.

Upon transfer to another prison, the boy was told he would be executed for his unbending adherence to the faith.  He received the news with the courage of his religious convictions.  As his captors beat him mercilessly, he could be heard praying “Long live Christ the King! Long live Holy Mary of Guadalupe!”  They took his shoes and sliced the skin from the bottom of his feet, forcing him to walk to the cemetery, barefoot and bleeding, where soldiers repeatedly stabbed him.  He refused to reject his faith in order to spare his own life.  José Sánchez del Río was shot twice in the head and his martyred body was thrown into an open grave on Feb. 10, 1928, one month short of his 15th birthday.

His cause for canonization was vigorously pursued by his Catholic countrymen throughout the rest of the 20th century.  In 1996, the Mexican diocesan process was completed and he was declared “Venerable” by the Vatican, the first step toward canonization.  In 2004, Pope St. John Paul II approved his beatification and Pope Benedict XVI declared him among the ”Blessed” of the Church on Nov. 20, 2005.  A miracle was attributed to his intercession in 2008 and, on Oct. 16, 2016, Pope Francis canonized José Sánchez del Río a Saint.  His feast day is Feb. 10.

In 2012, a film entitled “For Greater Glory” was produced, portraying the history of the Cristeros War in Mexico, including the martyrdom of young José.

The priest entrusted by the Vatican with evaluating his cause for canonization, Father Fidel Gonzalez, remarked, “I have seen hundreds of cases of martyrdom but never of a martyr so young.”  He reflected, nothing “would convince him to negate his faith, even if it cost him his life. ... He had a clear awareness of the ideas that led him to proclaim his faith with martyrdom.”  

At a time when the Church confronts so many efforts to minimize the power of faith and grace at work in the world, the sacrificial witness of young St. José Sánchez del Río stands out as a compelling example of ultimate courage and dedication to the Gospel of Jesus Christ ... by a teenager.  Viva Cristo Rey!

St. José Sánchez del Río is proof that sanctity does not require a long life or an early death — only a life, whatever its length, lived with and for the Lord.  For young people in today’s world, 14-year-old José Sánchez del Río shows them that saints can and do look like them.  St. José Sánchez del Río, pray for the youth of our Diocese and inspire them, like you, to love the Lord.

(Sources: Carmen Elena Villa, “St. Jose Sánchez del Rio: the Boy Who Died for Love of Christ the King,” Denver Catholic, Oct. 25, 2016; Deborah Castellano Lubov, “Postulator Recalls St. José Sánchez del Río Saying ‘My Faith Is Not for Sale’, National Catholic Register, Oct. 17, 2016;” Wikipedia, “José Sánchez del Río.”)