I asked my friend Carlos, the same guy who gave me his laptop, to write on the Cristero War and the inspiring story of Archbishop Juan María Navarrete y Guerrero. Carlos is from Hermosillo, Sonora, where Abp. Guerrero served as Archbishop, and he’s got an almost encyclopedic memory of this subject. Anyways, without further ado, here’s Carlos:
Every once in a while I get a chance to talk about my ultimate favorite topic: Mexican history. There’s a little-known period in Mexican history called “La Guerra Cristera” or “La Cristiada”, both loosely translate to “The Anti-Christian War”. It lasted from 1926 to 1937, under the Government of Plutarco Elias Calles and ended through the mediation of the U.S. Ambassador in Mexico, Mr. Dwight Whitney Morrow.
There are no official estimates of casualties, little less actual records, as this period of Mexican history has been obscured through official oppression. Its impact, however, was so wide ranging that the Mexican Catholic Church is not allowed to own any property, and until 1992 (yes, 1992) anybody that became a Priest, a nun or a monk, lost its rights as a Mexican citizen and was not allowed to vote, study in public schools or be taken care of in the public health care system. To this day, all new churches and others are the property of not-for-profits created by lay men and women, while the old churches and cathedrals are property of the federal government. Protestant denominations, being a modern occurrence in Mexico, do own their buildings, as they constituted themselves not as churches, but as not-for-profits dedicated to teaching and learning. I have to admit that was a clever move on their behalf.
Anyway, that is all background, but it is needed to understand why Msgr. Juan Maria Navarrete y Guerrero, First Archbishop of Hermosillo, Sonora, is part of the remarkable group of Mexicans that proudly stood up to the Federal Government when the Church most needed them.
Mexico was just coming out of a bloody civil war that lasted 11 years and ended with the ascension to power of General Alvaro Obregon. In case you didn’t know it (and I bet you didn’t) the Mexican constitution of 1917 was the first socialist constitution ever written and enacted a year or so before the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. It’s not something I’m proud of, just a fact. Expanding on the powers given to him by the Constitution, General Calles, Obregon’s successor, expelled the Church from Mexico and through the enactment of what was called “Calles’ law” declared illegal to say Mass, attend Mass, Catechism, and any and all public or private worship (yes, even private, so if you were to have your friends over to pray the rosary in your living room, the army could burst in, take you all prisoners and most likely shoot you at dawn for treason, and they did, several times). Priests had to go into hiding or leave the country, Bishops were killed, entire communities of nuns and monks fled to the U.S. or Europe.
Msgr. Navarrete had been Bishop of Sonora (later to be named Archbishop of Hermosillo) for seven years when the persecution began in earnest. Rather than fleeing to the U.S., which he had done before for a three-year period, he went into hiding and, in opposition to everyone’s advice, did not disband Hermosillo’s seminary, but took the seminarians with him, into hiding. He spent fourteen years in the desert, and the mountains of the state of Sonora, dashing across the border from time to time, when the army didn’t leave him with any other option, staying in Tucson most of the time. You must understand that hiding in Sonora is no small feat, the great desert of Altar, which goes into Arizona, is the third hottest desert in the world, and anybody that has been in the desert at night can tell you how miserably cold it is at night. As if that weren’t enough, the desert ends at the foot of a mountain chain, where temperatures normally drop below freezing, with snow and ice being a constant during the long winter months.
Archbishop Navarrete could have signed a government declaration, surrendered his charge and become a normal citizen, but he did not. He continued to risk his life until the Christian war truly ended in 1937. What else could you expect from a man whose last name literally means “warrior”? In this sense, he is no different from hundreds of Mexicans that did the same, one of which, San Rafael Guizar y Valencia, Bishop of Veracruz, was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 15, 2006. Blessed Miguel Pro is another famous contemporaneous martyr, one whom many of us hope and pray will be canonized soon. The fact that he’s in the company of many great martyrs does not diminish him; rather, it points to the great fruits brought on by the intercession of our patroness, Mary of Guadalupe, that gave us Mexicans such great examples and such a rich inheritance in their lives and examples.
It is said that Msgr. Navarrete never lost his sense of humor, which I find believable, as it is the trademark of every saint. President Calles, the same one that was trying to destroy the Church, was from the state of Sonora. While trying to kill his own Archbishop, his older daughter decided to marry. Calles’ wife was Catholic – at least nominally, but that’s not for me to judge – and demanded that Archbishop Navarrete presided over the wedding ceremony. This gives you a good example of the stubbornness of Mexican women: at the same time that her husband had vowed to find and kill Archbishop Navarrete, she wanted him to allow him into their home, marry their daughter and leave unharmed. Well, she got her wish, so President Calles sent for Msgr. Navarrete, who readily agreed to marry the daughter and set off to Mexico City (it’s a 4-hour flight from Hermosillo to Mexico City, you can just imagine how long of a trip that was back then). It is said that when he arrived to Palace and was introduced to President Calles, Calles said “I don’t greet ***holes” (he wasn’t the most refined of politicians and physically looked like Stalin) to which Msgr. Navarrete replied, without skipping a beat, “but I do, Mr. President” and stretching out his arm, grabbed Calles’ hand and shook it. There is no way to prove the historical accuracy of this anecdote, but I like to believe it’s true.
Now, in Hermosillo, the capital of the State where Obregon and Calles were born, that both governed from the State government palace in downtown Hermosillo, in the same city that saw these two minions of the devil become the most powerful men in the land and try to destroy the Catholic fiber of a Catholic Nation, of Guadalupe’s Nation of all places!, now this city’s most important avenue bears the name not of Calles or Obregon, but of Msgr. Juan Maria Navarrete y Guerrero. A big statue of him stands at the beginning of the avenue with an inscription that aptly reads “From Sonora to Heaven”.
Msgr. Navarrete left for heaven on February 21, 1982. His cause of canonization was opened on September 18, 2007, in the Cathedral Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, in Hermosillo, were his body lays in rest. Msgr. Jose Ulises Macias Salcedo, third Archbishop of Hermosillo, had the honor of presiding, in the presence of several dozens of priests, the faithful of Hermosillo and Archbishop Emeritus, Carlos Quintero Arce, the immediate successor of Msgr. Navarrete.
If anybody speaks Spanish, January’s issue of “5 minutes of prayer” (Cinco minutos de oracion) has a brief biography and a prayer for private devotion to Msgr. Navarrete. I am proud – extremely proud – to be a native of Hermosillo, for even when he was born in the State of Oaxaca, far from us, he became a son of Sonora, to which he devoted his entire life, in the service of God.
May God and his holy mother give us many more men and women burning with love for the Lord as Msgr. Navarrete.
Viva Cristo Rey!