Fr Flader: St Jose, the Lion of Sahuayo

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Antonia Salzano, the mother of Carlo Acutis, is pictured in front of his tomb after it was opened in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Assisi, Italy, 1 October, 2020. The tomb was opened in advance of his beatification Mass and remained open for veneration until 17 October. Acutis died in 2006. PHOTO: CNS/courtesy Diocese of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino

Dear Father, I was fascinated by your account of the life of the young Blessed Carlo Acutis. Are there any other young people who have been beatified or canonised in recent times?

While the beatification of Carlo Acutis received a lot of publicity, another young saint who managed to slip largely under the radar is José Sánchez del Río, a Mexican boy who was martyred in 1928 at the age of only 14 and was canonised in 2016 by Pope Francis.

José was born on 28 March 1913 in Sahuayo in the state of Michoacán, the third of four children. He loved his faith and had a strong devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe (cf. J. Flader, Question Time 4, q. 596).

When he was only 12 the Mexican government, in accord with the anti-clerical laws written into the Mexican Constitution, began eliminating Church privileges and seizing Church property throughout the country.

They closed religious schools and convents and exiled or killed many priests. This led to the so-called Cristero War, when Catholics rose up to defend their rights.

they told him, ‘If you shout, ‘Death to Christ the King’ we will spare your life’ but José answered, ‘I will never give in. Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!’”

When the war broke out in 1926 José’s brothers joined the Cristeros but his mother would not let him take part. The Cristero general, Prudencio Mendoza, also refused to let such a young boy enlist. José insisted that he wanted the chance to give his life for Jesus Christ and go to heaven.

The general finally gave in and allowed José to be the flagbearer of the troops. The soldiers nicknamed him Tarcisius, after the early Christian saint who gave his life in order to protect the Blessed Eucharist from profanation.

During heavy fighting on 25 January 1928, General Mendoza’s horse was killed and José gave him his own horse so that he could go on fighting. José then sought cover and fired at the enemy troops until he ran out of ammunition. He was captured by the government troops and imprisoned in the sacristy of the local church.

The troops ordered him to renounce his Catholic faith under threat of death but he refused. To break his resolve the soldiers made him watch the hanging of another Cristero, but José only encouraged the man, saying that they would soon meet up again in heaven.

A framed picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe is seen at a house near the US-Mexico border fence in 2016 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. St Jose Sánchez del Río was devoted to her, calling her name as he died. PHOTO: CNS

In prison José prayed the Rosary every day and wrote an emotional letter to his mother, telling her that he was ready to fulfil the will of God, to whom he had dedicated himself. His father attempted to raise a ransom to save him, but he was not able to appease the government in time to save José’s life.

According to two childhood friends, who witnessed José’s death, on the night of 10 February 1928 the soldiers cut the bottom of his feet and obliged him to walk through the town toward the cemetery. They also cut him with a machete until he was bleeding from several wounds. He moaned with pain, but did not give in.

It was his own Way of the Cross and the cemetery would be his Calvary. He shared in Christ’s passion and death, offering himself for the good of others and the love of God. As he walked, he recited the Rosary, prayed for his enemies and sang songs to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Several times they told him, “If you shout, ‘Death to Christ the King’ we will spare your life” but José answered, “I will never give in. Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honour at the cathedral in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on 11 December 2015. PHOTO: CNS/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters

At the cemetery the soldiers stabbed him repeatedly with their bayonets, but their commander spared José an agonising death and shot him. Just before dying José traced a cross in the dirt and kissed it. He was only 14. His remains are enshrined above a side altar in the church of St James the Apostle in his home town of Sahuayo.

José was declared Venerable by St John Paul II in 2004 and was beatified by order of Pope Benedict XVI in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2005. A miracle attributed to his intercession involved the inexplicable recovery of a Mexican baby who doctors had said had no hope of survival. This paved the way for his canonisation in Rome by Pope Francis on 16 October 2016.

José’s feast day is 10 February, the day of his death. He is a great model for young people in standing up for the faith in spite of opposition. José is one of the characters portrayed in the film For Greater Glory, which depicts the story of the Cristero War.

Contact Fr Flader at [email protected]

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