President Calles was a populist, but within two years of his presidency he turned viciously on the Catholic Church. Using the anti-clerical articles of the Constitution of 1917, he attempted to wipe out Catholicism in Mexico. He was opposed by some of the most organized, inspired and passionate Catholic lay resistance in history: The Cristeros. This band of brothers excelled at precision and discretion, and fought with miraculous courage. Calles’ backlash to the Cristeros left a staggering list of murdered priests, nuns, brothers and lay Catholics from all over Mexico. Anacleto Gonzalez Flores is one of them.
The significance of Blessed Anacleto González Flores for the Cristero uprising is almost impossible to exaggerate. Based in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the epicenter of the Cristero revolt, he began a movement of peaceful resistance which became the infrastructure for the armed struggle against the passionately anti-Christian government. Gonzalez Flores himself was transformed from a pacifist into the reluctant leader of the Cristero’s political wing. He was martyred in 1927, having marked himself as a lethal opponent to the Regime without ever taking up arms.
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Anacleto Gonzalez Flores was born in Tepatitlan, the largest city of the strongly conservative Los Altos region of the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in 1888. He was the second of twelve children. As a young man he entered the seminary and excelled in his studies. However, it was determined that the priesthood was not his calling, and he left to serve God by studying law.
At the age of 34, with a family and a law degree to his name, he became an organizer of the National Catholic Party, and created a patriotic association called the National Phalanx to inspire young Mexicans to defend their values against their own government as well as the corrupting influences of the United States. He was constantly engaged in the education of Catholic youth as well, teaching catechism classes in his spare time, and became known to his followers as simply “El Maestro” (The Teacher). Even in the dark period when Catholic schools were outlawed, Gonzales set up informal educational circles to instruct on topics both secular and religious.
To help defend religious liberty and freedom, Anacleto founded the Popular Union (UP), which was an organization set up for Catholics who stood against the increasing persecution of the Church. The National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty was formed in 1925 to unite Catholics against the religious persecution spreading across Mexico. It would play a major role in the impending Cristero War. Anacleto Gonzales Flores quickly became one of the leaders of the League, and in 1926 agreed to fuse his Popular Union with the organization.
The decision was a crucial one for the launching of La Cristiada. Although Gonzalez Flores personally opposed armed conflict, his organization was now a subsidiary of the League, and he could not override its decisions. The League initially organized a nationwide economic boycott in response to the Calles Law, but when the boycott failed to produce the desired result, the organization turned to war.
In 1927, after President Calles’ obscene and violent enforcement of the anti-clerical rules was underway, militant members of the League began the Cristero War. Anacleto himself did not take up arms, but he was a master at delivering crowd-rousing anti-government speeches, fundraising, and the writing of pamphlets and flyers which condemned the government’s brutal treatment of the Catholic population:
“The country is a jail for the Catholic Church! We are not worried about defending our material interests because they come and go; but our spiritual interests, these we must defend because they are necessary to obtain our salvation.”
He was quickly placed high up on the government’s “watch list.” As tensions mounted, and Gonzalez Flores began to be harassed and investigated by government officials, he realized that he must go into hiding. The League formally declared war against the Mexican government on January 1, 1927, and formerly peaceful Catholic activists sprang into action, attacking federal garrisons in a number of towns. Gonzalez Flores remained the brains behind the mission, working discreetly and effectively to safeguard the movement. He was so crucial to the rebellion that what happened on April 1, 1927, brought perhaps the most devastating blow yet to the Cristeros’ effort:
In the early morning of April 1, Anacleto and several fellow Cristeros were arrested by the infamously cruel General Jesus Maria Ferreira, chief of the Military Zone of Jalisco. Anacleto was hung by his thumbs, flogged, stabbed (non-fatally) and the soles of his feet were flayed. Throughout the horrendous proceedings, the torturers demanded to know where the Archbishop Orozco y Jimenez was hiding. Anacleto, though delirious from pain, only gave one answer: “I know nothing! Long live Christ the King!”
He and the friends arrested with him were sentenced to die that evening. One of them, faltering for a moment, begged Anacleto to confess and go free, but his friend replied:
“No, brother, it is no longer time to confess, but rather to ask for pardon and to pardon. It is a father, not a judge who waits you. Your own blood will purify you!”
Anacleto Gonzalez Flores then asked to be the last to die, so that he could encourage and comfort his friends up until their very last moments. When his time came, Gonzalez Flores turned to General Ferreira and quoted the Ecuadoran President Gabriel Garcia Moreno, who had been assassinated for his defense of the Catholic faith in 1875: “I die, but God does not die!” According to one witness, he then told General Ferreira, “Soon you will present yourself before God, and I will be your greatest intercessor.” Even in the face of such heroic sanctity, the general gave the call to fire.
Anacleto Gonzalez Flores was bayonetted on both sides of his back, perforating his lungs and causing him to collapse. He was then shot at close range as he lay on the floor, managing one last time to say, “Long live Christ the King!”
Although the Mexican government had eliminated the Cristeros’ most charismatic leader, Gonzalez Flores’ murder served only to inflame the movement that he had inspired. He was instantly recognized as a martyr, and his memory was constantly invoked by the Cristeros during the remaining two years of war, sustaining them in times of immense difficulty. His voluminous newspaper writings were preserved and republished in anthologies that are still available in Mexico today, and documentation was gathered for his eventual beatification, which occurred on November 20, 2005. Although he remains virtually unknown outside of Mexico, the result of his tireless work is still seen in the state of Jalisco, which remains one of the most fervently Catholic in the country, and the nation’s most productive center of priestly vocations.