The Feast of Christ the King that ends the liturgical year of the Church is a relatively recent addition to the liturgical calendar. It was first instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 during the civil unrest that was growing in Mexico under the administration of President Plutarco Calles. The pope wanted to remind everyone that although political rulers possess temporal authority, that authority ultimately derives from the authority of Christ and must be exercised in accord with the principles of Catholic social teaching. Love of neighbor, care for the poor, etc.
There was some dissent in the years immediately following the approval of the Mexican Constitution in 1917, due to the harsh anti-clerical restrictions it placed on the Catholic Church. That dissent was minimal, however, as the laws were not enforced by the first president elected after the approval of the new Constitution and were barely enforced by the second president. Even then, they were only lightly enforced and only in the few areas where support for the Church was already weak.
When President Calles was elected in 1924, however, he decided to not only enforce those laws as harshly as possible across the entire country but add new ones to further crack down on the practice of the Catholic faith. Here are a few examples. Public religious celebrations were regulated by the government under the Constitution, so the president decided that he would regulate them by making all public Catholic celebrations (that is, anything taking place outside of a church building) illegal. Priests were already prohibited from wearing religious garb in public, but the fines for breaking this law were increased to a level no priest could possibly afford. Public criticism of the government by a priest, even if given as a personal opinion completely outside of any Catholic liturgy or celebration, was punishable by a prison sentence.
By the summer of 1926, with many churches being forcibly closed by the government and many incidents of violence against the Church being not only tolerated but carried out by officials of the government, the bishops of Mexico took a stand against the growing persecution (the actions of the Calles administration are what REAL persecution looks like, as contrasted with the minor inconveniences that we occasionally experience in this country) by officially suspending the celebration of the Mass and any other major liturgical rite. They also encouraged people to boycott the government.
The unrest and violence targeted against the government by a large number of the people in more rural areas (violence that was never condoned by the Church, as peaceful resistance was what the bishops wanted) grew to organized rebellion in 1927. It would last until 1929, when the United States brokered a peace agreement with the Mexican bishops and the Calles administration. Unfortunately, the rebels weren’t a part of the negotiations and sporadic fighting continued for a time. The Calles administration also didn’t abide by many of the terms of the agreement.
Calles had great influence over the government of Mexico for a few years after his term ended, but by 1934 that was waning and he was eventually exiled by President Cardenas in 1936. President Cardenas also repealed the anti-Catholic laws enacted under Calles, although he didn’t change the government’s official attitude of disdain for the Catholic Church. That didn’t end until 1940 and election of President Camacho, Mexico’s first practicing Catholic to be elected president.
Today is the memorial of Blessed Miguel Pro. On this day in 1927, Blessed Pro was executed without trial on the explicit orders of President Calles. The excuse was involvement in an attempted assassination of former President Obregon, despite Blessed Pro not having been involved at all. The real reason was because Blessed Pro was a priest and was defying the law in acting as a priest clandestinely. Calles wanted to use his death to frighten the Cristero rebels. The execution was photographed extensively, and the photos run in all the papers in Mexico the following day.
You may have seen one of the pictures of his execution. He declined a blindfold, faced the firing squad, extended his arms straight out to put himself in the form of a cross (with a crucifix in one hand and a rosary in the other), and called out “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King) as he was shot. That was the rallying cry of the Cristero rebels.
The photos had the opposite effect. Support for the Cristeros only grew.
Blessed Pro forgave the firing squad soldiers before they shot him. He accepted his fate calmly, and died with praise of Christ on his lips. If persecutions ever come to this country, God please grant me the grace to be similarly brave and forgiving.
And long live Christ the King.