Walter Brueggemann once wrote that "we are heirs to revolutionary imaginations and songs." But sometimes we are heirs to actual revolutionaries, too, faith forebears whose contexts forced them to give their lives for their faith.
Last week, taking advantage of some summertime free time, I had the opportunity to visit two historical sites, one the home of a priest in the nineteenth century and the other the home of a priest in the twentieth century. Both visits have me thinking about vocation, and how vocation manifests itself, both then and now.
Miguel Hidalgo, 1753-1811
Miguel Hidalgo was born in 1753, in Guanajuato, Mexico, to a criollo family. In the absurdly complicated hierarchy of race and class in the Spanish colonies, criollos were those of European descent but who were born in the New World. Due to the location of their birth, criollos faced a legally institutionalized glass ceiling above which they could not rise.
Still, criollos were the equivalent of the upper middle class, and as such young Miguel was provided with an advanced education; eventually, he entered seminary and was ordained a priest when he was in his early twenties. From there he went on to teach at a prestigious school in Morelia, and before long became known as a hotshot young scholar, surely destined for great things.
During the decade he taught as a professor, however, he gained a reputation of one who was, to use the dreaded term, “unorthodox,” in his teaching as well as in his lifestyle. He earned the nickname el zorro, the fox (not to be confused with the masked “Zorro” of Mexican California). Father Hidalgo, in other words, attracted attention to himself, and in these days of the Inquisition, drawing attention to yourself could get you in trouble in short order. In 1804 he was transferred from his prestigious seminary post to a remote rural parish, presumably banished there as if it were Siberia, never, the powers that be hoped, to be heard from again. “But this reassignment,” as one of the museums I visited put it, “proved to be fateful.”
In his new rural parish in Dolores, Father Hidalgo’s life took a dramatic turn. Rather than treating his assignment as a punishment, he threw himself into the collective life of his parishioners, organizing a pottery cooperative, cultivating silk and planting vineyards. He learned several indigenous languages and reached out to the lowest social castes. In other words, the Mexico Semester Program might say, Father Hidalgo became a practicing liberation theologian more than a century before the term would be invented. (He also, it should be noted, faced the pitfalls of liberation theology, coming under criticism from contemporaries for neglecting his parishioners’ spiritual lives, as well as for his general “restlessness.”)
Within a few years of arriving in Dolores, Father Hidalgo met Ignacio Allende, a fellow criollo discontent (nearby San Miguel de Allende would be named for him). In 1808, when Napoleon destabilized the Spanish monarchy, Hidalgo, Allende, and several fellow conspirators began plotting their next move. A plan was formed to declare independence – and with it armed rebellion against Spanish rule – in the city of Queretaro in November 1810. In September, however, Hidalgo received word that the plot had been uncovered by the authorities, who were on their way to arrest the rebels. The conspirators fled to Dolores, where they hurriedly met in Hidalgo’s house to discuss their options. There was little time and few alternatives. By the early morning hours, a decision had been made.
At 5:30 in the morning on September 16, long before sunrise and the normal time for church, Hidalgo rang the bells of the parish, the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, or the Parish of Our Lady of Pains, named for an image of Mary in which the mother of Jesus suffers at the sight of her son being crucified. Hidalgo’s cry for independence would become known as the Grito de Dolores, named for the town and its parish church but which, thanks to this coincidental background, literally translates as “the cry of pain.” From this parish named for the Virgin Mary, Hidalgo and his ragtag army went forth carrying a flag with, as a symbol of their American identity, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. With a history like this, is it any wonder that I think of Mexico as the land of Maria?
Well. With a story like that, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage. Before dawn last Thursday morning I boarded a bus, and five hours later I finally roll in to the tiny but bustling town of Dolores Hidalgo, in the misty mountains of central Guanajuato.
I pull out my Lonely Planet guidebook and study its street map of Dolores. The central plaza is only a few blocks north of the bus station, so I start walking in what I hope is the right direction and I reach the plaza within a few minutes.
I head to the church first, and walk inside. It’s surprisingly beautiful, though poorly maintained. There is a Taxco-like churrigueresque façade and churrigueresque side altars, all impossibly detailed sculptures of stone, metal, and wood. I sit for a moment in the pews, then walk outside, pausing at the door to look out on the plaza, as I imagine Hidalgo did on that fateful morning. Next to the church entrance is an 8-foot-tall pillar with an electronic counter on it counting down the days to Mexico’s 2010 bicentennial. 447 days, 11 hours, 39 minutes, and 7 seconds… 6 seconds… 5 seconds…
From the parish church the rebels went to the town jail and freed all the prisoners, and so I, walking their path, walked the few short blocks to the prison, which is now the Museum of National Independence. Father Hidalgo, the museum tells me, was eventually captured and executed less than six months after crying the grito from the doors of his parish church. After being shot by a firing squad, his head was cut off and placed in a birdcage so that it could be hung in a prominent place in the city of Guanajuato as a symbol to would-be rebels. Hidalgo’s decomposing head hung there for ten long years while the war dragged on, but after the war was eventually sent to Mexico City where it was buried under the Monument to Independence.
And that was about all I needed to do in Dolores – and I needed to be getting home besides, what with my five-hour bus ride ahead of me – so I snapped a few more photos of the plaza and the church, grabbed a torta to go at a popular-looking restaurant, and bought a ticket for the first leg of my several-stage journey home.
Toribio Romo, 1900-1928
Santo Toribio Romo, for those who haven’t been to the interior of Mexico recently, is quite possibly the most popular saint in the country. To be fair, he does face stiff competition from San Judas Tadeo, whose image is everywhere in Mexico City. But the omnipresence of Toribio Romo’s black-and-white mug is powerful, and growing.
There are at least two obvious reasons for this popularity. One is that Santo Toribio Romo is becoming the unofficial patron saint of immigrants to the United States – especially those who cross the border on foot, without papers, under the natural threat of a deadly waterless desert and the man-made dangers of the Border Patrol, the Minutemen, and immense risk involved in choosing a responsible coyote. Is it any wonder that the God-fearing faithful, who have always cried out for divine intervention in their most dire moments, would find help from a spiritual source? For these vulnerable travelers, Santo Toribio often shows up as a guardian angel, helping the migrant through a tough spot before mysteriously disappearing into the darkness. We rationalists may scoff, but the stories – and the faith of the people – are growing.
The other reason for Santo Toribio Romo’s popularity, however, is that unlike San Judas Tadeo, Santo Toribio is certifiably Mexican. He was born on April 16, 1900, right here in the highlands of Jalisco, dirt poor. He grew up under the shadow of the Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos, and entered the seminary in San Juan when he was only 12 years old, to be ordained as a priest by the time he was 22. But of course, by now, thanks to my endless ramblings about it, you know that the 1920s were a dangerous time to be a priest in Mexico. As the government cracked down on religious practice, Toribio Romo rebelled – not with guns and knives, but instead by continuing to administer the sacraments to his people. On February 25, 1928, government troops finally caught up with him in the town of Tequila. He was shot to death in his bedroom. (He was my age, 28, when he died.)
Pope John Paul II canonized Toribio Romo as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 2000. Twenty-four other martyrs of the Cristero Rebellion were also canonized, but none of them have yet reached Santo Toribio’s popularity. Aiding his belovedness, Chris and I have surmised, is the arresting photograph of Santo Toribio that serves as his image. His eyes are almost sad, but fixed and firm, as if they are seeing his future and he is deciding in that moment that though it is not pleasant it is the path God has called him to, and he will not waver from it. Is it any wonder the saints are stand-ins for Jesus, stepping-stones to Christ?
Well. Enough background. On Tuesday last week I decided to visit this Mexican miracle-worker, to see Santo Toribio for myself. Santo Toribio’s shrine is in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, a tiny, tiny, tiny village outside of Jalostotitlan, a small town in northern Jalisco state. When my regional bus arrived in Jalos, it dropped me off at a street corner office that served as the Jalos bus station.
I walked over to the office and asked the man in an official-looking uniform how to get to Santa Ana de Guadalupe. He stared at me blankly and pointed at the corner where I had just gotten off the bus. Apparently this was the bus stop. As I was turning to go, another group of people who had been on the same bus – an friendly older gentleman and two women who seemed to be about the same age – came up and asked the official-looking person about Santo Toribio. I decide to follow these people.
When the little bus arrived, I and my (unsuspecting) traveling companions got on board and we all rattled our way out of town. We turn down a dirt road and pass under a stone arch that announces the place of Toribio Romo. There is nothing but dry grass and desert trees around this shrine; nothing is visible from here. The bus driver – who is extremely friendly – drops us off at a street corner, but I don’t see anything resembling a church. Not wanting to seem uncertain, I spot a weathered tourist sign and walk firmly toward it. It’s the right move – when I reach the sign, I immediately see the stone church around the corner.
It’s almost shockingly small. Later I discover that Padre Toribio built this church himself, organizing the people and resources to get a church built in his hometown. This explains the church’s size, but still: This is the land of massive parish churches and towering basilicas stuck in the middle of small rural cities, yet the shrine for one of Mexico’s most popular saints is a tiny stone sanctuary far outside of town.
As I walk through the church doors, a woman next to me drops to her knees, and then begins shuffling up to the altar. What is it with this shuffling up to the altar on your knees thing? People do it in San Juan, too, and I’m always bewildered by it. On the one hand, it’s beautiful piety, a powerful expression of devotion that even a Protestant can’t help but respect. On the other hand, what kind of God – or Virgin or saint – wants you to shuffle up to their throne on your knees? I understand it rationally – puny human before powerful deity – but this physical submissiveness doesn’t exactly make me feel full of love for the Lord.
On the other other hand, I continue to be amazed by the Mexican faithful’s use of physical acts in their religious practice. From the Christmastime posada parades to the outdoor theater of Good Friday, Mexican Catholicism gives you something to do and not just something to think. I’ve come all the way out to see Santo Toribio – now what? I can pray silently in my head, and I do, but as I watch the woman shuffle up to the altar I find myself wishing I had something physical and physically demanding I could do during my pilgrimage, to cap it off. I make a note to file this away for further reflection later.
Outside, in the “backyard” of the little church, I find a long walkway leading to another little church. This is the Calzada de los Maritires, or Walkway of the Martyrs. All along the little stone path there are cement busts and inscribed plaques to the other Cristero martyrs. Most of them are from Jalisco, but there are a few from Zacatecas, too, and at least one each in the northern border states of Durango and Chihuahua, and one, I am surprised to find, from the southern state of Guerrero.
In the middle of this walkway, there is a monument to Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a visible rendering of the Cristero martyrs’ final cry: ¡Viva Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe! Long live Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe! The monument itself is a curious one. There is a black cross. On one side of the cross is Jesus, his arms up in the air and wearing the cloth of resurrection – this is “viva Christo Rey.” On the other side of the cross is the Virgin of Guadalupe, life size. They are positioned like two sides of the same coin – or two sides of the same cross. I have no idea what this means theologically, but it’s got to be worth a paper or two in a systematic theology class.
At the end of the walkway is another stone church, about the same size as the first one. Later Chris tells me this other church was built by Santo Toribio’s family after his death. Next to the church is a replica of Toribio Romo’s childhood home. It’s like one of those 18th or 19th century homes you can visit in certain national parks, complete with furnishings from the era. This one is about the size of the living room in our apartment in Lagos. Later Chris tells me that Toribio Romo’s parents raised five kids in this one-room log cabin. The point, she tells me, is that they were dirt poor. I try to take a photo of the house, but it’s difficult to capture without the fancy restaurant built just behind it.
On my visit I miss the retablo room, where visitors put thank-you notes, thank-you paintings, and random thank-you items like soccer jerseys on the walls as an offering of gratitude to Santo Toribio. Chris tells me that on her visit one retablo struck her especially: A family gave thanks to Santo Toribio Romo for helping them to finally find the body of their daughter who had died in her attempt to cross the border. For these parents, the miracle was that their daughter did not disappear in the desert like so many other sons and daughters who perish in the wilderness; against all odds, they found her body, they could bury her, they could have closure.
As I leave the place of Santo Toribio, I notice his photo over a doorframe on a nearby house. I gaze at it as I sit on the side of the country road, waiting for the little bus to come back and take me home.
Two Priests, Two Paths, One Faith
Toribio Romo and Miguel Hidalgo, for all their differences in character and context, were both priests, ordained ministers, each of whom had served his parishioners in a very particular way. Each found himself opposed to powerful forces, and each, in the service of his parishioners, led their parishioners in resistance to those forces, specifically those forces that they believed threatened their parishioners’ ability to live as God intended them to live. Am I oversimplifying? Of course – but bear with me for a moment.
Toribio Romo refused armed rebellion, but he did choose a path of resistance when he continued to administer the holy sacraments to his people in full violation of the law, an act of liturgy-as-resistance that brings to mind William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist. Miguel Hidalgo, on the other hand, rejected the brutal hierarchies of his day by forging cross-cultural, cross-class relationships and building up the community of his parish through cooperative economic life. And then, unlike Toribio, he chose the path of taking up arms, uttered the Cry of Pains, and unleashed a bloody war that quickly spiraled out of his control. That last part is easy to glorify as history but hard to justify as principle; if I were writing the story as an ideal I think I'd prefer a peaceful resistance akin to MLK or Ghandi’s spiritually-sourced people’s movements.
Still, I’m holding my pilgrimages to the places of Toribio Romo and Miguel Hidalgo in my head and in my heart this week, two examples of priestly vocation lived out in the Americas in the last two centuries. They are worth remembering, I think, as I continue to ponder the vocation of ordained ministry in the Americas in the twenty-first century, and as I prepare to take my adventures back across the border.