The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, and the inspirational Cristeros film “For Greater Glory” are These Stone Walls Third Annual Stuck Inside Literary Award.
Every student of American history knows of the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, and Paul Revere’s famous call to arms, “The British are coming!” To grow up near Boston was to live in the footsteps of America’s Colonial rise to rebellion. Today, Boston and its Revolutionary War history form the backdrop for one of my favorite television dramas, “Falling Skies,” a riveting serial about a current day citizen rebellion against tyranny from extraterrestrial invaders come to enslave mankind.
The leader of humanity’s remnant rebellion is Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), formerly a Boston University history professor and now President of the “New United States.” Tom leads a rebellion along with Captain Dan Weaver (Will Patton), Commander of the National Guard’s “2nd Mass” and a hard charging military strategist who balances Tom Mason’s idealism with the harsh realities of war and oppression.
The alien invaders, with whom the human spirit is locked in a struggle for survival, are a brutal race called the Espheny. An interesting aspect of the well-written serial is that once this invasion lays waste our civilization, all that once divided humanity – race, ethnicity, politics, social class – all gives way to humanity’s singular quest to restore its freedom. After the recent season finale, I now have to wait until next summer for the continuation of “Falling Skies.” The prison commissary doesn’t sell aluminum foil for a hat, so there’s little I can do to stop these aliens from occupying my thoughts.
Of course, if you’ve read a previous post of mine entitled “E.T. and the Fermi Paradox,” then you know where I stand on the likelihood of any such alien invasion from some other planet. What really draws my attention to “Falling Skies” is the way oppression and tyranny strip away all facades, and everyone’s true nature and true potential are for all to see. Generals are exposed as cowards and rogues become heroes. The outwardly faithful become enslaved to the will of invaders, and no one among the humans knows who can be trusted.
If you remove the extraterrestrials from “Falling Skies,” and replace them with any number of attempts by tyranny to limit and control freedom in human history, then the story becomes very familiar. In each instance of it in our history, tyranny counts on a new generation forgetting the lessons of the past to become lulled into silent complicity. It always begins with someone trying to convince us that it’s all for our own good, and religious freedom is always the first to go. In this past season of “Falling Skies,” it was Lourdes – a young woman, aspiring physician, and devout Catholic – whom the alien invaders targeted for enslavement to their own ends.
FOR GREATER GLORY
I could not help but be reminded in this devious plot of the struggle against tyranny portrayed in one of the great inspirational films of the last decade, “For Greater Glory.” It’s the true story of the Cristero War set in Mexico in the late 1920s, and it’s a cautionary tale about the slippery slope when religious freedom is limited by government power disguised as service “for the good of the people.” The film reawakens the reality of tyranny for those of us lulled into a false sense that it cannot happen here. It couldn’t happen in Catholic Mexico in 1926 either – but it did.
In the early 20th Century, revolutionary leaders in parts of Spain, Mexico, and the Soviet Union embraced aspects of Socialism and Communism that called for the suppression of religious ideals, a suppression aimed primarily at the Catholic Church. This persecution especially took hold in the State of Tabasco, Mexico where the bitterly anti-Catholic and anti-clerical governor, Tomas Garrido Canabal, used Marxist paramilitary police to close all the Catholic churches in the State.
Priests were the first to be targeted. “For the good of the people,” they were forbidden from any public or private celebration of the Mass or Sacraments. Under threats of execution, priests were forced to abandon their priesthood, marry and seek secular jobs. Many acquiesced. Some did not and many of those who refused were dragged from their churches by government troops and summarily hanged or shot in full view of their demoralized parishioners.
Over three years from 1926 to 1929, some heroic priests and Catholic faithful organized to stand up to this tyranny. They came to be called the “Cristeros,” taking up arms to halt the suppression of a fundamental human freedom. “For Greater Glory” tells this story with riveting historical accuracy. The Cristeros hired a former military general, Enrique Gorostieta Velarde – portrayed in the film by Academy Award nominee Andy Garcia – to organize the Cristeros into an effective force.
General Gorostieta first took the job for money, but the Cristeros gradually became his own passionate cause as he witnessed the cost of religious persecution on his countrymen. The struggle also reawakened his own dormant faith. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez wrote an excellent review of “For Greater Glory” for the National Catholic Register last year (“Today’s Greater Glory: We Need to Ask for the Strength to be Cristeros,” May 31, 2012). Archbishop Gomez, a native of Mexico, described Mexico as:
“The original cradle of Christianity in the New World . . . That such repression could happen in a nation so deeply Catholic as Mexico should make everybody stop and think.”
“We need to know,” Archbishop Gomez Wrote, “about the beautiful young catechist, Venerable Maria de la Luz Camacho,” shot by army troops as she valiantly stood at the entry to her church to block their way. “We need to know about the heroic priests who risked their lives to celebrate Mass and hear confessions.” We need to know about Blessed Miguel Pro, a priest who refused to be blindfolded as he stood before a firing squad, arms outstretched in imitation of Christ crucified as he shouted his last defiant words, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Read the Archbishops NCR article here) I also wrote of this great film last year in a post entitled “Of Saints and Souls and Earthly Woes”:
“The real star of this film – and I warn you it will break your heart – is the heroic soul of young Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, a teen whose commitment to his faith in Christ results in horrible torment and torture. If this film were solely the creation of Hollywood, there would have been a happy ending. Jose would have been rescued to live happily ever after. It isn’t Hollywood, however; it’s real. Jose’s final tortured scream of “Viva Cristo Rey” echoes across the century, across all of North America, across the globe, to empower a quest for freedom that can be found only where young Jose found it – ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’ “
Blessed Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio was beatified as a Martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Two weeks ago, Blessed Jose’s grand-nephew, Ric Cortez, left a comment about his great-uncle and the Cristeros on my post “Of Saints and Souls and Earthly Woes: Viva Cristo Rey!”
THE POWER AND THE GLORY
All of which brings us to this Labor Day weekend’s “Stuck Inside Literary Award.” The first two of these awards went to British writers. Well, technically the first in 2011 was an Irishman, but Patrick O’Brian’s “Aubrey-Maturin” series of novels about the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era are favorites in England, and among my own as well. In 2012, the award went to British writer, J.R.R. Tolkien for his literary masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings deemed by many writers to be one of the most important novels of the 20th Century.
There are many American writers I love to read, and some that I admire very greatly. However, the nod is once again going to a British writer – this time for a fascinating novel about a priest on the run from Mexican authorities at the close of the Cristeros War in Mexico of 1930.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene was written in 1940. In 2005, Time Magazine called it one of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century. In a forward to its 1990 reprint, American writer John Updike called it Greene’s masterpiece. On this, John Updike and I agree.
The novel is the story of a deeply flawed man and priest in the Mexican State of Tabasco at the height of the State’s anti-clerical persecution. The priest is given no name, and is known to readers only by the most evident of his flaws. He is the “Whisky Priest,” a character who combines obvious tendencies for self-destruction with an almost painful sense of penitence and a desperate quest for dignity. Readers will find little evidence for these latter traits in the man’s flawed humanity, but they seem to flourish in that part of his manhood that is his priesthood.
As a man, the unnamed priest in The Power and the Glory remained a flawed and struggling sinner, but added to his human flaws was the clear grace of constant conversion, the heroism of his sacred duty to fulfill Holy Orders, to bring the Sacraments even in the face of deadly oppression. In the end, he acquires in the mind of the reader a genuine holiness and heroism reminiscent of “Father Jim” in my post, “Our Catholic Tabloid Frenzy About Fallen Priests,” a post I implore readers to share.
Throughout The Power and the Glory, the priest is hunted … hunted … hunted – relentlessly hunted – by the police Lieutenant to whom the task is given by the State. The Lieutenant is reminiscent of Inspector Javert in relentless pursuit of an innocent man of whom I wrote in “Les Miserables: The Bishop and the Redemption of Jean Valjean.” In reading of the Lieutenant’s pursuit of the priest, I could not help but think of a few lines from “The Hound of Heaven,” the epic poem by Francis Thompson:
“I fled him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled him, down the arches of the years;
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways of my
own mind, and in the midst of tears I hid from him …”
In fact, that same imagery was evoked by Graham Greene himself for his novel was first published in American under the title, The Labyrinthine Ways. Throughout his quest to minister to the people deprived of Sacraments, the Whisky Priest is stalked by a Judas figure, called “The Mestizo,” who eventually hands him over for arrest and execution. In an ironic and pathetic twist, the sadistic Lieutenant employs Padre Jose to hear the condemned priest’s last confession – Padre Jose, who long ago acquiesced to the State’s demand that he abandon his priesthood, marry, and refuse the Sacraments to all who ask.
It is the Lieutenant’s final act of contempt for the flawed- but faithful Whisky Priest. Once the priest is executed, the Lieutenant declares that he has “cleared the province of priests,” but the story closes with the quiet arrival of yet another, an allusion to the fact that the State can kill the priests, but it cannot destroy the Church, and martyrs will but make faith stronger. They always have. They always will.
These Stone Walls Third Annual Stuck Inside Literary Award is shared this year between The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene and the great and riveting film about the Cristeros, “For Greater Glory.”
Viva Cristo Rey!