Among the ranks of Emiliano Zapata’s army was, from time to time, a supposed seller of needles and trinkets, and other times a supposed homeopathic doctor with his well-stocked medicine cabinet. When there were clashes, that character, in the middle of the shooting, approached the wounded or dying and asked them, “If there was a priest here, would you confess to him?” To those who answered him in the affirmative, he revealed his identity as a priest, made them swear that they would not give him away and discreetly assist them with the last sacraments. The disguised as a street vendor or doctor, whom Zapata himself called “doctor”, was Father Rafael Guízar y Valencia (1878-1938), who lived his priestly ministry and then episcopal in a Mexico convulsed by revolution and bloodied by the religious persecution that in his time manifested and would later acquire unimaginable proportions.
Father Raphael suffered several exiles and was on more than one occasion before the firing wall, from which he was freed thanks to divine protection and his own ingenuity. But no aggression or threat ever caused him to give up his priestly service.
He had been ordained at the Solemnity of Pentecost in 1901, in the San Francisco temple in the city of Zamora, Michoacán state( Mexico), and officiated his first mass at the Feast of Corpus Christi, in the parish of his hometown, Cotija.
The new minister premiered his priesthood with intense pastoral learning, invited by the Bishop of Zamora to accompany him on his ministerial tours; from him he learned to turn every pastoral visit into a mission, and to preach from the heart and from the gospel. He also learned to always strive to come into direct contact with the people, to know their needs and expectations.
These happy experiences with which he began his ministry led him to discover the vocation of missionary, catechist and preacher who would mark his entire priestly life.
Roses with thorns
The roses of his service never lacked thorns. If in 1903 he was appointed spiritual director and professor of theology at the seminary of Zamora, and in 1905, prebendado of the cathedral, in 1907 he suffered a heartbreaking penalty when he was fully suspended from the priestly ministry. It was all the result of a very insulting anonymous against the bishop, found among his ornaments. It was later known that the author of the infamous anonymous had been a former seminalist. Meanwhile, Don Rafael neither tried to defend himself nor wanted indeeds; simply accepted the suspended sentence, with heroic obedience and humility. The punishment was lifted sixteen months later, when the bishop died.
Another painful test suffered by Father Raphael was that of a foundation to which he had been inspired: on 3 June 1903 he began a congregation for free popular missions in all parts of the country, preferably in the poorest regions of clergy and economic resources. The congregation was born under the patronage of Our Lady of Hope. When the foundation was bearing its first fruits, again in that fateful 1907, an episcopal order abolished the first Esperancist school, which operated in Jacona, and in 1910, through the Apostolic Delegation came to the founder of the Esperancists the decree of the total suppression of his institute.
Despite these setbacks, Father Rafael never gave up on his fervent missions, such as the one he carried out in Tierra Caliente (between the states of Michoacán and Guerrero), in 1904, or in tabasco state in 1909.
In the midst of a revolution
Nor did the Mexican revolution, which erupted in 1910, shut down Father Guízar’s priestly zeal; rather, it opened new horizons for him, such as the exercise of a more selfless charity towards the sick and the dying because of the armed movement.
In May 1911, one of the revolutionary sides – that of the Loggers – broke into zamora’s central square while the population reveled in the music of an orchestra. People ran unsurped and local authorities didn’t know how to react. They thought it best to enter into dialogue with the revolutionaries and turned to Father Guísar and another prelation to talk to the raised and try to convince them not to harm the population of Zamora. They succeeded in their efforts and people were very grateful.
In 1912, Father Guízar and Valencia were appointed canon of The Cathedral of Zamora, but within a year a violent attack on the clergy was revealed, and he, who had traveled to Mexico City for a delicate commission made to him by Archbishop José Mora y del Río, had to stay in the capital. There he lived the bloody “Tragic Decena”, from 9 to 19 February 1913. Disguised as a civilian, he was assisting wounded and dying. He then moved on to the state of Morelos and it was there that, under the cover of disguises, he made him a military chaplain in Zapata’s army. But one day it happened that a stray bullet wounded him in one leg and such an incident resulted in him being suspected; They took him as a spy and took him to the firing wall. Wondering what his last will was, he asked to be allowed to give them a watch and a gold chain he carried with him. Then he threw those valuable items as far as he could, and while the officer and platoon were contesting the loot, he escaped at full throttle.
In 1915, when the order to arrest and apprehend him was already widespread, he continued to engineer them to outwit the police. He knew how to use himself to throw off his pursuers, even his ability to play any musical instrument. Once they had him trapped, but he told them that they were in a mistake, that he was nothing but a musician; that if he didn’t carry any instruments with him it was because even his accordion had had to sell to hold on. They, to test him, got him an accordion and had him accompany them in the parrandas and serenades they had scheduled for that night. He played so well the ranch songs that they preferred, that they became convinced that, indeed, he was not a priest but a poor musician.
His banishments take him to Cuba
As religious persecution intensified, Canon Guízar was forced to seek safety abroad, where he did not have to hide or walk in disguises, and if he could exercise his ministry and organize popular missions.
In Laredo, Texas, he obtained a passport under the name Rafael Ruiz and as such went to Guatemala, where he managed intensely. In early 1917 he embarked in Puerto de Barrios on his way to Cuba. On the beautiful island was varied and appreciated his missionary work, in which he deployed all his gifts, also those of musician and singer, in addition to his organizational capacity. He worked with adults in general and with marriages, children and prisoners, the sick, and those far from the Church. Someone who had been observing his admirable dedication and his most original creativity, expressed this appreciation that was soon made public: “That Father Ruiz, is either a madman or he is a saint…”.
He was in the most intense part of his missionary dedication in Cuba, when the news came to him, through Msgr. Tito Tronchi, apostolic delegate in the Antilles: Pope Benedict XV had appointed him to rule the diocese of Veracruz (Mexico).
The episcopal consecration of Archbishop Guízar and Valencia took place in Havana, in the church of San Felipe Neri (now a concert hall), on November 20, 1919. At the entrance of the venue, the memory of the event is recorded in metallic letters. The consecrator was the apostolic delegate and the attendees at the consecration ceremony were the Archbishop of Havana, Pedro González Estrada, and the Bishop of Camaguey, Valentín Zubizarreta, who gave him the pectoral cross; the ornaments and the episcopal ring were the gift of a group of Cuban faithful.
Before traveling to his diocese, Archbishop Guízar and Valencia wanted to say goodbye to the island, finally, in Bejucal and Guanabacoa.
Received in his homeland
with the news of an earthquake
The 1st. January 1920 embarked on a steamer, back to his homeland. Arriving in Veracruz on January 4, he learned of a terrible misfortune that occurred the day before: a strong earthquake had shaken much of his diocese and many were dead and affected.
As soon as the new bishop landed, he began a collection to help these poor people, and before traveling to Xalapa to take possession of his diocese, he asked that everything reserved for his reception be destined for those affected. He immediately began a paternal visit to the most affected regions. The territory of his diocese was immense (46,000 km2), and also very rugged: high mountains and deep glens, stone areas and plains of grass green, flowing rivers and arid areas…
Although Don Rafael was bishop of Veracruz for eighteen years, religious persecution and two long exiles reduced his physical stay in his diocese to a total of eight years. During that time, three times he traveled, from span to span, his diocesan territory, passing through all the parishes and chapels, through all the villages and hamlets, always missionarying, preaching and listening to his faithful, comforting everyone, employing the catechism that he prepared to indoctrinate his people, entrusting to the most committed faithful the continuation of popular missions, moving to the Eucharistic fervor and marian… It was an unfinished work in an environment difficult because of the abrupt geography and more because the adversaries of the Church had spread an anti-clerical spirit everywhere. However, Archbishop Guízar was in his time an example to other dioceses of the country, in terms of vocational promotion and the consequent formation of seminarians and priests.
By 1920, he had managed to recover the former diocesan seminary expropriated since 1914; was given the task of rebuilding it, but a year later the civil authorities confiscated it again. This did not wipe out the seminary of Veracruz, which became itinerant and largely clandestine, until it settled in the spaces of an abandoned cinema, in Mexico City.
The Streets in Action Act
The arbitrary Calles Law promulgated by the President of the Republic on June 14, 1926, aggravated the situation of Catholics in Mexico. The resources of the dialogue did not proceed and the uprising in arms – the Cristiada – sprang up in other states of the country.
Monsignor Guízar was a man of peace, but also a brave man and a fulfilled shepherd. Despite the restrictions imposed on worship, he remained a tireless missionary, always confident in Providence and, at the same time, insightful and intelligent not to fall into the hands of the police, who had the order to find him at all costs.
Locking, banishing or burial
These were the three alternatives that had many prelados and priests from Mexico in the stormy years of religious persecution. Monsignor Guízar presented himself to the secretary of the governorate and accepted the second. That took him back to Laredo and then to San Antonio, both Texas locations; then again to Cuba (where he spent eight more months) and Guatemala. Being in that Central American country, he received the news that the President of Mexico, Emilio Portes Gil, had expressed his willingness to dialogue with the bishops. He thought, then, that it was an opportune time to return to his diocese.
Timely it was, but not without stumbles. After his return to the diocese itself, new events stirred the waters again. On March 6, 1931, while he was making a pastoral visit, a stranger blew up a bomb in Xalapa Cathedral and that was like a pre-announce of further aggression against the Church. Indeed, three months later, the governor of Veracruz intended to make the entire diocese one more unit of the state. To this end, he enacted Law 197, also known as the Tejeda Law, which authorized only one priest per 100,000 inhabitants. The pastor of the diocese did not accept this meddling of civil authority, and so he expressed in a pastoral letter published in the Veracruz newspaper El Dictamen, on 4 July 1931. A new wave of attacks was then unleashed and the bishop was forced out of the state of Veracruz, and from the cities of Puebla and Mexico he continued to lead his diocese.
On July 25, the same day the Weed Law came into force, there was an attack on the governor in Xalapa, who was injured in the left ear. It was thought, without any basis, that the intellectual author had been the bishop. On the afternoon of the same day, a group of anti-clericals armed with pistols and machetes, and carrying containers of gasoline, entered the parish of the Assumption, in Veracruz, and began to balacear the priests who exercised their ministry there. Father Angel Dario Acosta was gunned down, Father Alberto Landa was seriously wounded, while Father Rafael Rosas was left unhinged, having protected himself in the confessional.
The reaction of Monsignor Guízar and Valencia was immediate. He sent the governor an energetic protest: “Lord Wean: already Veracruz was watered with the blood of martyrs, to shine the truth and justice, and that religion, far from extinction, may shine more vigorously despite the efforts of the tyrants, who will crash into the impregnable rock of God.”
A short time later, Adalberto Tejeda ordered the bishop to die, and even offered reward to whoever delivered him alive or dead.
Without the slightest scroping, Monsignor Guízar returned to Xalapa and, tempesstively, showed up at the representative’s office and said, “I came to show you that I am respectful of authority. You’ve ordered me to be shot where they find me. I have come all this way so that you can give yourself the pleasure of doing so, and thus prevent one of my faithful from having to stain your hands by shooting at your bishop.”
Bewildered by the unexpected presence of the bishop, and anonymized by the words heard, he only right to say, “Go quietly. I withdraw the order… that’s what men of courage are like!”
Adalberto Tejeda left the government of Veracruz in 1932, when he was appointed ambassador to France. Monsignor Rafael Guízar and Valencia survived for six more years, until June 6, 1938, the day he died dejected, not by bullets but by diabetes, phlebitis and arrhythmia, which had made his missions more sacrificed in recent years. He closed his eyes in a house adjoining his beloved diocesan seminary, which was still in Mexico City, where he made the penultimate of his travels. The latter set off for Heaven.
St. John Paul II beatified Rafael Guízar and Valencia in 1995, and Pope Benedict XVI declared him a saint in 2016. Ω