The Life and Death of Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado
Written by Theresa Marie Moreau
If you are Catholic, the Cristeros are your ancestors in the Faith, no matter your nationality, race or social standing.
Atop La Loma, a small rise in the foothills of the Sierra de Quila mountains, a tall, bespectacled priest – in a black, ankle-length cassock with a crucifix hanging from his neck – stood before a cross glinting in the sun.
Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado (1888-1927) officiated a spiritual participation, a local ceremony a few short miles north of the town of Tecolotlan, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, part of the national celebration of Christ proclaimed Rey de la Nacion, King of the Nation, on January 11, 1923.
Without a roof, out in the open, the rood stood subject to nature’s whims. Several feet tall, absent a figure of The Nazarene, its simple adornments consisted of four plaques, one on each of its four arms. Top: Viva Cristo Rey; bottom: January 11, 1923; left: Tecolotlan of; right: Divine Heart. Around the object of devotion, gathered Robles, seven priests, two deacons, as well as 1,500 faithful from the nearest towns of Ayutla, Juchitlan, Tecolotlan, Tenemaxtlan and Union de Tula.
Robles asked those present the following three questions:
“Do you swear vassalage and fidelity to the Divine Heart?
“Will you celebrate his holiday with primary character?
“Do you swear filial and eternal consecration of the parish and the vicarage to the very Heart of Jesus?”
“We swear!” all shouted together enthusiastically.
The oath was identical to the one made nearly 200 miles away, where the Holy See’s Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Ernesto Eugenio Filippi (1879-1951), officiated the national ceremony atop the summit of Cerro del Cubilete, the approximate geographic center of Mexico, near Silao, in the state of Guanajuato. An estimated 40,000 Catholics surrounded the monumental statue of Christ – with arms lovingly outstretched for an eternal embrace and its pedestal wrapped with a thick tri-color ribbon. For his public leadership and participation in the illegal public religious ceremony, the Archbishop would be expelled from the nation. And in 1928, the statue of Christ would be destroyed, bombed by the Socialist regime in an effort to erase all symbols of Catholicism.
In honor of the day and to celebrate Christ as the King of the Nation, Robles – a poet at heart – composed a few lines:
If as King my country proclaims you
It is, sweet heart, that loves you,
Heart of Jesus, You alone rule
In my afflicted homeland; that waits for you.
January 11 of the year 23,
Jesus, my country said, He is my King!
Long live Jesus the King of loves!
May the flowers be for Him from Mexico.
Heart of Jesus, sweet hope,
In my soil your empire is luck.
Christian believers suffered persecution at the hands of the Mexican Socialist government and its ratified Political Constitution of the United Mexican States of 1917 – yet another constitutional overhaul in the country riven with ideological chaos – that outlined forbidden practices of religion, specifically Catholicism, in Articles 3, 5, 24, 27 and 130.
Article 3 banned religious schools and demanded secular education only.
Article 5 forbade the establishment of monastic orders.
Article 24 outlawed acts of public worship, which were ordered to be held only in churches under the strict supervision of civil, not religious, authorities.
Article 27, a continuation of the Agrarian Reform Decree of January 6, 1915, permitted the government confiscation of land owned by the Catholic Church and prohibited the Church from owning land.
And Article 130 mandated that only native-born Mexicans could be priests; that only state legislatures could determine the number of priests; that matrimony was exclusively a contract under the auspices of civil authorities; that Catholic churches were to be controlled by the Ministry of the Interior; that spoken and written criticism by religious of the government was absolutely prohibited; and that spiritual formation of priests was forbidden.
A man of peace and a man of love, especially for the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Robles did not rebel against the authorities. Understanding that parishioners loved and respected him – as their spiritual father – and would do anything that he asked, he never encouraged them to act against the government, because he did not want to cause them trouble; however, he did encourage them to defend their God-given rights, in a non-violent fashion, completely in line with the doctrine of the Church.
According to the Catechism of the Council of Trent (first published in 1566), in obedience of the Fourth Commandment, civil rulers – images of divine power – should be honored, respected and obeyed, because whatever obedience is given to the civil ruler is given to God.
“However, should their command be wicked or unjust, they should not be obeyed, since in such a case they rule not according to their rightful authority, but according to injustice and perversity.”
The Catholic country’s government had been seized by Socialists – opportunistic, anti-Christian ideologues fueled by a contempt for peaceful society and by a desire for Permanent Revolution, a theory hatched by Leon Trotsky (born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein (1879-1940).
In 1931, Trotsky wrote: “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which has risen to power as the leader of the Democratic Revolution, is inevitably and very quickly confronted with tasks…The Democratic Revolution grows over directly into the Socialist Revolution and, thereby, becomes a Permanent Revolution.”
The revolutionary leader – who conceived of and created the world’s first “concentration camps”: prisons for political enemies and counterrevolutionaries – lost a power struggle with Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), the head of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The exiled Socialist sought asylum in Mexico, where he engaged in adultery with Frida Kahlo (1907-54), a card-carrying member of the Mexican Communist Party. Trotsky was eventually hunted down in Mexico City and assassinated by Stalin’s hitman, Jaime Ramon Mercader del Rio (1913-78), a Soviet agent who wielded a mountaineering ice axe.
Aggressive to achieve their Communist Utopia (from the Greek ou-topos, which translates to “no place”), Socialists may display antisocial mental disorders in which one has no remorse or conscience, no regard for traditional right or wrong, and feels free to take action – including violence or death – against perceived enemies: those who disagree, fail to do what is ordered, or refuse to affirm the inflated view of the politically elite vanguard. It’s a disorder in an individual that creates disorder in the world.
That was the world in which Robles lived, and those were the dangers he faced, but the risks had never daunted his lifelong faith.
As a boy – after attending a Parish Mission filled with fiery sermons and public acts of worship, in his hometown of Mascota – Robles heard a slight whisper in his heart that remained. Born on May 3, the Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross, it seemed it was his destiny to embrace and follow the Cross. Although it was a financial struggle for his parents, Antonio de Robles and Petronila Hurtado, as well as his 11 brothers and sisters, at the age of 13, he answered God’s call. In October 1901, following a journey of two days by horseback and one by train to the city of Guadalajara, he entered the Minor Seminary of San Jose, located at Calle Reforma and Avenida Fray Antonio Alcalde. In 1904, he continued his philosophical and theological studies at the Major Seminary of San Jose, located at Calle Reforma, Calle Santa Monica and Calle San Felipe, where he studied Logic, Metaphysics, Cosmology, Psychology, Theodicy and Ethics. At the age of 16, he received the tonsure, on January 22, 1905, from Guadalajara Archbishop Jose de Jesus Ortiz Rodriguez (1849-1912). At the age of 25, in 1913, he received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
In 1916, to reach his new assignment in Nochistlan de Mejia, in Zacatecas, he walked two days along bridle paths to meet his pastor, Father Roman Adame Rosales (1859-1927), who would die a martyr’s death after he was captured and tortured by government forces, who executed him by firing squad on April 21, 1927.
Despite living under the dark cloud of governmental anti-Catholicism, Robles continued to fulfill the duties of his state in life, consecrated to Christ, accepting his role in the natural order of the world, as the Will of God. To refuse would have been an offense against the Author of Nature. Embracing his vocation, Robles set to work fulfilling the needs that he saw in his parish.
Because most of the religious from other countries had been forced to leave Mexico after the enactment of the 1917 Constitution, the young priest founded the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (las Hermanas del Corazon de Jesus Sacramentado), on December 27, 1918, to assist with the needs of the Catholic community.
The first were: Amalia Vergara Chavez (Sister Superior), Adelina Vergara Chavez, Juana Yanez, Maria del Carmen Donlucas Sandoval, Maria Dolores Duan Gutierrez, Maria Elizalde and Maria Prieto.
Robles put the Sisters in charge of a hospital, which had been dilapidated until he oversaw its renovations. There the Sisters ministered to the sick seeking help, and then they opened the first school, on August 4, 1919, in Nochistlan. When Robles transferred, in December 1920, to Tecolotlán, where he was promoted to pastor, the Sisters stayed behind, continuing their ministry with the sick, with the school and with some orphaned girls.
Slowly, the noose began to tighten around the necks of Catholics, and then in a dramatic, anti-Catholic push, President Plutarco Elias Calles (1877-1945) passed laws that would give authorities more power over the Church and total control of the churches. On July 31, 1926, the Law for Reforming the Penal Code – the so-called Calles Law – was to take effect.
The Catholic hierarchy reacted by ordering the suspension of Sacraments inside all churches to take effect on the same day.
Like other priests in the 12,000 Catholic churches throughout Mexico, on Friday, July 30, 1926, Robles offered the Sacraments, steadily offering Holy Communion until midnight, and then carried the Blessed Sacrament to safety. The next day, he moved from the rectory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, at 11 Gil Preciado Calle, in the heart of Tecolatlan. But he continued to tend to his flock, listening to confessions, visiting the sick, aiding the dying, offering Mass in homes.
After the enactment of the Calles Law, the religious orders and communities began to be dissolved, including the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Robles sent the nuns, novices and postulants to their homes.
Authorities targeted priests, including Robles, issuing a warrant for his arrest. However, instead of sending the warrant to the Tecolotlan mayor, it was mistakenly sent to the Teocuitatlan mayor, a devout Catholic who informed his parish priest with a warning, “May the priest hide himself quickly and well.” The Teocuitatlan priest informed Robles, on December 12, 1926, and hide well, he did.
But despite the threat to his life, Robles celebrated Holy Hour at La Loma, on January 11, 1927, the anniversary of the national proclamation of Christ as the King of Mexico. Undaunted, Robles distributed national flags adorned with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Cristeros, whom he encouraged to give their lives for Christ and for the Faith.
Soon thereafter, on January 14, 1927, Robles went into hiding in the home of Vicente Santa and Maria de Jesus Ramirez. Three days later, Father Jenaro Sanchez Delgadillo (1886-1927), Robles’ vicar in the parish of Tamazulita, was out hunting, on January 17, 1927, when he was captured by agraristas, peasants armed by the regime. Hanged from a mesquite tree in his parish, his body swayed in the darkness of the night, until dawn, when his executioners returned, shot the corpse in the left shoulder, dropped him to the ground and finished with a coup de grace, a bayonet stab to the chest.
Sanchez had been hounded by authorities for years, first jailed in 1917, after reading aloud to his parishioners during Sunday Mass the following pastoral letter from Archbishop Francisco Orozco y Jimenez (1864-1936):
June 4, 1917, Pastoral Letter.
Francisco, by the Grace of God and favor of the Apostolic See, Archbishop of Guadalajara.
To the Very Reverend Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral and to the Reverend clergy, secular and regular, and to all the faithful of the archdiocese.
Peace and Benediction in Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Certain motives of prudence have prevented me from communicating directly with my beloved flock; although, I have not for one moment ceased to watch over its well-being; but now I deem it my duty to direct you a brief message breaking the silence, which was responsible for much anxiety to souls, although this time it was a silence which hard circumstances imposed upon us.
Very well, it is known to everybody that the new political Constitution, while it recognizes many of the rights of the people, having put aside the Catholic Church altogether (under which the majority of the people live; although, they do not all receive our holy religion in its entirety, but are often the victims of modern errors), tries to subjugate and oppress that Church, often condemning her to the point of suppressing her very name.
Are we able to reconcile this with the sacred and inalienable rights of this sacred Institution? And how can Catholics suffer an order of things that obliges them, not only to renounce the most sought gift of heaven, but also to ratify this oppression by their acquiescence?
I found myself obliged to protest, as I did, against the new constitution, as a representative of this portion of the Catholic Church, and made such protest together with the greater part of the Mexican Episcopate, whose letter was formulated in United States on the 24th of February last, as you yourselves, dear beloved, must already know. Their measured words, and convincing reasons, and the declarations which appear in this protest, give you all to understand, in general terms, what ought to be the reasonable interpretation and real spirit of the new legislation, and also what should be your conduct toward it, as Catholics and faithful sons of the Church; they also make known to our enemies that it is not the spirit of sedition or conspiracy which animates the pastors of the Church, the venerable clergy or the faithful themselves.
Be sure, my beloved sons, that the lot of the Spouse of Jesus Christ is not different from that of her Divine Founder: Tribulations, persecutions, shame, blood and martyrdom is her patrimony and her heritage. “The disciple is not better than his Master.” “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
The history of the Church teaches us those things; making us also understand that, as it happened to the Barque of Peter, on Lake Gennesaret – after the tempest, will come calm and tranquility.
And now that we realize the divine warnings, let us not content ourselves with vain laments, but, rather, secure the fruits of our sufferings and purify according to the high designs of the Savior, our souls, by contemplating the indestructible principles of our holy religion, which makes us love virtue and detest vice; also, to walk always in hold dread of God, and to encourage the hope of better times, and the upending goods, which alone we are permitted to covet.
Now is the time to revive within us the true Catholic spirit, and eliminate all compromise with modern errors, condemned by the Church, to separate the straw from the grain; thus, then practically will shine forth the splendor of high Christian virtue, and thus the enemies of the Church will recognize and glorify God and His Christ.
The venerable clergy is invited and exhorted by the present persecution, in a thousand ways, to serve as an example to the common faithful; for they have put their hand to the plow to procure their proper sanctification, which their high state exacts; and the faithful in whatever condition in which they are placed, having the clear and definite voice of the Divine Master, who applies to us His gentle lash, must also give a hand to the work of their own sanctification. If the contrary occur, it is to be feared that we may be abandoned by the Divine Clemency, and that for us there may come the terrible way when the Sun of Justice will be hidden from us forever.
May He illumine our souls and concede us the grace to follow the truth, so that our faith may be revived, and our charity inflamed, and we may resolve anew to serve and love God and the Savior, with all the force of our souls. May the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe be very propitious to us! May we always implore those potent graces, so that we may the better be able to resist, in time of temptation, and tribulation, and, thus, to conserve unblemished our glorious faith and time-honored customs.
I impart to you my paternal benediction, imploring from above all good things upon you.
This pastoral letter is to be read in the usual manner.
Given from one of my parishes, on the 4th day of June, 1917.
+Francisco, Archbishop of Guadalajara.
After the odium fidei death of Sanchez, Robles predicted, “My turn will be soon.”
And yet – even in hiding – he continued to tend to his parishioners, going out in street clothes, administering the Sacraments. When he heard that authorities had learned of his whereabouts, he fled in the middle of the night and found sanctuary, on February 9, 1927, in the home of Adelaida Brambila de Agraz, whose mansion stood across the way from the agrarista barracks.
While staying at the mansion, his brother, Guadalupe, visited to take the priest home to safety in Mascota. He refused.
“He who abandons his flock is not a good shepherd,” the priest answered and remained and continued to tend to his flock, and beyond. When he learned that the Holy Cross of La Loma had been smashed to pieces, he offered a Mass in reparation.
At some point, Lieutenant Colonel Alonso Calderon received the following telegraph: “Proceed with all rigor against the rebel priest.”
On Saturday, June 25, after authorities searched a few homes, they arrived at the Agraz mansion, as Robles prepared to say Mass for the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When Calderon knocked on the door, Robles opened the door and readily surrendered. Escorted to the agrarista barracks across the street, he smiled to those he met. Placed in solitary confinement, he spent his time wisely, praying and writing.
Parishioners tried to free him, but authorities already had the order for execution.
Around midnight, seven agraristas quietly removed him from the barracks. Fearing that the townspeople would stop the execution, the group headed north out of town, for the foothills of the Sierra de Quila, the same foothills where Robles had dedicated the cross, parishioners, the vicarate and himself to Christ, the King of the Nation.
In the midst of the June-July rainy season, the daily downpours made Robles’ Way of Sorrows even more physically difficult because of the thick mud. When he faltered, it was at La Loma where one of the men, who had brought an additional horse, offered it to Robles.
And the darkness. With only a thin strip of the waning crescent moon shedding the faintest glimmer of light, the group lost its way. When one of his captors grew irate, the priest pulled a small candle stub from his pocket and lit the wick to show the way to his death.
After the arduous journey of nearly four hours, the group arrived early in the morning at the summit of Sierra de Quila and stopped at an oak tree, around 4 a.m., still dark, on June 26, 1927.
The agraristas readied the noose and tossed the rope over a branch of a leafy, gnarled, old oak tree, with speed, for they did not want the villagers to learn of their presence before the deed was done.
During the last days and weeks of his life he had frequently exclaimed, “Yes! The Eucharistic Heart of Jesus will take me on this day.”
His day had arrived. Understanding that his moment of martyrdom neared, Robles fell to his knees, prayed for a few minutes, raised his hand to bless his parish, and raised his hand to bless his executioners, forgiving them for what they were about to do. He then kissed the ground and stood.
A man with a rope approached the priest. The two knew one another. He was Robles’ compadre, Enrique Vazquez.
“My friend, do not stain your hands,” Robles said.
Taking the noose, he blessed the rope and kissed it as if it were a priest’s stole, acknowledging the yoke of Christ, and pulled it over his head until it encircled his neck and draped over his shoulders.
“May my blood fall on my people as a sign of blessing and forgiveness,” he said.
Seconds before his hanging, he exclaimed, “Yours, always yours, Eucharistic Heart of Jesus! Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit!”
Execution accomplished, the agraristas dropped the still-warm body and walked to nearby houses in Quila, a small village. They approached some muleteers and told them about the dead priest under an oak tree. Employees of a coal factory retrieved the body and placed it in a nearby coal cellar. When they learned the executed was a priest, they disinterred the body and reburied it in the cemetery, from where he was later exhumed and moved to Guadalajara, June 26, 1932.
A poet at heart, hours before his martyrdom, Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado penned his final verses:
I want to love your Heart
My Jesus, with delirium,
I want to love you with passion,
I want to love you until martyrdom.
With my soul I bless you,
my Sacred Heart.
Tell me: has the moment come
of happy and eternal union?
Stretch out your arms to me, Jesus,
because I am your little one;
from them, safely protected,
where you order it, I go!!
Under the protection of my mother
and running on her account,
I, the little one of her soul,
I fly into her arms smiling.
Decades after the death of Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado, the oak tree – on which he hanged – perished, like its famous victim. A church dedicated to his memory was built, in Quila, on the spot by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the courtyard, another very old oak tree still stands and is honored as the Arbol Testigo (witness tree), because it witnessed the hanging of a martyr, who was beatified on the Feast of Christ the King, on November 22, 1992, and canonized on the fifth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2000.
I would like to especially thank Sister Eugenia Mayela Ortega, Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (las Hermanas del Corazon de Jesus Sacramentado). Without her, this piece would not have been possible.
Miscellanea and facts were pulled from the following: New York Times; “San Jose Ma. Robles Hurtado: Sacerdote, Fundador y Martir,” by Ramiro Camacho, 470 pages; and “San Jose Ma. Robles Hurtado: Sacerdote, Fundador y Martir,” by Ramiro Camacho, 174 pages.
Theresa Marie Moreau, an award-winning reporter, is the author of Martyrs in Red China; An Unbelievable Life: 29 Years in Laogai; Misery & Virtue; and Blood of the Martyrs: Trappist Monks in Communist China.
This piece was originally posted in The Remnant Newspaper: