Last month, I wrote a column for The Catholic Messenger saying that I was going to Sahuayo, a city in the state of Michoacán, in western México to attend canonization activities for Jose Sanchez del Rio, a 14-year-old martyr. He was put to death 88 years ago for refusing to renounce his Catholic faith. I looked forward to making a pilgrimage, not as much for my devotion to Jose as for my devotion to martyrs. This was my way to honor all the martyrs of every time, place and faith.
Please indulge me. My reaction, once I got there, was very different than I had expected.
This year I planned to vacation in Honduras and Guatemala. The day I saw in The Catholic Messenger that Blessed Jose Sanchez was going to be canonized on Oct. 16 in Rome, I called my friends and changed my plans. The dates of my vacation matched the dates for the local celebration of the canonization in Mexico. It was meant to be. I called Father Hugo Ramirez and asked him to accompany me and to make arrangements for me to concelebrate the Mass in Sahuayo. I have known Fr. Hugo since he was a seminarian in Morelia Michoacán, and his family even longer. He has two brothers and a sister here at St. James Parish in Washington, Iowa, where I am pastor.
Fr. Hugo made our reservation by computer for an affordable hotel. We lucked out. It was downtown near the action. We were standing on the balcony planning our day when it was announced that a procession of young people would start at 11 a.m. Nearly 1,000 people walked in front of our hotel. As they walked, sang and danced, my roller coaster of emotions started. I cried like a baby as the relics passed in front of us. In my excitement I said to Fr. Hugo, “I’m going with them. I will find you later.”
My family always warns me not to wander off by myself while in Mexico. I always say, “Of course I won’t go wandering off.” Well, I wandered off with 1,000 people and had no idea where we were going. I was on a pilgrimage and needed to start.
During the procession, I would start to get my emotions under control until we passed yet another important site in the lives of several martyrs. When we stopped where Jose’s pastor had been killed and saw the bullet holes still in the wall of the church, I cried like a baby.
Early in the procession, I felt deep sadness. At first I thought I was feeling the weight of my sins. I realized I was not. That weight had been carried to Calvary by Christ. I was feeling spiritual sadness for my sins that went to the core of my soul. I felt unworthy to be walking in Jose’s footsteps. During the walk I felt many different emotions: great joy and acceptance, deep despair, unworthiness, horror and profoundly loved.
I had no idea where we were going. I only knew that I was safe, and whenever and wherever we arrived we would have the rosary and adoration. According to my fitbit, 5-1/2 miles later we arrived at a stadium. I knew I was in the presence of “holy” and that I was safe. Nine hours after I started this journey, Fr. Hugo called and asked where I was at. I had no idea, so I passed my phone to someone in the crowd to give Fr. Hugo the location. I was having a wonderful experience and had no idea I had been gone for nine hours. I was a pilgrim. I wasn’t lost. I was in the presence of “holy.” San Jose would see to it that I found my way home. Luckily, Fr. Hugo had a car and picked me up.
The next day, when we were at San Jose’s place of martyrdom, two 16- or 17-year-old young men were there with votive candles to honor San Jose. They told me that they come to his place of martyrdom often and were happy that I had come to visit “their Josecito” (Joey).
When I first saw these guys, they didn’t look like the type I would want to take home to my nieces. As we talked, they asked why I had come and whether I had a devotion to Josecito. I explained who I was and why I was there. They told me they would ask San Jose to pray for me and my parish. Before we said good bye, they talked about typical teenage topics. They said that they heard guys their age had their own cars in the U.S. and asked if the girls in my parish are pretty. When it was time to say good bye, they said: “Viva Cristo Rey,” the rallying cry of San Jose and the other Cristeros. Then the teens ran off to meet friends outside the cemetery. I would proudly bring these guys home to meet my nieces.
An hour later I was standing at a mass grave of 27 unknown teenage martyrs. There are graphic pictures of these slain young men by the tomb. All I could think about were the two teenage boys, whose names I do not know. Eighty-eight years earlier, they could have been among these martyrs. While crying in deep sadness like a baby, I asked the unknown teenage martyrs to protect these two young men of faith and their friends.
Later, I was one of nine priest concelebrants at the first Mass in honor of San Jose after his canonization. One of the priests handed the Roman Missal to me to read one of the concelebrant parts. I passed the book on to the priest beside me. I was feeling great sadness, thinking I was not worthy to say these prayers with my heavily accented, bad Spanish. Jose deserved better than that.
I was blessed during my pilgrimage in Sahuayo in ways that I cannot express in words. I was blessed by Christ, carried by the Spirit, aided by San Jose Sanchez del Rio and 27 unknown teenage martyrs. Viva Cristo Rey!
(Father Bernie Weir is pastor of St. James Parish in Washington.)