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Bless me, Father? Gilbert Chesterton, the Cristiada, and me

9 March 2012

(21 June 2013:  The photographer,  Manuel Ramos Sánchez (1874-1945), and his pioneering work in the  art of photo manipulation, discussed here: Somebody had to take the picture).


I had run across this photo before, while researching Gorostieta and the Cristiada: Mexico’s Catholic Insurgency 1926-1929 . At the time, I considered using it, or… rather… passing it along to our book designer who has produced some amazing book covers from old photos before. Michelle’s cover used a photo of Gorostieta himself, but I still had the photo at the top of this post somewhere in my files, and was surprised to run across it again last night.

I was looking for something else entirely, and the context in which it was posted — on a “traditional Catholic” website in 2009, carping about the alleged wimpiness of post Vatican II priests — wasn’t particularly of interest to me. But the photo? One commentator, rather perceptively, managed to identify it as a Cristero era photo, although he didn’t seem to know much about it. However, his comments were well worth reading, even if his perception of that event differs from mine.

The commentator was Sean Dailey, editor of Gilbert Magazine, published by the American Chesterton Society, which “works tirelessly to promote the writings and thought of G.K. Chesterton”. The British author has never been one I paid much attention to, but as a Catholic apologist and witty defender of his intellectual and religious positions (he and George Bernard Shaw were the best of enemies), Chesterton is still appreciated by his readers, and has a fervid following, especially among Catholic intellectuals.

Since, IT JUST SO HAPPENS that not being up on Catholic apologetics myself, I had my manuscript looked over by a writer who… IT JUST SO HAPPENS, is a regular contributor to Gilbert Magazine and a member of the American Chesterton Society. Small world, or small miracle?

As it is, I think the photo is staged… I can find no reference to the priest (identified in the photo as Francisco Vera) having been executed by the Mexican Army. And, I have my doubts he would be wearing clerical garb at his execution, since Mexican priests during the Cristero era generally didn’t even during Mass. The Catholic Church, up until the 1960s, had extremely detailed rituals regarding clerical garb, which were relaxed (under special dispensation by the Vatican) in Mexico to allow the clergy to continue functioning in the anti-clerical atmosphere of the 1920s. A priest at the time would wear a biretta (the square hat Father Vega has on in the photo) if wearing his vestments outside the church, but … if he was being executed… he wouldn’t be in his vestments, unless he had been dragged out of church, in which case, I don’t think he would have been wearing his hat.

Secondly, Father Vega’s pose… giving a benediction to his executioners… is just too perfect. There were Cristeros who blessed their killers (Miguel Pro — beatified by Pope John-Paul II in 1988 — supposedly thanked his executioners for giving him a one-way ticket to Heaven) and there were executions that were photographed (famously, Miguel Pro’s). But, cameras being what they were in those days, the “perfect moment” photo has to be regarded with suspicion.

And, finally, given that the spelling of Mexico in the caption (“Mejico”) would not have been used by a Mexican printer, but would by a Spanish one. My guess is that the photo was staged for propaganda in Spain, where the Second Republic would pass anti-clerical legislation similar to Mexico’s in the 1930s, and where anti-clerical violence would also lead to reaction and a counter-revolution (which, obviously, succeeded in Spain).

Mr. Dailey, being the good sport that he is, wrote back almost immediately. He is quite correct in pointing out that the anti-clerical violence was particularly virulent in Spain (quite true), but was thrilled to get some background on the photo. And, would be interested in having Gorostieta and the Cristiada reviewed by his publication.

I am extremely gratified that Gilbert Magazine is taking an interest in my little book. I don’t see what might be read as an “anti-clerical apologetic” being reviewed in a magazine dedicated to a Christian apologist as a way of setting up a clash between “friendly enemies”, but simply good scholarship… and good manners.

It’s odd, but tonight I had another on-line conversation (perhaps there are no coincidences!) with a right-wing friend of mine who posted something to the effect that lefties were people who just hadn’t read enough.  Yeah, right.  I don’t think it’s that, as my right-wing friend contends that the well-educated tend to work for the state (and that wouldn’t account for the tendency of the well-educated in right-wing states to also be lefties), nor of the meme going around a while back that “reality has a liberal bias”.  I don’t know that there’s any particular single cause for the well-educated and well read tending towards the left end of the political spectrum, other than the simple fact that well-educated people ARE well-educated, and tend to read more than most people.  And,  that even the most retro of writers and intellectuals — the honest ones anyway — are willing to test their own assumptions.

Reading Chesterton hasn’t made me a right-winger, or even a defender of tradition, and I don’t think reading Gorostieta and the Cristiada is gonna send Gibertarians (Chestertonians?) running amuck and beating up priests.

Of course I appreciate the work done by scholars with their more traditionalist, or politically right-wing spin.  I couldn’t have written on the Cristiada without reading Jean Meyer’s work, or traditionalist Catholic writers, or even in one particular instance, a study that appeared in racist and pro-fascist publication.

An honest and intelligent writer,  Chesterton famously wrote “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

And the business of scholars is to discover where the mistakes came from in the first place.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 March 2012 4:35 am

    There should also be a shadow at the feet of the presiding officer. Plus, the shooters are standing too close to the victim. So, I think you’re right. Great article!

  2. 9 March 2012 1:25 pm

    Rich, I think you are right. You are always right 🙂
    I could find little or nothing on Padre Francisco Vera and he isn’t even listed as a martyr by the Catholic Church. Very strange. You are a great detective.

    • 9 March 2012 3:15 pm

      OTOH, if Padre Vera was a real person, he might not be a martyr to the Church, if he had been an active combatant. One of Gorostieta’s more notorious generals was Padre José Reyes Vega, famous for his hard-drinking, skirt chasing way, and he wasn’t the only priest to have joined the counter-revolution.

      • 9 March 2012 3:25 pm

        Come on…the priest in the photo looks more like a saint that a skirt chaser. As a matter of fact he looks like he came right out of the Handbook for Future Tapatio Cardinals 🙂

      • 9 March 2012 3:32 pm

        Just giving the benefit of the doubt… and Fr. Reyes Vega was killed in action. There could have been a priest named Francisco Vera, and could have been a Francisco Vera executed by firing squad somewhere in Mexico during the Cristero War, and its even remotely possible there was a Padre Francisco Vera executed somewhere… but even if there was, this is not the picture of that hypothetical priest’s execution.

  3. Matthew permalink
    17 March 2012 6:41 pm

    It’s accounts like this that lead me to believe the authenticity of the photo:

  4. 17 March 2012 8:56 pm

    I don’t think anyone says priests weren’t executed (they were) both here and in Spain during the 1920s-30s, only that this photo isn’t real, and was probably for propaganda purposes in Spain… where the anti-clerical violence was a bit later than that in Mexico.

  5. Pepe Compean permalink
    11 April 2012 5:39 pm


    if the photo is real…there are some strange details in it:

    The man standing right next to the wall were the victim is standing seems to be an army officer. Any army officer, even the most mediocre, wouldn’t be standing there, were a ricochet or a wall splinter might also kill him.

    If you have acceso to the execution photos of Miguel Pro, you’ll notice that in his execution the shooters were pretty far away from him, and this image is almost fromo the same years, so firing squad standards by the Mexican army should’ve been the same.

    This photograph reminds me of Monet’s picture of Maximilian’s shootings, were the firing squad was pretty close to the subjects being executioned, to the point that Maximilan´s beard caught fire. But the weapons used in those years were old, out dated Springfield rifles and in the photos, the soldiers – or presumed soldiers – are using modern rifles, perhaps Mauser rifles, with a 7.62 mm bullet that could bounce of a wall and harm the shooters.

    Also, there is a detail which at least makes it appear as an staged photo: the soldier closer to us, viewers, is standing with his legs pretty close together: the Mauser, or any rifle used in that time by the army, for that matter, had a powerful “kick”…this man rolled or stumbled if, indeed, he shoot his victim in that position.

    Also…I’m no marksman, but the position of his left hand doesn’t seem to be “gripping” the rifle’s cannon. It appears to rest loosely in his palm, which also seems impossible in a person trained in the use of firearms.

    And, lastly, there’s a strange “perspective” in the position of the firing squad, as if to show that there’s a whole platoon about to send “father Vera” to meet the Maker.

    There’s a definite air of “stageness” to the photo, that as a curious image has its value.

  6. Jozef Soska permalink
    21 January 2013 2:05 pm

    The photo is in fact authentic, you made poor internet research.The picture below shows the martyrdom in early April of 1927 of Fr. Francisco Vera, parish Priest of Sangre y Cuerpo de Cristo in the city of Jalostotitlan, Jalisco.
    Padre was celebrating Mass in secret for his people when he was discovered.He was not allowed to remove his vestments, and this photograph was sent to President Calles by the leader of the squad to prove how zealous he was being against the Catholic Church. Father Vera’s body was taken to a garbage dump outside the city, where it was further desecrated.

  7. Jozef Soska permalink
    21 January 2013 2:26 pm

    It is true, that a priest who takes up weapon to fight cannot be honored as saint in the Church, though he might be a hero of the people, or a hero of his conscience, This photo could not be taken in Spain : the uniforms are of mexican army, not of the spanish one. And for “catholic propaganda” was enough the photo of Miguel Pro´s execution. The legs of the soldiers´ legs are in fact NOT pretty close together, teh priestly vestment was still used, though illegaly. If some priests might not use it, there were still priests, evene those among cristeros, who used the liturgical vestments. The photo is not about a “blessing hand”, but about two joined palms of praying priest, etc … Maybe your age, maybe forgetting your glasses, … but the details are not as you see them. In fact, it was usual to take photos of killings the priests in Mexico, since it was an order from Calles in order to frighten the people and cristeros. Sure, a lot you CAN find on internet, but you should know more than English, and also to know, that not everything about everything is on internet. Too much speculative “observations”. Well, to doubt is a fashion of indiferentism. Maybe we should not apply all the sophisticated rules of today´s propaganda to a simple photo from 100 years ago.

    • 22 January 2013 5:13 am

      Photos of executions have been made since photography became available (and in our era. videos), and doctored photos too. Those who have examined the records of the Cristero priests have yet to uncover a Francisco Vera of Jalostotitlan, Jalisco. The techniques involved in doctoring a photo existed long before the 1920s, although obvious problems, like the distance between the soldiers and the victim argue more for stage-craft than foreshortening the scene. The earliest known printing of the photo was from Barecelona, in the 1936. While I used French, English and Spanish documents in writing my own monograph on Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, I am not aware of any Cristero scholar who makes mention of this photo, or of Francisco Vera or Jalostotitlan, Jalisco.

  8. Matthew Hoffman permalink
    12 March 2013 10:04 pm

    I can tell you that the photo you mention is not staged, and it is not from the book that your image is copied from. It’s by one of Mexico’s most famous photographers. I just saw the original in a museum in Mexico city. He’s the same photographer who shot the death of Fr. Miguel Pro.

  9. 2 May 2013 11:23 pm

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  10. Marissa permalink
    20 June 2013 5:17 pm

    I agree that it is probably posed. But I disagree with one point. Being a traditionalist Catholic the priest is NOT giving a benediction. He simply has his hands folded in the traditional way of prayer…..frankly, if I was going to be shot I would probably assume the same stance, I think most devout Catholics would. In fact, I know that during the Nazi era this was very common. Although a priest might do a benediction. If he was doing a benediction prior to 1960 one hand would be on his heart and the other one raised in the direction of the shooters. It is true that the Vatican gave a special dispensation that due to the danger of priests practicing publicly in a communist area they didn’t have to wear the garb. However, it was optional. It was similar to what happened in Holland during the Nazi era……the bishop being dumb and not following the Vatican direction came out and openly defied the Nazi’s…..the next day the Nazi’s came and rounded up the Jews and shot a bunch of priests simply to show the bishop he had no power. So that doesn’t necessarily mean that a priest WOULDN’T wear the garb. Many priests were killed and I’m sure that SOME of them wore the garb.
    What makes me think that it is posed is the stance of the shooters. You can see all of them, if they were truly lined up you wouldn’t be able too….but if they knew it was being photographed they might purposely stand that way. They are awfully close and I know a little about guns, but not ones during this period.
    About the Catholic church having him documented as a Saint or Martyr. When there are mass killings of Catholics. Such as what happened in Vietnam in the 20th century(it’s usually communists or dictators). Sometimes they don’t individually name them. Because there is too many. Such as “Martyrs of Vietnam” which numbers over 300,000 who were round up and killed all together or burnt in churches. When Mexico went temporarily communist they did kill a lot of Catholics. So, not having the name recorded as a saint(even though martyrs generally are) doesn’t mean he’s not included. However, the Catholic church does keep the trail of every priests ordination back to Peter. Soooooo….somewhere there is record of him. But depending on if documents where destroyed in Mexico you might have to look in Rome. But if he DOES exist, then the photo could be real. I’m not sure if the church had started keeping photos of priests by then, that would obviously help.

    • 20 June 2013 5:55 pm

      Thank you for catching the possible meaning of the victim’s pose, and apologies for not updating this site with new information. Thanks to another “traditional Catholic”, I was able to identify the photographer (Manuel Ramos Sánchez) who saw photo manipulation as an art form… Photoshop was far in the future (he died in 1945), but Ramos early on saw the photograph NOT as a mirror of mere reality, but as a medium that could be manipulated as elements in a composition meant to present a “higher truth” — Ramos was a devout Catholic and a political activist… so it’s impossible to say at this point whether his intentions were piety or propaganda. I suspect he saw it as a bit of both, but whether or not he meant to deceive viewers into seeing this as an objectively factual image of an execution, it has taken on a life of its own as “reportage” and not commentary on that period of history.

      One thing I’d add is that there are good Church records in Mexico going back to the 1500s in the Diocese of Guadalajara where this priest allegedly served, and no one has found this alleged priest yet.

  11. Marissa permalink
    21 June 2013 4:08 pm

    So, sorry to post so much but I just had a thought. The 20th century, for Catholics was the bloodiest century. Because there was so much communism and one of the first things communists did was to try to wipe out the Catholic church. So there was a lot of mission movements to pray for persecuted Christians. Often these were accompanied by icons. I was wondering if this could have been purposely staged. Similar to the pictures of Jesus on the Cross…we know those aren’t ACTUAL pictures of Jesus. And then there are statues of different saints….well, they have no way of knowing how some of the saints looked, but they figure in art work everywhere. I could DEFINITELY see this being done as a type of “re-creation” of an assassination. But then that might not add up with the comment. Unless somehow the name got changed. It has happened in the church, due to having multi-lingual membership that some of the names of saints are spelled different then they were. Example….I know Saint Theresa…..but to the French it is Terese. But they are the same person. I just think it would be weird to not use the name of an actual priest that was shot because there were a lot. Now I’m seriously curious. I love researching the history of the church. And this was a dark period, not just for Catholics but for all Mexicans. There were so many factions and so many frightened people. Perhaps this was simply something to be sent to the United States to inspire people to pray. I know my grandmother received things like this asking for prayers…

    • 21 June 2013 4:57 pm

      What threw me originally was that the earliest versions I could find of this photo were from Spain (and the alternate spelling of Mexico as “Mejico” was only used in the 20th century in Spain, and by pro-Franco Mexicans). Anti-clericalism in Mexico (and other Spanish-speaking countries) has a long history pre-dating Communism, and I think it’s a mistake to see the 1920s insurgency in those terms. Might I recommend my own e-book on this: ?


  1. I met a man who wasn’t there « The Mex Files
  2. Somebody had to take the picture | The Mex Files

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