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San Fernando Cathedral will celebrate the legacy of six Mexican priests this weekend, calling to mind their courage nearly a century ago in accepting death rather than halting their public practice of faith.
Their relics — tiny slivers of bone — are housed in a silver, cross-shaped case and will be placed in front of the altar table so people can pay their respects after Mass.
The priests, now Catholic saints, were martyrs of the Cristero War of 1926 to 1929, when the anti-clerical government of President Plutarco Elias Calles, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, banned public religious rituals. Catholic clergy and lay people resisted, and many were arrested, tortured or killed.
The rebellion is depicted in the movie “For Greater Glory,” which will debut Friday and, like the relics exhibit, is just in time to resonate in a national debate over religious freedom and the boundary between church and state.
Catholic leaders, including the exhibit's sponsor, the Knights of Columbus, brought the relics Wednesday afternoon to the cathedral's oldest section, built when Texas was a Spanish colony.
They said they timed the relics' arrival in San Antonio to the movie as a way of enhancing the church's argument that religious liberty is woven into the U.S. cultural fabric but increasingly losing ground to secular culture.
U.S. bishops have been outspoken in their objection to a federal mandate requiring religious-affiliated organizations to provide birth-control coverage on their employees' insurance plans. It was to take effect in August and is challenged in a lawsuit by 43 Catholic entities.
“We are being persecuted,” San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller said. “There are many ways we see it manifested. One way is the (Health and Human Services) mandate. ... The consequences will be really dramatic. And they go against what it is to be human and to be religious.”
The relics are part of a periodic national tour by the Knights of Columbus, which displayed them recently in Los Angeles. The last time the display was in San Antonio was 2006.
The six priests whose relics will be on display were Fathers Pedro de Jesús Maldonado Lucero, Miguel de la Mora de la Mora, José María Robles Hurtado, Luis Bátis Sáinz, Rodrigo Aguilar Alemán and Mateo Correa Magallanes. Hurtado's story is depicted in “For Greater Glory,” including his death in 1927 at the hands of Mexican troops.
The six were members of the Knights of Columbus, which provided humanitarian aid and organized economic boycotts and petitions during the Cristero War. An agreement between the Catholic Church and the Mexican government eventually ended the conflict.
The relics' exhibit kicks off a month of prayer for religious liberty across the archdiocese, García-Siller said. It will include an interfaith service and conclude July 1 with a coordinated ringing of bells at noon at parishes across the archdiocese, called “Let Freedom Ring.”
The six priests were among 25 people canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000 at a Mass in Rome attended by San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantu. His parents emigrated from Mexico to seek a better life, he said, and were born around the time these six priests were killed.
“Now, as we see religious freedom eroding in this country, the United States of America, I feel inspired by these saintly martyrs who stood up then,” Cantu said at Wednesday's news conference. “I point to them and ask for their intercession in this peaceful but determined fight for freedom to practice our faith in the United States.”