St Toribio Romo
Yesterday I was talking to a young Mexican woman who was telling me all about her great-grand uncle. He was a priest in Mexico in the 1920s, a man devoted to the poor and to immigrants in particular. For his fruitful priestly ministry, and his obvious holiness, he was murdered by anti-clericals in 1928 during the Cristero war. He was canonised in the year 2000 and today is his feast day. He is St Toribio Romo.
Today is the feast of holy Mexicans put to death for their allegiance to Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church. The group is headed by the saintly pastor St Christopher Magallanes and consists of twenty-two priests and three laymen of various ages who were martyred between 1915 and 1937. Speaking about them at a St Genesius prayer group last night, I was asked how Catholics could martyr other Catholics. Well, the Catholics that were responsible for the martyrdom were lapsed Catholics: men and women who gave their first allegiance to an ideology that not only contradicted Christianity, but was deeply antagonised by it. As these lapsed failed to convert their coreligionists, and as their hatred of their former faith grew, in their anger they saw only one way of dealing with the stubborn - persecute them even to the point of killing them. There are none so bitter and antagonistic towards the Catholic faith than lapsed Catholics.
The parallels with our current situation are all too clear. Among the lapsed in Ireland there is the potential for persecution, although if one occurs it will not be as obvious as the Mexican and Spanish persecutions - it would be more subtle and insidious. Sneakily, as only the Irish can do it. Our national virtues are great, but our national vices are dreadful.
A word on St Toribio. Born in 1900, he entered the seminary at the age of twelve - not unusual at the time. He made a deep impression on his fellow seminarians and formators - he combined a devout soul with a mischievous personality. He was ordained in 1922 and threw himself into the pastoral ministry. As I said above he had a deep concern for the poor, and he was dedicated to the work of catechesis - that was enough to make him an enemy of the state.
On a personal level, Toribio had his trials. He seemed to have experienced a dark night of the soul, revealing that he was troubled at times. That said, he was a priest of intense devotion, making time for prayer and devotions. He had a tender love for Our Lady, often leading the Rosary in public gatherings. The centre of his life was the Holy Mass and the time he spent in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. When persecution heightened in 1927, these activities began to be curtailed as he found it more difficult to find a place to say Mass.
In that year, 1927, he was sent to a factory in Tequila for safety, and there he lived with his sister Maria and his brother Roman. A quiet life of prayer, secret priestly ministry and uncertainty followed. On the 22nd February 1928 Toribio sensed that danger was coming. Fearing for his brother's safety, he sent him away. Three days later, after a hard day of work, he got to his bed at 4am. As he was sleeping, at about 5am, government troops arrived and broke into the house. As Toribio jumped up from his bed, the soldiers cried out "Here is a priest, kill him!" Toribio responded, "Here I am, but do not kill me." The soldiers had no mercy, but shot the young priest. His sister had arrived at this time and Turibio fell into her arms. As he lay dying, Maria encouraged him: "Courage, Fr Toribio. Merciful Jesus receive him! Long live Christ the King!"
The martyred body of St Toribio laid out before burial
St Toribio and his companions offer us Catholics an example of hope and courage in difficult times. While we can never trust other people, we can always trust God, and so in these times we must reaffirm our faith in Christ. As the Scripture tells us - he is in our midst and as we are called by his name, he will never desert us (cf. Jer 14:9). We have friends in heaven: St Toribio, like all the saints, is a friend to help us in these times.