One of the heroes of the Mexican persecution of Catholicism in the 1930s was Bishop Rafael Guizar of Veracruz. Born in Cotija, State of Michoacan, he was one of the eleven children of Prudenzio Guizar and Natividad Valencia. His parents were wealthy landowners, but their Catholic faith was strong and they communicated it to their offspring. One of Rafael’s brothers also became a bishop.
After a good education, Guizar Valencia, feeling called to the diocesan priesthood, entered the seminary and was ordained priest in 1901. An evangelist at heart, he began to move about Mexico giving popular missions. Because of this special talent he was appointed an “apostolic missionary” in 1905, and named spiritual director in the major seminary of Zamora where he himself had been trained. Here he communicated to the seminarians a deep love of the Holy Eucharist, a tender devotion to Our Lady, and his own zealous missionary spirit.
In addition to conducting missions in several Mexican states, Padre Rafael also founded a school for poor girls, using his own funds. He established two colleges for boys, hoping that they would serve as feeders to the Congregation of Missionaries of Our Lady of Hope, a religious community that he set up in 1903.
All these efforts were thwarted, however, from 1911 on, by the outbreak of persecution against the Church. His missionary congregation was wiped out, and even his public career as a missionary preacher was officially cancelled.
Unofficially, of course, Fr. Guizar continued his work. In Mexico City he set up a press and launched a Catholic periodical, although this, too, was quickly shut down by the revolutionaries. Undaunted, Guizar accompanied the armies of the revolution in disguise – now as a hardware peddler, now as a homeopathic physician, now as an accordion player. He ministered to the wounded and preached whenever opportunity offered. Sometimes he returned from his good works with bullet holes in hat and clothing.
The revolutionists were increasingly infuriated by this missionary’s “guerrilla” ministry. Several times they condemned him to death. He escaped that fate, but became so notorious that he finally decided it was wiser to leave the country; so in 1916, after a brief stay in the United States, he went to Guatemala. There he spent a year of missionary work under an assumed name. From 1917 to 1919 he lived in Cuba, where he preached a total of 153 parish missions.
Father Guizar was preaching in Havana in August 1919, when he was informed that he had been named bishop of Veracruz, Mexico. Unwilling at first to accept the task, he fled to Colombia, South America, to give missions there. Eventually, however, he returned submissively to Havana, and there he was ordained a bishop. He arrived in Veracruz on January 4, 1920. At almost the same moment a terrible earthquake devastated the diocesan area. Bishop Guizar immediately added the work of relief to that of re-evangelizing his new flock.
Now the persecution of the Catholic Church intensified; President Plutarco Calles sought to erase it entirely, particularly by eliminating priests. The Bishop of Veracruz had reopened his diocesan seminary, and thanks to his attention, it was beginning to function, but the government closed it once more. Guizar simply transferred the seminary to Mexico City, where it went underground. As a result, when the persecution finally ended, his diocese had more priests than beforehand.
In 1931, Governor Tejada of Veracruz decreed that only one priest would be allowed for each 100,000 Catholics. Bishop Rafael countered with a nonviolent protest: he closed all the churches in his diocese. Tejada thereupon ordered that the Bishop be shot on sight. On learning this, Guizar at once went to the Governor’s palace, and strode into his office. He respected authority, he told the Governor, but said that he wished to spare Tejada’s assistants the trouble of shooting him. Boldness won out. Governor Tejada did not dare execute Bishop Guizar personally, so he was allowed to remain free.
The persecution did not cease until 1940. Rafael Guizar “died in the saddle” on June 6, 1938. During nine of his eighteen years as bishop, he had been in exile or incognito. This modern St. Athanasius died widely venerated for his zeal and holy courage.
On January 29, 1995, Pope John Paul II declared him “blessed.” I would guess that his canonization will not be long delayed.
-Father Robert F. McNamara
Update October 23, 2006 – Pope Benedict XVI canonized Rafael Guizar on October 15, 2006.