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Catholic Heroes… Child Martyrs Of Tlaxcala

September 5, 2019 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Viva Cristo Rey! This was the call of the Cristeros (1926-1929). Many Mexican saints were martyred during that massive and demonic persecution of the Catholic Church. One young man, José Sanchez del Rio, was only 14 years old when he died for his loyalty to the faith. He had refused to deny Christ, even under torture.
Three young boys, Cristobal, Antonio, and Juan, were also martyred for their love of the Catholic faith. However, they died nearly 400 years before José Sanchez del Rio. These boys, full of fervor and zeal for Jesus, continually asked others to cease their pagan practices. As a result, they were put to death.
Where was their city of Tlaxcala and why were the children’s professions of faith so deadly provocative? Located 125 miles south of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tlaxcala had just begun seeing the Franciscan Friars Minor and learning Catholic teachings.
Because the people of this village assisted Cortes in the ultimate defeat of the Aztecs, they received special privileges from the Spanish colonists. Many of the ways of their self-government and social structure remained the same as before the Spanish arrived. Their chieftains and other nobles continued to enjoy their privileged and prominent positions in the native society.
The parents of Cristobal numbered among the nobles. Cristobal was born around 1514 or 1515 to Acxotecatl, a chieftain, who strongly held to the ancient pagan Tlaxcalan rituals.
Steeped in these native observances — including child sacrifice — the indigenous people saw the Catholic faith as a threat to their traditions. Even though the Franciscans established schools for free education and labored to improve the lives of the people, they met with great resistance.
Nevertheless, Cristobal’s brothers and Franciscan Friar Toribio de Benavente Motolinia persuaded Acxotecatl, a tribal chief, to send his three younger sons to the Franciscan school. As Cristobal quickly and eagerly learned all the Franciscans taught him, he became more and more zealous for Catholic teachings and God’s love for man.
At first Cristobal’s zeal manifested itself in a persistent and unavoidable evangelization in his family. In the beginning Acxotecatl merely tolerated Cristobal’s efforts, seeing it as a minor annoyance.
As time went on, though, Cristobal became more and more earnest in his efforts to convert his father and family. This led his stepmother to resent the child even more as she pleaded with Acxotecatl to silence his son. She wanted all proselytizing to stop.
Then one day, Cristobal began breaking the Nahua idols in his home. Acxotecatl decided that he would put an end to Cristobal’s smashing sprees, as he was becoming more and more enraged by his son’s destructive behavior.
Urged by his angry wife, he shrewdly planned a feast for the household and commanded all his sons to attend. When his father was entertaining the dignitaries, Cristobal smashed some more idols. So his father ordered everyone out of the room, and then he grabbed Cristobal by his hair and dragged him through the house, beating him. After Acxotecatl’s furious attack in which he kicked and horsewhipped his son, breaking many of Cristobal’s bones, he demanded that Cristobal deny his faith. When Cristobal refused even after such a beating, his father lifted up the boy’s body and threw him outside onto a pile of burning wood.
Suffering greatly from both the burning and the beating, Cristobal lingered until the next day. His last words were, “Father, I forgive you.”
When Acxotecatl learned his son had died, he quickly took the boy’s body and buried it in a room in their house. His unthinkable behavior could not be hidden easily as word swiftly spread through the Tlaxcalan community that he had killed his son. It was 1527 and Cristobal was only 13 or 14 years old.
When the Spanish authorities learned of the death of Cristobal, they arrested Acxotecatl and sentenced him to death. In 1528, Andrea, a Franciscan friar, found Cristobal’s remains, and had those remains transferred elsewhere for a formal Catholic burial.
The second child martyr, Antonio, was two years younger than Cristobal, born in 1516 or 1517. He also came from nobility, since his grandfather was the nobleman Xiochtenacti. He considered Antonio as his heir. As the eldest grandson, Antonio would eventually inherit both the title and the lands of his noble grandfather.
Antonio also converted to Catholicism and came to deplore the native rituals just as Cristobal had done. The more he worked with the Franciscans, serving as an interpreter, the closer he came to Christ in many ways: in his zeal to serve the Kingdom of God, in his love of God, and in his willingness to suffer for His sake.
Zeal for the house of God consumed him (Psalm 69:9 and John 2:17). Like Cristobal, Antonio — assisted by his servant — began destroying the idols and symbols of the pagan religion.
While the two youths were about their destruction, some men came to the site when they heard the commotion. While Antonio was in a back room, the pagans burst into the building and found Antonio’s servant breaking the idols. They put him to death.
When Antonio came out and saw what they had done to his servant, he questioned the attackers, asking them why they attacked the servant rather than the master who instigated the destruction. Hence, the men then turned their wrath on Antonio, killing him as well.
The crowd that gathered cheered their deaths. They took the bodies of the two martyrs and threw them over a cliff. Bernardino, a Dominican friar, learned of their crime and recovered the bodies of the two boys. They died in 1529.
That third child martyr, the servant of Antonio, was named Juan. He also was born either in 1516 or 1517. Both of their bodies were moved to Tepeaca to be buried. Tertullian — known as “the founder of Western theology” — wrote: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Two years after the last two of the three child martyrs of Tlaxcala died, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego, leading to the conversion of millions of Mexicans.
It was not until January 7, 1982 that child martyrs’ beatification process began under Pope St. John Paul II — more than 450 years after their deaths. Then on March 3, 1990, John Paul confirmed the three boys were killed in hatred of the faith and he beatified them on May 6, 1990 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe when he made his apostolic visit to Mexico City.
On October 15, 2017 Pope Francis canonized the martyrs in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican. Their feast is celebrated on September 23.
Dear Cristobal, Antonio, and Juan, thank you for your persevering example of faithfulness in the face of persecution. Suffering is the common thread throughout the history of the Church. Help us in our times of trials and persecutions to remain steadfast. Help us remain faithful and loving to our last breath. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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