North American Sanctity: Blessed Elías del Socorro Nieves

Welcome to "North American Sanctity," a new series on holy men and women, boys and girls, saints and those on the road to sainthood, from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Some will be familiar, others less so; but all are inspiring!

“Every priest who preaches the Word of God in times of persecution,” Blessed Elías said, “has no escape; he will die like Jesus on the Cross, with arms tied.”

By Kimberly Bruce

“He faced death with integrity, whilst he blessed his killers, at the same time demonstrating his faith in Christ.” So wrote Pope St. John Paul II of Bl. Elías del Socorro Nieves  (feast day: March 10), a 45-year-old priest martyred in 1928 during the Cristeros War in Mexico.

A miracle was not required for Bl. Elías ’ beatification in 1997, due to his heroic act of martyrdom endured “in odium fidei” (directly due to hatred of the faith). 

In fact, St. John Paul noted, Bl. Elías  “promptly and enthusiastically accepted Christ’s invitation: ‘Come, follow me! … to the end.’” 

Love of Our Lady
Born Mateo Elías  Nieves del Castillo on Sept. 21, 1882, to farming parents on the Isle of San Pedro, Yuriria, in Guanajuato, Mexico, Mateo desired to be a priest from his youth. Circumstances in life, however, delayed his plans.

He developed a near-deadly case of tuberculosis at age 12, then lost his father two months later to an attack by highwaymen. 

Needing to provide for his family, Mateo put dreams of being a priest on hold until the age of 21, when he entered the Augustinian College of Yuriria for college and seminary studies. 

The transition from farmer to student proved very difficult. Mateo suffered from very weak eyesight. Always relying heavily on the Blessed Virgin Mary and praying to her especially under the title of Nuestra Señora del Socorro (Our Lady of Help), upon his profession of vows in 1911, he changed his name to “Elías  del Socorro” in her honor. 

“His total trust in God and in Our Lady,” said St. John Paul, “characterized his whole life and priestly ministry, which he exercised with self-denial and a spirit of service, without letting himself be overcome by obstacles, sacrifices or danger.” 

Humble priestly ministry
Ordained in 1916 at the age of 34, Bl. Elías  ministered in Central Mexico until he was appointed parochial vicar of La Cañada de Caracheo to the south.

As he was used to a humble existence, the conditions in La Cañada were not such a shock to Bl. Elías , even though its inhabitants had no sanitation services, electricity, or schooling.

He aided his flock by helping them to grow materially as well as spiritually, and was always generous and jovial in spirit.

In 1926, as growing persecution of Catholics mounted during the Cristeros War, the government demanded all priests take residence in cities. Blessed Elías , wanting to remain with his flock, chose to hide out in a cave instead so he could continue to administer the Sacraments in his community.

“Every priest who preaches the Word of God in times of persecution,” he said, “has no escape; he will die like Jesus on the Cross, with arms tied.”

Martyrdom
After 14 months under wraps, Bl. Elías emerged one day and came upon a group of soldiers. When they discovered his priestly black attire under his farmer’s white shirt, he freely admitted he was an Augustinian priest.

He was then arrested with his two companions and made to walk towards the city of Cortazar.

His two companions were shot along the way, but not without first receiving absolution from Bl. Elías and proclaiming Christ the King as victor.

Like Jesus led to the Cross, Bl. Elías  was mocked by the captain of the troop, who said, “Now it is your turn; let us see if dying is like saying Mass.” 

Blessed Elías responded, “You have spoken the truth, because to die for our religion is a pleasing sacrifice to God.” His words are reminiscent of St Faustina’s:

Suffering is the greatest treasure on earth; it purifies the soul …True love is measured by the thermometer of suffering … I thank You for the little daily crosses … for the harsh way in which we are treated, for false suspicions, for poor health and loss of strength … for terrors, fears … for the hour of death with its fierce struggle and all its bitterness … I thank You, Jesus, You who first drank the cup of bitterness before You gave it to me, in a much milder form. I put my lips to this cup of Your holy will … (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 342, 343).

Before he was executed, Bl. Elías  gave the captain the gift of his watch and his blessing to the soldiers who knelt to receive it.

He recited the Creed, said his last words, “Long live Christ the King,” and was shot to death on March 10, 1928.

Living the faith
How do we respond in times of trouble? Do we call upon Our Lady’s intercessory help as Bl. Elías  was known to do? 

We are encouraged, especially during Lent, to suffer a bit for others by our fasting, prayers, and various works of mercy. We are called to be witnesses for our faith as Bl. Elías  was, too, not only in instances requiring such great heroism, but with little acts of heroism in our everyday lives: in our jobs, during social activities, in our families, and in our communities.

Reading Sacred Scripture and the Diary of St. Faustina can aid us in knowledge of our faith, love of God and neighbor, and growth in holiness.

May we, as St. John Paul said, fully participate in divine life like Bl. Elías , so we, too, will “contemplate the glory of the Lord, face to face” and enjoy the fruits of blessedness.

Blessed Elías  del Socorro Nieves, pray for us!

Illustration by Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata/Wikicommons

Next in the series: Saint Joseph, Patron of Canada, March 19
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