On 6 August 1875, in the Plaza Major of Quito, Ecuador, a man lay dying. It was the First Friday of the Month. Earlier, after spending time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament in the Cathedral, the man made his way to the Presidential Palace to meet with his ministers. As he approached the Palace, he was ambushed and cut down by bullets and a cutlass, one of his assassins crying out, “Die, destroyer of liberty!” The victim replied, “God does not die.” The man lived long enough to receive Extreme Unction and to make his peace with his murderers, sincerely forgiving them. Such were the last hours of Gabriel García Moreno.
García Moreno had just been reelected President of the Republic of Ecuador for a third term. His friends had repeatedly warned him of Masonic plots to assassinate him and asked him to take a bodyguard. He flatly refused. Ignoring their admonitions, he said, “I cannot consent to have a guard. My fate is in the hands of God, Who will take me out of this world when and how it will please Him.”
Gabriel García Moreno has been called the greatest Catholic statesman of the modern era. Unlike many modern politicians who measure the greatness of a civilization by its material progress, García Moreno understood that the touchstone of a true civilization is the moral and religious perfection of its people.
The Early Years
In the midst of the South American wars of Independence, the young García Moreno was born in Guayaquil on 4 December 1821. His father was an émigré from Castile, his mother from a family whose members held important civil and ecclesiastical posts in both Spain and the New World. Both father and mother were devoted to the Catholic faith and raised eight children, of which Gabriel was the youngest.
Because his father died when he was still a boy, García Moreno was unable to get the same education as his older siblings. A monk from a local monastery took the young boy under his wing and tutored him in elementary subjects. The boy made great strides. Moving to Quito for his secondary education, the boy studied mathematics, philosophy, and the natural sciences at the College of San Fernando within the University of Quito, acquiring fluency in French and English along the way.
At this time, García Moreno’s piety was noticeable to his friends. He was present at all religious exercises and frequented weekly communion. Thinking that he might have a vocation, he briefly entered the clerical state. Nevertheless, he later realized that his calling was in the world.
Loving justice and seeing this discipline as a means to enter public life, García Moreno began the study of law. He achieved the rank of Doctor of Law at age 23. As a lawyer, he absolutely refused to take any case without justice on its side. Once asked by a judge to defend a notorious murderer, he refused, stating, “It would be easier for me to become a murderer than to defend one.”
He did not practice at the Bar for long, but moved into journalism. Not long after the Jesuits had been welcomed back into Ecuador, a controversy arose after the freemasons printed a scurrilous pamphlet, calumniating them. García Moreno wrote a brilliant reply, the Defensa de los Jesuitas, in which he indignantly declared, “You pretend to exterminate the Jesuits out of love and for the greater glory of the Catholic Church. Falsehood and lies! You only strike at the Jesuits to attack Catholicism. It is an historical fact that all the enemies of the Catholic Church abhor the Society of Jesus.”
As evil began to triumph in Ecuador, García Moreno continued his formidable journalism. During the corrupt Roca administration, he thundered, “Alongside of these traitors, there is a body of noble and courageous men ready to sacrifice the last drop of their blood rather than give up their God and their country.” With considerable flair he wielded his pen to uncover vice in the country’s leaders. His job was not difficult. Railing against the tyrant Urbina, he said, “No vice, no crime, is unknown to him. Treason, perjury, swindling, brigandage, savage cruelty, perfidy, nothing is wanting. His ignoble life is written bit by bit in the penal code.”
After being elected a senator in 1853, he was forcibly and illegally removed by General Francisco Robles, one of President Urbina’s lieutenants. García Moreno was then sent into exile, which he spent in France.
While living in Paris, he underwent a deeper conversion. He now began to spend more time in prayer as well as study. Frequenting daily Mass, saying a daily decade of the rosary, he avoided all distractions. While in Paris, he lived like a recluse in a little apartment, studying late into the night. At this time, he stated, “I study for sixteen hours a day, and if there were forty-eight hours instead of twenty four, I would gladly give forty to my work.” What were these studies? Among other things, he carefully studied the social legislation in various European countries. He also read the Abbé Rohrbacher’s L’Histoire universelle de l’Église Catholique, from which he learned how the Church and the State can harmoniously work together.
The friends of García Moreno interceded with General Robles to provide the exile with a safe-conduct home. When he returned to Ecuador, he was chosen to be rector of the University of Quito. While stationed there, he taught vivid and interesting classes in chemistry, donating his personal laboratory to the university.
During the earlier administrations of Vincente Roca, José María Urbina and Francisco Robles, the country had been subjected to their tyrannical dictatorship and wracked by civil war. Time and time again, the elections of good men to the Chamber were invalidated by the tyrants. Meanwhile, the treasury was looted by these leaders and their cronies. There was no state budget. There was no accountability. Moreover, higher education was debased and destroyed. On the intervention of Urbina, students were permitted to take their degrees without study or examinations. Last but not least, the Church was sorely persecuted. The Bishop of Guayaquil was expelled and replaced by one of Urbina’s pliant creatures. The “usual suspects,” the Jesuits, were rounded up and kicked out of the country. Convents were converted into barracks and ecclesiastical institutions were secularized. Primary schools were abolished. What of the vaunted mantras of “Enlightenment” and “Progress”? If the Revolution had its way, Ecuador, with certainty, would have been propelled into a modern “Dark Age.”
García Moreno was again elected to the Senate. Through his eloquence as a senator in 1857, García Moreno spearheaded the passage of a law bringing about the dissolution of all Masonic lodges in Ecuador. His reason was simple: their anti-religious character. Disingenuously, the administration declared that the lodges were not irreligious and refused to enforce the law. This was the state of the nation just before García Moreno was elected President.
The Spiritual Life of García Moreno
The secret behind García Moreno’s success as a leader and statesman was his interior life. A man of deep-seated piety, he realized that to regenerate the people of Ecuador, he first had to form a relationship with Christ in prayer and sanctify his own soul. His well-developed interior life is clearly disclosed in his Rule of Life, written out on the last page of his copy of The Imitation of Christ, found on his person after he was assassinated. Among the directives of his Rule are the following:
Every morning when saying my prayers, I will ask specially for humility.
Every day I will hear Mass, say the Rosary, and read, besides a Chapter of the Imitation, this rule and the annexed instructions.
I will take care to keep myself as much as possible in the presence of God, especially in conversation, so as not to speak useless words. I will constantly offer my heart to God, and principally before beginning any action.
. . .
I will make a particular examen twice a day on my exercise of various virtues, and a general examen every evening. I will go to confession every week.
His Rule of Life also demonstrates the discipline of his daily life. His day was ordered and regular. He arose at 5:00 A.M., proceeded to church at 6:00 A.M., hearing Mass and making his meditation. At 7:00 A.M. he visited the sick in the hospital, after which he worked in his room until 10:00 A.M. After a frugal breakfast, he worked with his ministers until 3:00 P.M. After dinner at 4:00 P.M., he made necessary visits and settled disputes. At 6:00 P.M. he returned home to spend time with his family until 9:00 P.M. When others took rest or went to their amusements, he returned to his office, working until 11:00 P.M. or midnight.
García Moreno was certainly not perfect. He could be impatient and imperious. Nevertheless, he did have the humility to admit when he was wrong. Once when overwhelmed by business matters, he was approached by a priest on some insignificant matter. Brusquely he said, “It was not worth your while to trouble me or yourself with such a small matter.” The priest, humiliated, hurried away. On the following morning, however, García Moreno visited the priest, asking his pardon for his “hasty and disrespectful conduct.” He was never known to boast of any of his achievements. Moreover, in his correspondence, he solicited fraternal correction from prelates or holy souls.
Achievements as President
During his first term as president (1861-1865), García Moreno attempted to clean up the political, financial, educational, and ecclesiastical mess which the self-seeking liberals and radicals had bequeathed to Ecuador.
One of first goals of García Moreno was the negotiation of a concordat with the Catholic Church. From the perspective of the Church, this concordat (1862) was one of the most favorable concordats ever negotiated with any State.
When he came into office he had three important tasks. He needed to reform the administration, the financial state of the country, and the army. The administration was teeming with time-servers, rapaciously devouring the State’s wealth at the expense of the people. He dismissed them and replaced them with honest men whom he expected to work regularly and diligently.
He also set his sights on the financial debacle. The government had borrowed with abandon, taxed the people mercilessly, failed to control spending, and had not kept a budget. After tirelessly working to get to the bottom of the debt, he introduced a better method of bookkeeping for accounting, created a Board of Control to act as a check on fraud by the executive body, and removed all officials involved in peculation. He himself refused to take his presidential salary; he returned one half of it to the treasury and the other half he gave to charity.
After he had restored order and peace in Ecuador, he began to implement his plans for the social restoration of a Christian civilization. He, therefore, turned to education. Just as the revolutionaries and freemasons wished to laicize education, eradicating any influence of morality and religion on the young, he set to do just the opposite. He invited French religious congregations to mold the minds and hearts of the young in their schools and to care for the sick in hospitals and the criminals in prisons. The expelled Jesuits were also recalled.
Believing that it would be difficult to reform the country and provide stability with the present constitution, García Moreno pushed for a new one. In 1869 the new constitution was established by Congress. Among the changes were the following: Increasing the government’s power over the military; providing the government with veto power over Congress; and allowing the government to establish martial law during insurrections. The “Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman faith was the religion of the State to the exclusion of all others.” The State would support the Church in all her rights and privileges. In order to ensure this, only Catholics were allowed to hold public office. Amazingly, the congress passed this last clause almost unanimously, with only two votes against it. Lastly, members of secret societies were deprived of the rights of citizenship.
García Moreno’s administrative reforms in Ecuador are almost beyond numbering, including significant changes in the military, education, and care for the poor and the sick. He made his particular cause the well-being of the Indians and rural poor in the interior of Ecuador, sponsoring missions by the Jesuits and Redemptorists and protecting this simple people from exploitation. He also devoted considerable effort to improving the infrastructure of the country through the building of roads and lighthouses, the paving of streets, and the beautification of the capital Quito.
After the assassination of García Moreno, the whole town of Quito went into mourning, with the bells tolling continuously. The conspirators thought that the assassination would break into a revolution. They were to be disappointed. For three days, while his body lay in State in the cathedral, thousands of sobbing people came to pay their respects to the man who had done so much for their country. In the session of 16 September 1875 the Ecuadorian Congress issued a decree in which they paid homage to García Moreno as “The Regenerator of his country, and the Martyr of Catholic Civilization.”
Only two years after the assassination of García Moreno, the assassination of the Archbishop of Quito was also carried out. On 30 March 1877 (Good Friday), as Archbishop José Ignacio Checa y Barba was purifying the chalice with wine after consuming the host during the Mass of the Presanctified, he noted that the wine had a bitter taste. Soon after the service, he died of painful convulsions. An autopsy revealed that the wine had been poisoned with strychnine. In weeks just preceding the assassination, Ignacio Veintimella’s government had begun persecuting the Church. In particular, sermons would now be subjected to censorship by the government. This move brought the mild-mannered bishop to protest vigorously against the incursions of the government. No one was ever charged with the murder. Yet suspicion rested on the government. Together with García Moreno, it was Archbishop Checa y Barba who had consecrated Ecuador to the Sacred Heart.
Since García Moreno actively aided the Church in influencing society, he was called a “theocrat.” Yet he was doing nothing less than ushering in the social Kingship of Christ—this is precisely what Pius XI outlined in Quas Primas over fifty years later. Like his contemporary, Cardinal Louis Pie of Poitiers, he too recognized that if “the time is not favorable for Christ to reign, the time was not favorable for governments to last.” In consecrating his country to the Sacred Heart in 1873, García Moreno laid a firm foundation for Ecuador’s future prosperity and success.
(All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from Augustin Berthe, Garcia Moreno, President of Ecuador, 1821-1875, trans. Lady Herbert (London: Burns and Oates, 1889)