``It is very important for national pride,'' said historian Jean Meyer, who has specialized in religion in Mexico. ``It's an international boost that strokes the Mexican collective ego, rather like winning the soccer World Cup.''
The new saints, like many sporting idols, have their controversial sides. All but two died during repression of religious fervor by vehemently anti-clerical governments in the 1920s and 30s. The state-church conflict reached its height when an armed religious uprising sparked the 1926-29 Cristero War.
The best known of the 25 martyrs is Father Cristobal Magallanes, who reputedly pardoned his killers as he died by firing squad May 25, 1927. The most famous priest from that era, Father Miguel Pro, is not on the list, apparently still too controversial a figure due to his alleged part in the violence.
``The new saints didn't participate in the war itself, but they provided spiritual guidance for the people, defending the faith and the presence of Christ the King in Mexico,'' said the Rev. Rolando Rivera, a priest at the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City. ``Now history, and the church itself, are giving them their just recognition.''
The saint-making process has taken a collective form, with the 25 Cristero martyrs sharing the credit for miraculously curing a woman of cysts in her breasts in 1993. Carmen Pullido fully recovered after invoking all the martyrs while wearing a hollow silver cross containing relics of Magallanes, the Rev. Adalberto Gonzalez said in a telephone interview from Pullido's diocese in the eastern state of Guadalajara.
Also being canonized are the founders of two religious organizations: Maria de Jesus Sacramentado Venegas of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart and Jose Yermo y Parres of the Congregation of the Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the Poor.
Although Rivera conceded that a 1992 reform of Mexico's 1917 constitution removed the most draconian restrictions on religious activity, he said the Mexican state remains suspicious of open religiosity.
``There is no longer persecution, but there is aversion,'' he said, citing what he called biased teaching regarding the Cristero War in public schools. He said the canonization will not only help put the record straight, but also will aid the Mexican church's drive to reinforce Roman Catholic traditions in the face of modern secular culture and competing evangelical religions.
The new saints ``will be friends in heaven who help mediate the relationship with Christ, and it is always good to have friends,'' he said.
Mexico's only saint until now has been San Felipe de Jesus, a Mexican monk who was crucified in Nagasaki, Japan, when his ship stopped over there in a storm. Pius IX canonized him in 1862.
Meyer said Pope John Paul II's decision to make so many new Mexican saints follows a similar logic as part of a global strategy to promote the church's growth in Latin America, Asia and Africa - parts of the world where he said people still value mystery in worship, a quality largely lost in the rarified intellectual atmosphere of Christianity's traditional European heartland.
``In his desire to resuscitate popular forms of worship, this man has made hundreds of new saints, and that hasn't been done for centuries,'' said Meyer, who wrote the most-respected history of Mexico's religious conflict of the 1920s. ``The pope is modifying the geography of the saints.''