Today is the feast day of Blessed Miguel Pro. Ora pro nobis.
by Peter De Trolio
Photos by Michael Durnan
Priests hidden in the homes of terrified Catholics persecuted by priest hunters, informants and the law. Religious orders expelled and their houses confiscated. Churches closed or converted to use by the new official state-sanctioned religion.
England during the Reformation under Henry and the bloodthirsty Elizabeth?
A FEW OF THE PRIEST MARTYRS of the Cristeros War, an oil painting hanging in the chapel of the martyrs in the cathedral of Guadalajara.
The Story Most Mexicans Don't Know
This was early twentieth century Mexico. Like England in the 16th century, Mexico was devotedly Catholic. Like English priests of that time, Mexican priests were forced into hiding by an anti-Catholic government. Like English Catholics, Mexican Catholics were openly persecuted, aided by virulently anti-Catholic laws.
But unlike England, Mexico did not lose its Catholicity; its people remained fervent under the storm that came — though most today have forgotten this heroism.
And like the martyrs of the English Reformation, the Mexican struggle for religious freedom took a huge number of martyrs. Most of them were laity, but many of them were priests and religious. Among them is the Jesuit priest, Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro.
Not What We Might Imagine a Martyr To Be
Like so many martyrs of organized religious persecution, Bl. Miguel did not fit the standard profile of what we might imagine a martyr to be. ‘Cocol' as he was nicknamed, was the son of a comfortable Mexican family; his father was a mining engineer. He was one of seven children. He is said to have been at the same time pious and playful as a child. His sense of humor was well-known within his family and among the workers who surrounded his childhood.
The accounts of his life differ on this, but it seems that his desire to become a priest came out of the decision of his two older sisters to enter the convent. When his sisters announced their decision, Miguel made a retreat at a Jesuit retreat house to calm his mind on the matter; Mexico was there he made the decision to become a Jesuit Priest. During his studies for the priesthood he was forced into exile with his community and so studied in California, Spain and then Belgium.
After ordination he was sent back to Mexico to be near his family due to a debilitating stomach ailment. Before he sailed for Mexico, however, he paid a visit to the grotto at Lourdes to ask Our Lady to give him the strength he would need in his mission to serve in his homeland.
On his arrival, Miguel found Mexico to be more unstable than when he'd left and even more anti-Catholic, with a government and a president hell bent on destroying the Church. Moreover, they were imprisoning and killing all the priests they could find. And so in his native Mexico, Miguel Pro found his destiny.
Clever, Funny & Fast on His Feet
His exploits read like a movie script. One of his companions, Fr. Pulido, remarked that he “had never seen such an exquisite wit, never coarse, always sparkling.” Father Miguel used his natural good humor and knowledge of the customs of the peasants and the gentility classes alike to escape from the priest hunters time and time again. On one occasion when he was being followed by several police officers he saw a young woman he knew and he walked up behind her, took her by the arm and whispered to her to pretend that he was her boyfriend. On another occasion he threw himself out of a taxi and pretended to be a drunk to hide his injuries. On another he confounded the police by making those guarding a house think he was a police inspector; after distributing the Sacrament he exited the house and returned the salute of the police guards who were looking for him!
How He Died
But Bl. Miguel was destined for martyrdom. Both his brothers were involved in The League for Religious Defense and they were all being closely watched. President Plutarco Calles — an atheistic, virulently anti-Catholic Mason with strong ties to US politicians — accused Pro of being the planner of several attacks on government officials, among other trumped up charges, and had him arrested and thrown into jail. Again, as in Reformation England, for the sole reason of being a priest.
Without trial or any proof, Calles ordered that Bl. Miguel and several others be executed. And so the same day as his arrest, November 23, 1927, he was taken from his jail cell and brought outside to the place of execution in front of a huge crowd. He made no resistance except to quietly insist that he was innocent.
Calles had the execution meticulously photographed, and the newspapers throughout the country carried them on the front page the following day. Presumably, Calles thought that the sight of the pictures would frighten the Cristero rebels who were fighting against his troops, particularly in the state of Jalisco.
He forgave his capturers and his executioners, telling them that they were doing him a favor “Not only do I forgive you, but I am grateful to you.”
He asked to pray and while kneeling in prayer he asked God that his blood be shed for Mexico and prayed for the President that sent him to his death.
He then stood up and said to the executioners “May God have compassion on you” and “May God bless you” and then placing his arms in the form of a cross said in a loud and clear voice “Viva, Cristo Rey!” as the shots rang out.
When the initial barrage failed to kill him, a soldier was ordered to kill Miguel Pro at point blank range.
RELIQUARY OF THE REMAINS OF FATHER MIGUEL PRO. Calles is reported to have looked down upon a throng of 40,000 which lined Pro's funeral procession and another 20,000 waited at the cemetery where he was buried without a priest present, his father saying the final words.
HAUNTING WOODCUT LIKENESS OF MIGUEL PRO in the House of Formation of the Fraternal Society of St Peter in Guadalajara: Father Pro remains a great inspiration to Mexican priests and seminarians.
RELIQUARIUM OF THE MARTYRS preserved in Guadalajara Cathedral, with the stirring title, ‘Viva Cristo Rey'.
What the 20th Century Martyrs Teach Us
The 20th century was the century of the Martyrs. From the persecutions of Armenians in Turkey, to Spain during the Republic, to the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, in Vietnam, in Nicaragua, in El Salvador, in Poland, in Eastern Europe and in Mexico they went on and on, one more violent that the other.
In Mexico, where the population was devoutly Catholic, a small group of the powerful persecuted them without mercy. It is interesting to note that the Church in Mexico lived in a situation of “Modus Vivendi” until the early 1990´s when the persecutory laws were finally repealed.
Today, anti-Catholic forces use more subtle means to attack the Church and her faithful. Bl. Miguel should be looked to as a model to battle this sort of persecution; his humor and ability to turn a situation on its head to his benefit without anger or rancor should be mirrored today as we defend the Faith in our daily lives.
“Neither suffering nor serious illness, neither the exhausting ministerial activity, frequently carried out in difficult and dangerous circumstances, could stifle the radiating and contagious joy which he brought to his life for Christ and which nothing could take away. Indeed, the deepest root of self-sacrificing surrender for the lowly was his passionate love for Jesus Christ and his ardent desire to be conformed to him, even unto death.”
Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro, Ruega por nosotros!