“Viva Christo Rey!”
THREE MINUTES WITH THE SAINTS by Paul Combs
In this week’s installment of “Three Minutes With the Saints” we meet a man from a turbulent and largely forgotten period of Mexico’s modern history. Today, Mexico is known as one of the most Catholic countries in the world, and for much of the past 500 years that has been true. Following the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego near Mexico City in 1531, nearly the entire country converted to Christianity; today there are over 100 million Catholics in Mexico, making it the second-largest Catholic country after Brazil.
But events in the early part of the 20th century could have resulted in a far different situation. In 1926, Mexican President Plutarch Elias Calles introduced a set of anti-Catholic laws intended to eradicate both the influence of the Catholic Church in Mexico and to stop all religious celebrations in the local communities. The people saw this as an attempt to impose a state-sponsored atheism in the country, much like what had happened in Russia a decade before.
The people rose up against these laws, and between 1926 and 1929 fought what became known as the Cristero War. Before it ended in 1929 with the government agreeing to recognize the legitimacy of the Church, it had also pulled in two very different groups from the United States: the Knights of Columbus on the side of the Cristeros and the Ku Klux Klan on the side of the government. Among those swept up in the conflict was a simple priest named Miguel Augustin Pro.
Miguel Pro was born in Guadalupe in 1891; he was intensely spiritual from an early age (as well as a tireless practical joker). At the age of 20 he joined the Jesuit Order, but in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920, the Jesuits were forced to flee Mexico because of intense persecution. Miguel traveled throughout Texas, New Mexico, and California before finally being sent to Spain, where he completed his seminary training. He was ordained a priest in Belgium in 1925.
The Jesuits sent him back to Mexico City in 1926, hoping that a return home would improve his poor health. Just after he arrived, the so-called Calles Laws came into effect, with President Calles banning all public worship. Father Pro then ministered covertly to the underground Church, often meeting people in the middle of the night dressed as a beggar in order to baptize infants, hear confessions, distribute communion, perform marriages, and administer the Last Rites. He even slipped into police headquarters disguised as a police officer to bring the sacraments to Catholic prisoners awaiting execution.
In November of 1927 there was a failed attempt to assassinate President Calles, and as the car used in the attempt had once belonged to Father Pro’s brother it gave the authorities the excuse to arrest Miguel and his two brothers. On July 17, 1928, President Calles ordered Father Pro to be executed, ostensibly for the assassination attempt, but in reality for his defiance of the ban on Catholicism.
As Father Pro walked to the prison courtyard for his execution, he blessed and forgave the firing squad before kneeling in prayer for a few moments. He refused a blindfold and stood with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross, a crucifix in one hand and a rosary in the other. As the soldiers lifted their rifles, he cried out in a loud voice: “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). In spite of the ban on Catholicism, more than 30,000 people attended his funeral procession.
Miguel Pro (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Miguel Pro was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II on September 25, 1988, leaving only one step before the Church officially declares him the saint that most in Mexico and beyond already believe he is. The witness of Miguel Pro served as an inspiration to Mexican Catholics in a dark time when hope seemed lost, and along with the witness of countless others sustained the Church throughout a period when more than 250,000 died on both sides of the conflict. Though the war ended in 1929, the last of the anti-Catholic laws were not officially abolished until 1992, but the millions who turned out to see Pope John Paul II in Mexico City in 1979 proved the laws had been defeated long before, in no small part due to the sacrifice of Blessed Miguel Pro.
Many think that martyrdom is something that only happened back in the days of the Roman Empire, but it has always existed and will always exist. Miguel Pro taught us both how to live and how to die in the face of such dangers. The Church celebrates his feast day this Tuesday, November 23rd, and I urge you to take the time to remember him.