Miguel Pro and the other Mexican martyrs provided millions of people with inspiration to resist the most anti-Catholic government ever seen in the Americas.
On Nov. 22, 1927, a man dressed in street clothes was led through a crowd of photographers and politicians on his way to a firing squad in Mexico City. The photographers were present for this illegal execution there had been no trial or even formal charges because the Mexican president, Plutarco Elias Calles, the most rabidly anti-Catholic leader in the world at the time, wanted them to record the humiliation of a man desperately pleading for his own life. Calles badly miscalculated. The man walked calmly to the place of his death, asked to be allowed to pray, and then, in a voice neither defiant nor desperate, intoned the words Viva Cristo Rey! "Long Live Christ the King!"
Through photographs distributed worldwide, the Jesuit priest Miguel Augustin Pro thus became the most famous martyr in Mexicos anti-Catholic revolution early in the twentieth century.
But Pro was hardly alone. Thousands of Catholics died in the same anti-Catholic wave, though few people anywhere, especially in the United States, remember their martyrdom today. President Calles was not only wrong about how Pro would die, he was wrong about Mexico as a whole. Though anti-clerical propaganda long tried to portray the Mexican clergy as corrupt, few of them, few enough to count on one hand, renounced the Faith or caved in to government pressures, even facing death. They all showed a heroic faith so deep that many, like Christ, calmly forgave their executioners before they died.
Americans who go to Mexico today rightly think of it as among the most Catholic nations on earth. Churches and religious festivals are everywhere. Most Mexicans are deeply devout and specially attached to Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is hard to believe that for several decades the Mexican people were subjected to religious outrages equal to anything that even Communism and Nazism perpetrated.
In fact, President Calles admired both the Communists and Hitler. However foolish it might seem from the outside to outlaw Catholicism in a country like Mexico, he banned Masses, expelled the whole Mexican hierarchy, and ordered massacres of simple believers who frequented churches in the absence of the clergy. The governor of the state of Tabasco, Tomas Garrido Canabal was so fanatical in his hatred of the Church that he named his children Lenin, Lucifer, and Satan. We get a good sense of what it was like for Catholics under Canabals reign of terror in Tabasco in Catholic novelist Graham Greenes The Power and the Glory. Greene had visited Mexico and seen the situation first-hand.
Father Pro, then, knew very well what he was risking when, operating underground, he continued saying Mass, hearing confessions, and running "Communion stations" around Mexico City. Thousands came secretly to the sacraments. By a providential combination of circumstances, he was the perfect man for the job. As a young boy he had always loved plays and practical jokes. His natural talents as an actor served him well when he had to deceive the police.
Pro would dress up as a dapper young man when he spoke with womens groups; the police didnt expect a priest to be so stylish. If he was visiting car mechanics or drivers, he put on overalls. In one case, he was bringing the Blessed Sacrament to a house where plainclothes detectives were waiting outside. Not wishing to give them the satisfaction of stopping him, he pretended to flash an officers badge. The detectives saluted him as he left the house, mission accomplished.
Like many other martyrs, even in jail Pro ministered heroically to the other prisoners. He led them in prayers and songs and kept up everyones spirits. The night before he died, he gave his mattress to a sick prisoner while he himself slept on the cell floor.
When Pros body, along with his brother Humbertos, who had also been executed, was taken back to his fathers house, the elder Pro showed the kind of family the Jesuit had sprung from. He ordered no one to mourn, because, he said, there was nothing sorrowful in such heroic deaths. Though the Mexican government had forbidden any public demonstrations, 20,000 ordinary Mexicans crowded into the streets outside the Pros home for the funeral.
As the coffins were brought out, someone shouted: "Make way for the martyrs." The crowd fell silent. But as the coffins were driven through the streets, there were shouts of Viva Cristo Rey! everywhere.
Miguel Pro and the other Mexican martyrs provided millions of people with inspiration to resist the most anti-Catholic government ever seen in the Americas. Probably 300,000 Mexicans died in the process. Catholicism would probably have survived underground, as it did in the Soviet Union, whatever the government did. But Father Pro and his fellow martyrs gave Mexico and the rest of the world an example of what it means to follow Christ the King against all the princes of this world.
Royal, Robert. Father Pro: A Mexican Hero. Arlington Catholic Herald (2000).
Published by permission of Robert Royal and the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History,The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2000 Arlington Catholic Herald
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