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A one-time prankster died amid persecution in 1920s Mexico
BY Raymond De Souza
Photography was invented in 1822 in France and the art of modern photography began in Britain in 1841. During the American Civil War, photographers came to the fore as recorders of history.
On Nov. 23, 1927, Jesuit Father Miguel Pro was led before a firing squad in Mexico City. The anti-Catholic president of Mexico, Plutarco Calles, who had personally ordered his execution, summoned photographers to the execution scene, hoping to capture on film weak and fearful Catholics cowering before the power of a viciously anti-clerical state.
The photographers took their pictures, including one of the mortally wounded Father Pro lying on the ground as the final shot was delivered to his head, but the effect was not what Calles had planned. The Mexican martyr's heroic and prayerful death made the photographs highly sought after as holy cards within days of the execution. Calles, of course, soon banned the pictures. What might have been the first photographed martyrdom in Church history also provided a snapshot of the 20th-century conflict between the kings of this world and Christ the King.
Father Miguel Pro was only 36 at the time of his martyrdom. Born on Jan. 13, 1891, into the well-off family of a mine manager, Miguel's childhood was marked by a lively sense of humor and a precocious concern for the ordinary Mexican worker. He was known for his practical jokes, which brought him much delight, often at the expense of his sisters.
One particular joke would take on later significance. Attending a Jesuit mission in a nearby town as a teen-ager, Miguel dressed himself in the Jesuit cassock and preached to the townsfolk, who gratefully gave him gifts of cigarettes and food. The real Jesuits caught him soon afterward and forced him to hand over what he had taken from the people. His preaching, however, was apparently good enough that the Jesuits decided not to expose his fraud in front of the townsfolk.
Miguel did not feel an early call to the priesthood. Indeed, despite his devout family, he even drifted away from the sacraments for a period. Rather, he identified himself with the miners among whom he had grown up.
Although his father was a manager, Miguel liked to call himself “a poor miner” and often went out with his mother to visit poor mining families, bringing food or medicine. As an adolescent, Miguel worked in the legal department of the mine, and may well have continued there were it not for his two sisters entering the convent. Initially upset that his sisters were “taken away,” Miguel began to ask what God might want of him, and it was not long before he presented himself, in 1911 at the age of 20, for admission to the Society of Jesus.
In 1910 a revolution had begun in Mexico, and by 1914 the Jesuit superiors thought it too dangerous for students to remain in Mexico, for Mexico's new rulers were hostile to the Church. Miguel and others had to flee to California, and then later through Nicaragua to Spain. Miguel studied and taught as he moved from place to place, finally finishing his studies with the Jesuits in Belgium.
In Belgium, Father Miguel Pro — he was ordained there on Aug. 31, 1925 — developed a persistent, painful stomach problem that proved resistant to repeated surgeries. Finally, his superiors decided to send him back to Mexico, hoping that his native environment might do what medicine could not. He arrived back in Veracruz in 1926 and made his way to Mexico City. His stomach ailment did indeed pass, but there were other, more serious threats to life in Mexico.
Within three weeks of his return, all public worship was outlawed. Any priest was subject to arrest and prosecution merely for being a priest.
A Dangerous Ministry
If Father Miguel's last minutes were photographed for posterity, his last 18 months of life were worthy of a great dramatic film. Disguising himself to avoid the police, his exercised a heroic and dangerous pastoral ministry all over Mexico City, bringing Communion secretly, celebrating Mass in hiding and hearing confessions under cover.
His zeal was only matched by his audacity. Dressed as a worker, he would move among workers, carrying the Blessed Sacrament hidden under his clothes so that they could receive Communion. One time, he even dressed as a policeman in order to sneak into the prison to hear the confessions of the prisoners. The young Miguel who dressed up as a priest for a laugh was now Father Pro, dressing as a layman in order to practice his priestly ministry.
On Nov. 13, 1927, a bomb was thrown into the car of the president-elect, Alvaro Obregon. The car from which the bomb had been thrown had previously belonged to one of Father Miguel's brothers. While the Pro brothers were active in defending the Church against persecution, all three had airtight alibis for the attempted assassination, but the order went out to arrest them. They never had a trial, and the police knew that they were not guilty. But Calles thought it would serve his campaign against the Church to execute Father Miguel and his brothers, and so gave the order.
Father Miguel was shot shortly before his brother Humberto. Roberto, the third brother, was spared only after the Argentinean ambassador pleaded for his life. When they led Father Miguel out to be shot, he blessed the firing squad. For his final request, he asked to pray, which he did, kneeling before the bullet-ridden wall behind the spot of execution. He then faced his killers, declining the blindfold. He spread his arms wide in the form of a cross and firmly and quietly said, “Viva Cristo Rey” (Long live Christ the King). Then he was shot.
A New Feast
During the Holy Year of 1925, Pope Pius XI had established the feast of Christ the King, which we celebrate this year on Nov. 21. Pius sought, as his motto said, “To seek the peace of Christ in the reign of Christ.” Against those worldly powers which brought war and violence, Pius proposed that the answer was to be found in the kingship of the one who reigns from a Cross.
Father Miguel Pro was not long in consecrating the new feast of Christ the King with his own blood.