Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Viva Cristo Rey!
Today marks an important feast day in the Church's liturgical calendar, especially for those of us who live along the Texas-Mexico border. While the optional memorials are for Pope St. Clement and St. Columba, the third one, Blessed Miguel Pro, strikes a poignant note that is very close to home.
In its 1917 constitution, Mexico put in place severely strict anti-Catholic laws. Nine years later, dictator/president Plutarco Calles vigorously enforced this edict, engaging in a wholesale reign of terror against the Church. This prompted the closings of churches throughout Mexico. Thus, Mexican Catholics underwent severe persecution to the point that the Church had to go underground.
At the same time, a young Jesuit priest, Fr. Miguel Pro, returned to his native Mexico. For over a year, at great risk to his life, he ministered to the faithful in Mexico City, celebrating clandestine Masses and making pre-dawn calls to baptize infants, bless marriages and hear confessions. What makes Fr. Pro so remarkable was that he would do all of this in disguise. When celebrating Mass at a safe house, he would show up as a dandy. He would arrive at someone's doorstep dressed as a beggar so that he could go and baptize a baby. He even donned the uniform of an auto mechanic to give a secret retreat. Furthermore, Fr. Pro was not in the best of health. While in Belgium, he underwent surgery for a stomach ailment and his superiors feared that his poor health might be a detriment. But, with courageous resolve, Fr. Pro vigorously pressed on in his ministry.
While Fr. Pro was beloved among the Mexican faithful, the Mexican authorities reviled him. Many times, they tried to capture him, but, each time, he managed to elude them, until one November day in 1927. An assassination attempt was made on former president Alvaro Obregon. The vehicle used was traced back to one of Fr. Pro's brothers, even though he had sold the car months before the attempt. The authorities used this as a means of capturing both the brothers, including the elusive priest. A neighbor betrayed Fr. Pro and his brothers and they were arrested. On November 13, 1927, Mexican dictator Calles ordered the execution of Fr. Pro under the guise that he was involved in the assassination attempt. In reality, Calles wanted Fr. Pro executed as a means of inflicting fear upon the Mexican faithful. To further make his point, Calles ordered photographers to document Fr. Pro's execution to use it as a warning to any Catholics who wanted to defy the government.
Instead, the opposite happened. Rather than inflict fear, the photographs give us a record of Fr. Pro's holiness and courage.
Here, Fr. Pro is led out to face the firing squad. Prior to this, Fr. Pro encouraged his brothers and his fellow prisoners and imparted absolution on those who were also to be killed that day.
Fr. Pro kneels before the execution is to take place. His executioners asked him if he had one final request and he told them that he wanted to pray.
Fr. Pro extends his arms in the form of a cross. Before this moment, though, he takes his crucifix on one hand and his rosary on the other. Rejecting the blindfold, he boldy shouts: May God have mercy on you! May God bless you! Lord, Thou knowest that I am innocent! With all my heart I forgive my enemies!" Then, he makes his final profession of faith: "Viva Cristo Rey!" As he says this, the soldiers fire a volley of bullets towards him.
Oddly enough, even though Fr. Pro fell, the bullets did not kill him, as one of the soldiers sent to check on him discovered. The soldier then fired a point blank shot into Fr. Pro and killed him.
The next day, at his funeral, the streets of Mexico City teemed with thousands of faithful who were boldy professing their faith in Christ the King. Throngs surrounded the hearse bearing his body.
These people risked their lives to pay homage to a priest who sacrificed himself for them and for Christ to the point of death.
In 1988, the Venerable Pope John Paul II beatified Fr. Miguel Pro, praising the young priest for his valor, his courage, his intense zeal and joy and his unwavering witness, especially as he offered himself as a martyr.
It's no mere coincidence that Blessed Miguel Pro's feast falls on a date that is so close to that of the Solemnity of Christ the King. In some years, both feasts manage to coincide. While his last words were "Long live, Christ the King", perhaps Blessed Miguel's most eloquent witness came as the bullets started to hail down upon him. The word "martyr" means witness. In his homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Benedict told the newly created cardinals that their red vesture also signfies blood and that sometimes, their bold witness to the faith may mean the shedding of blood.