By Sister Mariana Reyes HGS
Blessed Migeul Pro SJ, praying before his execution
(13 January 1891 - 23 November 1927)
The feast day of Blessed Miguel Pro SJ is celebrated in Mexico and the USA on 23 November, which is also the feast of St Columban. Below is an article we published in MISYON, now MISYONonline.com, the magazine of the Missionary Society of St Columban in the Philippines of which I have been editor since October 2002.
I first learned about Blessed Miguel Pro back in 1955 when the Irish Independent had a special supplement to celebrate 50 years of the paper's existence. The supplement had a photo of an important event in each year of the paper's existence. The one they used for 1927 was the photo below taken just before Blessed Miguel was executed by firing squad, the moment when with crucifix in one hand and his rosary beads in the other he said very clearly, Viva Cristo Rey - Long Live Christ the King. That photo is the only one I remember from that supplement and it stimulated my interest in this great priest.
A contemporary martyr-priest, also 36 when he was murdered, is Iraqi priest Fr Ragheed Ganni, about whom I have written here a number of times, most recently last July.
Fr Ragheed Ganni (left)
(20 January 1972 - 3 June 2007)
Sister Mariana came to the Philippines in 2000. She is a member of the Hermanas Guadalupanas de la Salle founded in Mexico in 1946 by Brother Juan Fromental Coyroche, a De La Salle Brother from France. The Sisters follow the charism of St John Baptist De La Salle and are involved in the promotion of Christian Education. Their spirituality in the service of God inspires them to look to Our Lady of Guadalupe in her role as evangelizer of the people they serve. They arrived in the Philippines in 1984. Other countries in which they work include Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Madagascar, Peru and Thailand.
Martyr: we have often heard the deep meaning of this word. Witness: to suffer for the God who has kept you alive, and, if required, to give up your life also. The word makes us recall the Witness par excellence: Jesus Christ. The word ‘martyr’ recalls for us the many believers in the early Church who, rather than give up their faith and to show their love, trust and faith in God, faced death.
But here is a modern witness, facing his killers wearing a suit and tie. It’s November 23, 1927, during the religious persecution in Mexico. He is Father Miguel Agustin Pro SJ.
Pursuing his vocation
José Ramon Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez was born on 13 January 1891 in Guadalupe, Mexico, one of 11 children of Don Miguel and Josefa. As a child he had been dangerously ill for a year. Don Miguel held his son before an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe and said, ‘Madre mia, give me back my son.’ Despite not being particularly religious young Miguel found his vocation at 20 and entered the Jesuits despite his fragile health, which meant more suffering. His vocation involved leaving his loving family behind, fleeing to foreign lands, strange languages and customs, as he couldn’t study in Mexico because of the persecution. He studied in the USA, in Nicaragua, Spain and Belgium where he was ordained in 1925.
Father Pro had a number of operations for a bad stomach. He also suffered because of his concern for his family who went through great financial hardship during the persecution. His superiors assigned him to work at home in 1926.
His sense of humor
Returning to Mexico he showed with passion that he understood the words ‘The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.’ He knew well that any priest found propagating Catholicism could face the death penalty. Many were executed. But we see something really special in Father Pro – his ability to inject into his adventures the cheerfulness that characterized him: one word, one gesture was many times enough to see him escape from the police. In spite of the danger he never lost his sense of humor which he saw as a gift from God. As a child he was musical and a practical joker.
Earthly powers weren’t able to stop his priestly zeal. His cheerfulness made him try one and another way of deceiving the detectives assigned to detect violators of the law. He wore many disguises in order to administer the sacraments, celebrate Mass or lead a recollection. There’s a photo of him dressed as a mechanic. On one occasion on his way to anoint an old person he spotted the detectives. A young Catholic woman whom he knew happened to pass by. He linked arms with her and the police thought they were sweethearts.
Persecution of the Church
Meantime, the persecution continued. Churches were closed, Catholic schools suppressed, convents expropriated, religious communities persecuted. So many priests, religious, lay persons died. This was Mexico, the land Our Lady visited on 1531 in her apparition to the indigenous St Juan Diego. It seemed that this land had changed its patron. But the blood of martyrs is the seed of new Christians, and the execution of hundreds was not enough to eradicate the Catholic faith from Mexican soil.
Sentenced to death
Now it was the moment Divine Providence destined for Father Pro to bear the supreme testimony of his faith. In November 1927, the authorities arrested Father Pro, along with his brothers Humberto and Roberto. The government authorities linked them to an assassination attempt on the presidential candidate General Álvaro Obregón through an old car that had once belonged to Humberto. (General Obregón had been president from 1920 to 1924 when he was replaced by his ally Plutarco Elías Calles who was the real power. General Obregón was assassinated after being re-elected in 1928.) The authorities were well aware that the brothers were innocent. But because they considered Catholic priests their enemies, the government saw in Padre Miguel and his brothers the perfect scapegoats. Without due process or trial, they sentenced them to death.
The government had a photographer to cover the execution to show up Catholics as cowards. The photos had the opposite effect and later the government made it a crime to possess them.
Father Miguel was given a couple of minutes to pray before his execution. He rejected the traditional blindfold and said to the firing squad, ‘May God have mercy on you. May God bless you. Lord, you know that I am innocent. With all my heart I forgive my enemies.’ Serene, he stretched out his arms in the form of a cross, holding a rosary in his left hand, a crucifix in his right. With his last breath he said quietly but clearly, ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’ ‘Long live Christ the King!’ This cry was the assurance that the persecuted and suffering Church of Mexicans was owned by Christ its King.
The testimony of his life
The effect of the news was the opposite to what the government had expected. Thousands turned out for the funeral of Father Miguel and his brother Humberto — Roberto had been released. An old blind woman in the crowd who came to touch his body left with her sight restored. The fervor of the Catholic faithful grew stronger and their fear lessened because of the testimony of the martyrdom of this man of God, this committed priest, selfless in his generous ministry of the Word and the Sacraments; a creative, fun-loving joker, despite his serious demeanor in photos.
Sometime before his death he said to a friend that if he came upon any somber-looking saints in heaven, he’d do the Mexican Hat Dance to cheer them up. How well he used his gifts to live and die with passion for Christ and his Gospel. May we find in this witness, an inspiration to see that it is possible to live our faith with creativity and face the challenges of modern times in a concrete, loving way.