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Viva Cristo Rey (Miguel Pro SJ)

30 November, 1999

John Murray PP writes about the life of Miguel Pro, a Jesuit priest from Mexico who worked in Belgium and returned to be executed for his faith on 29 November 1927.

‘Viva Cristo Rey!’ ‘Long live Christ the King!’ They were the last words shouted out by one of Mexico’s bravest sons in the autumn of 1927. It is fitting to remember him now as we approach the feast of Christ the King.

When Pope John Paul visited Mexico in 1988, he was greeted by millions of men and women. It was a far cry from the earlier years of the century when persecution was the order of the day, and the faith – if it was to survive at all – had to keep a low profile. In many ways the situation was not unlike Ireland during the Penal Laws.

Miguel Pro was born in 1891 and grew up in a religious family. Two of his sisters entered religious life, and from an early age Miguel was attracted to do something special with his own life. At the age of twenty he entered the Jesuit Order so that he could devote his life to the service of God.

However within a couple of years he had to flee the country along with many of his fellow Jesuits. First he went to Spain and then to Belgium to continue his studies and be ordained a priest in 1925. His family were unable to be at the ceremony but he felt spiritually present to them and afterwards took out their photos and blessed them individually.

His first assignment was to work with the miners of Charleroi in Belgium. Despite their Communist tendencies, he was able to reach them through his own joy and gentle spirit. All of this despite the fact that he had to undergo a series of operations for stomach ulcers.

In the summer of 1926 his superiors sent Pro back to Mexico in the hope that a change of climate would help his health. However the political situation was, if anything, worse than when he had left. Plutarco Calles was now President of Mexico. Unlike his predecessors he vigorously enforced the anti-Catholic provisions of the 1917 constitution, especially the so-called ‘Calles law’ which provided specific penalties for priests who criticized the government or who wore clerical garb outside their churches.

Some Mexican states even closed churches and actively pursued a policy of hunting down and killing any priest they might find. The Power and the Glory, by the English Catholic novelist, Graham Greene, is based on this era in Mexican history.

Pro, like many of his confrères, had to go ‘underground’ and celebrate the Eucharist when – and wherever – he could. He left a legacy of letters describing his ministry during 1926-7, always with a nickname ‘Cocol’, a colloquial name given to a local sweet bread which Miguel liked when he was a child. In particular, he worked with the poor of the capital, Mexico City, and often provided for their temporal as well as their spiritual needs.

Often too, he had to adopt many disguises in order to carry out his mission. He became known throughout the city as the ‘underground priest’ – much to the annoyance of the authorities. Often he would show up in the middle of the night dressed as a beggar or a street sweeper to baptize children or hear confessions.

Several times he slipped into the police station disguised as an officer in order to give the last rites to those destined for execution in the morning. Once he escaped the police by a matter of seconds only to return a few minutes later in the guise of a police inspector and demanded to know of a junior officer why they hadn’t caught ‘that rascal Pro’!

An abortive assassination attempt was made on the former President of the country, Alvaro Obregon. The State had a pretext to arrest Pro, this time along with his brothers. Despite the fact that one of the ringleaders confessed his part in the plot and that the Pro brothers had nothing to do with it, President Calles gave orders for Miguel to be executed. He even had the execution meticulously photographed in the hope that the event would deter any other rebels from defying the government.

On the morning of 29 November 1927 Miguel walked from his cell and as he passed the firing squad, blessed the soldiers. He was allowed to bring with him a crucifix and a rosary. About the latter he had once stated: ‘Here is my weapon. With it along, I have no fear of anyone.’ Then just before they raised their rifles to fire he spread his arms and cried out ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’ When the shots of the firing squad failed to kill him, an officer shot him at point-blank range.

When Miguel was buried, many thousands defied the authorities by making a public display of mourning. Vast crowds walked behind the cortège and more than 500 cars formed the procession to his final resting place. At the funeral, an elderly woman had her sight miraculously restored.

Pope John Paul beatified Miguel on 18 September 1988 and spoke these words: ‘He is a new glory for the beloved Mexican nation as well as for the Society of Jesus. Indeed, the deepest root of self-sacrificing surrender for the lowly was his passionate love for Jesus Christ and his ardent desire to be conformed to him, even unto death.’

This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.