In February 1927, with one stroke of the pen, Mexican President General Plutarco Elias Calles turned every priest in his country into an outlaw. He ordered them to leave their posts, wherever they were, and to report immediately to Mexico City.
When they refused to obey, they faced arrest, imprisonment, and even death. Most went into hiding.
A young Jesuit priest, Father Miguel Agustin Pro, was already used to operating incognito. For two years, Calles had been enforcing harsh measures against the Catholic Church. The revolutionaries in power had overthrown an oppressive government and an unjust economic system more than a decade earlier. They considered the Church a corrupt institution that had historically sided with the rich, not the poor. Now they wanted a national church controlled by the state.
The new laws forced priests to avoid the authorities by conducting Mass and hearing confessions secretly in private homes. Lay Catholics were also at risk of being thrown into prison if they were found to be harboring a priest.
Enthusiastically, Pro embraced the challenge to serve his people undercover. Always gifted at imitating others, he became a master of disguise. One day he would be a student, bouncing through the streets on his brother’s
old bicycle with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a cap on his head. Another day he would be a car mechanic in overalls or a well-dressed dandy. In the end, however, Miguel Agustin Pro was executed for who he truly was—a servant of Christ and a minister to his people.
The Beginnings of a Vocation. Miguel Pro was born on January 13, 1891 in Zacatecas in central Mexico, a mining town where his father was an engineer. The conditions that would lead to the Mexican Revolution were already evident in the silver and gold mines in his hometown, where workers were poorly paid and badly treated. As a young boy, Miguel often accompanied his mother on missions of mercy, bringing the miners food, clothing, and medicine.
Miguel was a fun-loving child who played practical jokes on his family and wrote witty sonnets to his friends. When his two sisters announced that they were leaving home to enter the convent, he was heartbroken. Soon afterwards, however, he sensed that he too was being called to the religious life. He always felt that his vocation was a great gift from the Lord, one which he could never be worthy of on his own merits.
In 1911, at the age of 20, Miguel entered the Jesuit order. In that same year, the longtime Mexican dictator, General Porfirio Diaz, was overthrown by a new revolutionary government led by Francisco Madero. From that point on, Pro’s plans for the future were altered radically.
The pace of Madero’s agrarian and social reforms failed to satisfy other revolutionaries in Mexico, who re-ignited the social unrest. Before long, revolutionary bandits banged on the door of the hacienda where Miguel and his fellow seminarians were living. On August 15, 1914, cassocks were replaced with clothing donated by farmers, and the seminarians went into hiding. Miguel sailed to Spain to resume his studies in a Jesuit house in Granada.
The civil unrest back home made correspondence difficult. Miguel often worried about his family, but he masked his heartache in playful jokes and fun. He polished his mimicry skills by imitating the odd mannerisms of one of his teachers; this earned him three days without recreation. He often volunteered to push the large cart of food into the dining room, where he pretended it was a car that he was driving. These pantomimes were closely watched by the other seminarians, who tried to keep from laughing aloud and drawing the attention of the rector.
Working for Justice. In 1920, Miguel was sent to Nicaragua to work at a boys’ boarding school for two years, and then to Belgium for further study. Pro’s ability to connect with working men and women made him extremely popular, and he became interested in a French Christian social action movement, which he saw as a model for justice in Mexico. He was ordained in 1925 in Belgium, overjoyed even though no one in his family could attend the ceremony. “At least we are priests,” he told his friends, “and that is enough.”
Soon after, Miguel was sidelined by severe stomach pains from bleeding ulcers. After three unsuccessful surgeries, he was ordered back to Mexico with little hope for recovery. He arrived in Mexico City in early July 1926, with a passport marked “religious.” Miraculously, no one in Customs took notice, and he was allowed to enter the country.
The timing of his arrival could not have been better. On July 31, 1926, the bishops of Mexico protested the government’s oppression of the church by suspending all public worship requiring the participation of priests. People flocked to churches for what they feared might be their last chance to receive the sacraments, and Father Pro spent his first days back in his homeland hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, and performing baptisms and marriages.
“My poor carcass which has just left behind the soft pillows of the hospital has not yet got used to the hard seat of the confessional,” he joked. Despite the workload, however, his stomach troubles began to disappear. “My health is like bronze,” he later wrote to a friend.
Sacraments in Secret. Wearing his disguises, Father Pro began entering homes using secret passwords and passing out Communion to hundreds of people as they came in and out, trying not to draw the attention of the police. Many crowded together to hear his retreats and homilies. Father Pro was often in danger. Stepping outside of the house, he would light a cigarette and glance around to see who was waiting for him, before continuing.
Once, when he thought two men were following him, he hailed a taxicab and then asked the accommodating driver to slow down while he bailed out. As he stood leaning against a lamp post, the men, following in another cab, passed him right by. At another time, when he knew his pursuers were gaining on him, he whispered to a passing woman, “Help me, I’m a priest.” They linked arms and were bypassed. He sometimes said his weapon was his crucifix and with it next to him, “I have no fear of anyone.”
Periodically, Pro’s superior would order him into hiding to avoid arrest. While using the time for theological study, Father Pro found it difficult to stay trapped in one place, especially when he knew how much he was needed. “Those who retain me here do not realize the fire that burns within me,” he said.
A Desire for Martyrdom. During this time, Miguel’s two younger brothers, Humberto and Roberto, were supporters of the Cristeros, a group that actively opposed the government’s policies against the church. In December 1926, after the group released 600 balloons filled with religious leaflets all over the city, the Pro home was raided. Miguel, the only one there, was arrested and sent to jail, but released the next day.
The incident did nothing to inhibit him. Although he did not purposefully put himself in danger, Miguel longed for martyrdom. “The number of martyrs grows every day. Oh, if only I should draw a winning number,” he wrote. If he did, he added, “get your prayers ready for heaven.”
On November 13, 1927, a car formerly owned by Miguel’s brothers was used in an assassination attempt on the newly elected president, General Alvaro Obregon. Five days later, Miguel and his two brothers—who had nothing to do with the incident—were arrested and thrown into prison. No trial took place.
On the morning of November 23, they were led outside the prison. Wanting to show the world the “cowardice” of a priest facing death, government officials invited photographers and reporters to observe the event. Their plan would backfire spectacularly. Dressed in an old brown suit and tan sweater, Miguel Pro went to the wall and faced the firing squad. For a moment, he knelt down, prayed, and kissed his crucifix. Then, refusing a blindfold, he stood up with the crucifix in one hand and a rosary in the other, arms outstretched like the cross. Forgiving his enemies, he cried, “Viva Cristo Rey!”—“Long live Christ the King!” Five bullets entered his chest, and a final bullet to his head ended his life.
In defiance of the government, at least 10,000 people—crying “Viva Cristo Rey!”—lined the streets for Pro’s funeral procession. Reports of miracles began to circulate even before Pro was buried.
The story of Miguel Pro’s life destroys any typical notions of holiness: He was young, active, daring, and fun- loving. By laying down his life for his people, he brought courage and strength to thousands of Mexicans during a time of intense religious persecution. A witness of Jesus’ sacrificial love, Miguel Agustin Pro was beatified on September 25, 1988.
Patricia Mitchell is Editor of The Word Among Us Press.