Father Pro of Mexico
by Mary E. Gentges
On the evening of the men's retreat, I stepped into the street about 9:30, as red as a tomato from the lecture I had just delivered. I spotted two strangers awaiting me on the street corner. Detectives! "This time, my boy," I said to myself, "good-bye to your skin!" Then, remembering the old adage that he who takes the first move also takes the second, I sauntered up to them and asked for a match.
"You can get them in the shop!" they snapped.
With an insulted air I walked away. They followed. I turned a corner. So did they. Surely it wasn't coincidence! I hailed a taxi. They caught one too. "The jig's up this time, "I thought.
Luckily for me my driver was a Catholic and understood the fix I was in. "Look, son," I told him, "slow down at the next corner while I jump out. Then you keep going." I stuffed my cap in my pocket, opened my jacket so my white shirt would show up . . . and jumped.
I fell hard, but sprang to my feet and stood leaning against a tree. My bloodhounds passed a second later. They saw me all right, but it never dawned on them who I was. I left the place quickly, thinking as I limped homeward, "Clever, my boy, you are free until the next time."
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The letter1 on which these lines are based was written by a Jesuit priest in Mexico in 1927. His name was Michael Pro, and he is sometimes called "The Edmund Campion of Mexico." Like his sixteenth-century counterpart, Miguel was forced to leave his homeland to study for the priesthood. Like the Jesuit Campion, he returned during a bloody persecution and ministered to his people in secret. Both men were witty types who went about in disguise just ahead of the priest hunters. Both were captured after a short ministry and condemned to execution on false charges.
Edmund Campion has been canonized. Hopefully Father Pro's turn is coming. Word last year from the vice-postulator of his cause in Mexico was that he might be beatified in 1981. May it be so. This is his story.
Miguel Agustin Pro was born to Josefa Juarez and Miguel Pro on January 13, 1891, at Guadalupe in the heart of Mexico. He was the third child of eleven, four of whom died in infancy or childhood.
It appeared that death would also claim Miguel at an early age when the little tot consumed an enormous quantity of native fruit that seems to have poisoned him. For a year he lingered in a strange stupor, unable to speak, with hanging head and vacant stare. Doctors said he would certainly be mentally retarded. When he went into convulsions, his anguished father could bear it no longer. Holding the little boy up before an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe he cried out, "Madre Mia, give me back my son!" With a shudder the child coughed up a large volume of blood, and from that moment speedily recovered. His first words were, "Mama, I want cocol," a favorite bread. Years later the hunted priest would sign his letters with the nickname, "Cocol."
The good-natured little boy was once again the life of the house. Although he told his mother offhandedly that he would love to die a martyr, he showed no early indications of great piety. Instead, his biographers fill pages with anecdotes of his merry mischief.
His quick wit manifested itself early. For example, little Miguel was riding a donkey—boasting of his horsemanship, but not paying attention to his mount. The animal lowered its head, and off he slid with a thump. Everyone was amused when Miguel, as unruffled as though he had done it on purpose, snatched up a clump of grass, "I just wanted to cut some fodder for my burro!"
He grew up at Concepcion del Oro, where his father was an overseer in the mines. The boy Miguel loved to go down into the earth and visit the miners, sharing his candies with them. His parents set a beautiful example of Christian charity and he would never forget how his mother expended herself helping the poor and the sick. His favorites were always the working people and the poor. Seeing a gang of workmen going home at the end of the day, the priest Miguel would say, "Those are the souls that I love."
The boy Miguel could hardly have been called sanctimonious, but he seriously fulfilled his religious duties along with the family. The Pros enjoyed a close-knit family life, praying the Rosary nightly and whiling away happy evenings together. The children often serenaded their parents with their own small orchestra; and Miguel, the natural mimic, amused them all with his recitations. He might play all the parts in a skit, changing his voice from bass to a shrill treble.
His pranks were legion. One of the best-known occurred when he was out with his older sister Concepcion and they came upon an outdoor auction. Imitating Concepcion's voice, Miguel made the winning bid on a flea-bitten donkey ... and disappeared. She had a hard time convincing the auctioneer that she hadn't said a word, and had no intentions of buying the donkey!
Despite his pranks, Miguel's strong suit was always obedience. One evening he and his sister were coming home along the railroad tracks and saw a load of molten ore from the furnaces approaching them. Remembering their father's orders that they should never stay near one of these red-hot conveyances, they had moved well away from the footpath when the firey load tipped over right on the spot where they had been. The sleepy driver climbed down, slipped into the pool of flame and was killed instantly. The gruesome incident made a deep impression on Miguel, who frequently cited it to show the necessity of perfect obedience. In all his pranks he was never disobedient, and if he carried a joke too far he was always contrite.
He also always loved Our Lady. Once he slipped and caught his foot in the railroad track. He could hear a train coming, but could not free himself, and already felt the hot breath of Purgatory. Promising works of sacrifice, he called on the Blessed Virgin. His boot separated and he was free! He told his family, "I have since made a pact with the Blessed Virgin that she will never let me go to Purgatory, and I will ever be her faithful servant."
For a time the teen-ager Miguel was inexplicably moody, and less pious than usual. Unknown to his family he had a non-Catholic girlfriend. The episode ended in typical Pro-fashion when he went off to a nearby parish mission and his peace of soul returned. While there he wrote letters to his mother and the girlfriend ... and then accidentally switched them in the mailing envelopes! His mother was grieved. Miguel spent a night weeping and praying on his knees because he had hurt his dear mother. And the girl? She jilted him!
For lack of good schools Miguel received most of his schooling at home. Meanwhile he was a great help to his father in the mine office where he was a whiz at typing and complicated record-keeping. His future was still unsettled when his two older sisters entered the religious life.
Sensing that the divine calling was to be his also, Miguel resisted for a while, struggling within himself. But at last, convinced that God called him to sanctity he entered the Jesuit novitiate at El Llano. It was August 15, 1911, and Miguel was twenty years old.
In formal pictures Miguel's long face and large well-shaped mouth are always serious, his dark eyes solemn. But his companions assert that he could laugh out of one side of his mobile face and cry out of the other at the same time. He was soon a sought-after companion among the novices, always in demand at recreation and entertainments. His friend Father Pulido remarked that he "had never seen such an exquisite wit, never coarse, always sparkling." His friends noticed too that he was always unassuming and very charitable, and could cheerfully slip pious thoughts into a conversation without boring anyone.
Father Pulido noted that there were really two Pros in one: the playful Pro and the prayerful Pro. He was always faithful to his religious exercises, and during retreats spent more time in chapel than anyone. He never lost his joyous spirit; grace only mellowed it and made it more flexible.
The wise novice master shaped him in humility at every opportunity. Once at recreation the irrepressible Pro climbed a pole and delivered a witty "sermon" to his fellow novices. They were all in stitches when the novice master came along and ordered Miguel to repeat the performance for him. Red-faced, the novice complied, but somehow it wasn't so funny the second time around!
On August 15, 1913, Miguel made his first vows as a Jesuit. But events in the outside world would soon shatter the peace of El Llano.
Background to Terror
When Mexico gained her independence from Spain in 1821, she was unable to form a stable government. Instead, for the next century her history would be one of short-lived rulers and cunning would-be rulers. The spirit of the French Revolution, aided by Freemasonry imported from north of the Rio Grande, caused the Revolutionists to turn with hatred on the very Church that had given Mexico a high level of literacy, proportionately more schools than Great Britain, and universities that were advanced beyond those of other nations. Catholic institutions were destroyed, schools and hospitals closed, monasteries deserted, members of religious orders exiled—and this in a nation 95% Catholic! Mexico has never recovered.
In 1877 Porfirio Diaz, "the benevolent dictator," seized power and held it for thirty-four years. Miguel Pro grew up during this peaceful time when the anti-Catholic laws were largely ignored and the Church could breathe again.
When Diaz fell from power in 1911, adventurers sprung up on all sides. Venustiano Carranza, with the aid of fortune-seeking generals and the bandit Villa, pillaged the country amid unspeakable barbarity and sacrilege, looting and murdering, and finally taking Mexico City. Churches were turned into stables; horses paraded in the Church's priceless vestments. And no Church official from the bishops down to the youngest novice was safe from harm.
Meanwhile at El Llano news came that Senora Pro and the children had fled to Guadalajara, and that Senor Pro had been forced to go into hiding, his whereabouts unknown. In addition to this, the only professor in the house broke down, and Miguel was appointed to keep the students busy. Under this strain he began to develop stomach ulcers. Bothering no one, he concealed his own troubles from all, cheering up the others when he himself felt more than depressed.
In August of 1914 the seminary was attacked and partially sacked. To continue was impossible. On the feast of the Assumption, wearing lay clothing, the seminarians made their exodus.
Miguel's little group made their way slowly to Guadalajara, and along the way helped some priests who were in hiding. Miguel was convincing in his disguise as an Indian peasant and servant of the rest, and his presence of mind repeatedly saved the group from soldiers and bandits who infested the roads.
He found his mother and the four younger children living in one miserable room. She was reduced to doing manual labor to support them. All she had managed to save from their comfortable home was a large picture of the Sacred Heart. She said heroically, "I am content to have left everything for the cause of Christ. Now nothing is left to me but this image of the Sacred Heart which will bless my house and children."
Though wracked with headaches and stomach pain Miguel enlivened the family's spirits with his songs and clever impersonations.
The seminarians met for Mass in secret places, and once, with one of their priests, dared to enter the wrecked cathedral for a clandestine Mass. Miguel's great priestly heart had already been formed. Hearing of an abandoned old woman who was dying, he spent an entire night assisting her in her last agony.
When transportation was somewhat restored, the young Jesuits received orders to set off for the United States. It hurt Miguel to leave his mother in such circumstances, yet she would have had it no other way. His first parting from her had been a sore trial; now as she accompanied him to the train station they both held back the tears. He looked upon her aged face for the last good-bye. It was the last time on earth he would see his dear mother.
Passing scenes of destruction and desolation, they finally reached the Jesuit house at Los Gatos, California. Miguel, now twenty-three, maintained his jovial exterior, and enjoyed picking up American slang. Later in Europe he would greet a hospitalized American Jesuit, "You poor sap!"
Able to make friends with anyone, he sought out poor children and taught them catechism in broken English. He was always a superb catechist who could attract young and old and adapt his teaching to all levels of understanding.
In the summer of 1915, Miguel and his fifteen companions sailed for sunny Spain.
Who would have guessed when the seminarians arrived at Granada that the lively Pro had been chosen by God and was being formed by Him to die a martyr for Christ the King. Indeed, one of the priests asked him if his jokes weren't a reflection on the level of education in Mexico! Brother Pro assured him that his jokes weren't exactly a Mexican type, but a "Pro type."
They soon discovered that he covered the depth of his soul and many exquisite acts of virtue under a cloak of humor. Like St. Philip Neri he humbly hid his growing holiness by making himself look ridiculous.
One day he decided to treat his fellow Mexicans to a picnic, and told them to make preparations. When the food was ready the only thing lacking was permission! Brother Pro approached the rector and asked if he would do them the honor of joining them. He replied that he was too busy, and added, "Besides, do you have permission?"
"No, Father, but we thought we wouldn't need it if you came with us."
The rector smiled at Brother Pro's ingenuity and let them go.
But Miguel's merriment never deprived him of inward reflection; he was a man of prayer, spending many hours with his dark eyes riveted on the tabernacle. Also, he was always ready to forfeit his own free time to help or console someone else.
Though the news from home often broke his heart it never disturbed the serenity of his soul. At such times Miguel had to work hard to be joyful, and his companions always knew when the news was especially bad because then he displayed more gaiety than usual.
He had advanced to a high degree of self-control, so that only occasionally would a sudden gesture betray his excruciating stomach pain. And the more he suffered, the more sensitive he became to the sufferings of others.
He visited the home for the aged poor and did the humblest tasks for them; sought out hardened sinners and drew them back to the Faith; rounded up the men loafing in the market place and ushered them into Mass.
In 1920 he was sent to Nicaragua, Central America, to spend two years teaching before beginning his theology. Though he never lost his cheer, it was a difficult time for him in the steaming jungle climate, dealing with undisciplined boys, and finding that many people around him did not appreciate his humor. He was thirty-one when he returned to Spain to begin his theology.
Miguel Pro had many natural abilities; his verses and clever caricatures were treasured by all. But he had difficulties with some of his studies, lacking a natural bent for metaphysical subjects. While he did not shine as a student, his superiors valued his common sense and special gift for knowing how to deal with souls. Convinced that he had a natural ability with workmen, they sent him, the year before his ordination, to the Jesuit house at Enghein, Belgium, to study Catholic labor organizations there.
At this time Brother Pro could no longer hide his worsening physical torture, for sometimes he could not eat or sleep. His companions wondered how he could look so refreshed after a sleepless night, and he replied, "One is never alone." He had reached a high degree of union with God, and lived in the presence of God.
Early in 1925, he was tortured with anguishing doubts, fearing his ordination would be put off due to his poor health. However, he was ordained as planned on August 31, 1925.
He wrote, "How can I explain to you the sweet grace of the Holy Ghost, which invades my poor miner's soul with such heavenly joys? I could not keep back tears on the day of my ordination, above all at the moment when I pronounced, together with the bishop, the words of the Consecration.
"After the ceremony the new priests gave their first blessing to their parents. I went to my room, laid out all the photographs of my family on the table, and then blessed them from the bottom of my heart."
The following day he said his first Mass at Enghein. "At the beginning I felt rather embarrassed, but after the Consecration I felt nothing but heavenly peace and joy. The only petition I made to Our Blessed Lord was that of being useful to souls." His zeal for souls now leapt forth as a devouring flame.
The young Father Pro was once again "El Barretero" (the miner) when he descended into the earth to visit the coal miners at Charleroi. Some of them were Socialists, and likely to sneer at the cassock. Father Pro climbed into a train compartment at the end of the day and the workers inside informed him that they were all Socialists. "So am I!" he exclaimed, getting their attention. "I find just one difficulty; when we get all the money away from the rich people how are we going to keep it?" Then he explained some facts of Socialism to these deluded souls.
Next they told him they were also Communists. "Good!" said Father Pro, "So am I, and since I am very hungry I am going to have a banquet with the meal you are carrying." They laughed, and wanted to know if he wasn't afraid of them. "Afraid? Why should I be? I'm always well-armed." They were a little tense as he rummaged in his pockets for his "arms," but came out with a small Crucifix. Some of them removed their hats as Father Pro explained the love of Christ for the working man. At the end of the ride they shoved a bag of chocolates into his hands.
Three months after his ordination his health broke. The ulcers had become so acute that surgery was ordered. He endured three operations, and his sufferings were agonizing. The nursing sisters marveled at his patience and courage. He kept them convulsed with laughter, laughing first at himself, and never referring to his pitiful condition except in a humorous way. Prayer was the source of his courage: "I pray almost all day and during most of the nights. After this I find myself refreshed."
In the midst of his physical sufferings he received word of the death of his mother. Crucifix in hand, he wept during the night. Though he accepted the will of God, and believed her to be in heaven watching over him, he called it "the hardest trial of my poor heart." His dream of giving Holy Communion to his mother had faded away.
Hoping it would improve his heath, Father Pro's superiors sent him to a Franciscan convalescent home in southern France. He insisted on being allowed to say the first Mass each morning so that the other priests might rest longer. "As I can't sleep anyway, it is no sacrifice for me." Then he would serve the next Mass. Told that he was doing too much, he replied, "I only wish I were able to serve all the Masses that are celebrated."
He helped anyone he could, and read souls like an open book. The Mother Superior said that at prayer he gave her the impression of not living in this world. He told her, "I must get better so I can go back to Mexico where I shall die as a martyr."
During this period he wrote beautiful passages on the priesthood. To a friend soon to be ordained: "I am in the habit of joking, but today I wish to speak to you in all sincerity. For nearly a year I have had the happiness of going up to the altar—a happiness which has nothing of the earth, but is spiritual and divine. You are going to undergo a complete transformation. The Holy Ghost will come down on you in a very special way on your ordination day. Trust the experience of this poor miner; you will no longer be tomorrow what you are today. There is something in me which I have never felt before. It is nothing personal or human. It comes from the priestly character the Holy Ghost stamps on our souls. It is a more intimate participation in the divine life." He tells some of the good he has been able to work as a priest, but adds humbly that it is not because of himself, but because of the grace of his priesthood.
Home to Mexico
In the summer of 1926, Father Pro's health had not improved. It seems that as a last resort his superiors decided to send him home to his native climate. He asked permission and the necessary alms for a quick trip to Lourdes. He said Mass in the Basilica, and spent the day at the Grotto, calling it one of the happiest days of his life.
"The Blessed Virgin inundated my soul with immense happiness and intense consolation. How did I manage to kneel there such a long time, when usually I can only bear a few minutes on my knees? I really don't know. I was not the same miserable being as other days.
"My voyage will not be as hard as I thought it would be, for the Virgin has told me so. I was finding it hard to go back to Mexico: my health gone, my country destroyed by this government, and once there, not meeting my mother again. However, Our Lady of Lourdes has given me courage."
After a pleasant voyage, he landed at Vera Cruz on July 8, 1926. "It was by a special dispensation of God that I re-entered my country. I do not know how I did it. No one looked at my passports; they did not even examine my luggage." Father Pro had stepped onto the stage where would be enacted the great drama of his life; the other characters were already present.
In 1918 Carranza had eased up on the persecution of Catholics ... and swiftly met his end. The next "president," Obregon, harassed the Church in a more insidious manner. Then, since the President could not succeed himself, Obregon and his friend Calles arranged the next "election" to fall to Calles, and planned to juggle the presidency back and forth between them.
Plutarco Elias Calles had ridden to the top on the coat-tails of the Revolution. His weakness for cruelty was blood-chilling. One example will suffice: When an old man offended him, he had him hanged with barbed wire.
As president he waged a fierce persecution of Catholics, claiming uncounted hundreds of martyrs—among them 150 priests—from 1926 to 1929. He vigorously enforced the anti-religious Mexican Constitution, and amplified it with thirty-three new laws, which he had tacked up on the church doors. By these laws all Church property was confiscated by the State; all public worship was restricted to the interior of churches and put under State control; religious orders were dissolved and all education laicized (actually made atheistic); priests were forbidden to criticize the government and could not wear clerical garb in public.
The Lodges congratulated him; but the Church could not recognize such infamy as legal. With the approval of the Pope, the bishops of Mexico agreed that the Church, rather than submit, would go underground. The laws were to go into effect on July 31, only three weeks after Father Pro's arrival.
He was reunited with his family and then plunged into parish work. The people turned out frantically for the last public spiritual exercises. Father Pro heard confessions eleven hours a day. "My confessional was a jubilee," he wrote, "having just left the clinic's smooth pillows, my annoying constitution was unaccustomed to the hard bench of the confessional. Twice I fainted and had to be carried out."
On the 31st of July, feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, Father Pro celebrated his last public Mass. The churches were closed, and the priests commenced their "underground" ministry. A few lines from a poem composed by Father Pro pathetically describe the situation:
O Lord, Thy empty tabernacles mourn
While we alone upon our Calvary,
As orphans, ask Thee, Jesus to return
And dwell again within Thy sanctuary.
Since Thou hast left Thy earthly door ajar,
Our lovely temples bare and dismal stand;
No chant of choir, no bells resound afar;
Dread silence hovers o'er our native land.
By the bitter tears of those who mourn their dead,
By our martyrs' blood for Thee shed joyfully,
By the crimson stream with which Thy Heart bled,
Return in haste to Thy dear sanctuary.
To be continued ...
O GOD, Our Lord and Father, in Whom
Father Pro placed his trust with great
filial love, deign to make known that his
work for souls and the sacrifice of his life
were pleasing to Thee, by granting the favor
we ask. Grant us also for Thy glory and that
of Thy persecuted Church the blessing of
seeing him raised to the honors of the altar.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.