Father Pro of Mexico
by Mary E. Gentges
MIGUEL PRO'S entire life had been a preparation for the next sixteen months when he would outwit the police and unselfishly give of himself for souls. New in the country, he had the immediate advantage of being unknown to the ten thousand secret agents in Mexico City. While other priests had been exiled, executed, or forced into hiding, he took on a heavy workload. It is said he did the work of seven priests.
Father Pro celebrated Mass in the homes of faithful Catholics; he witnessed marriages, baptized babies and took the sacraments to the sick. He was constantly occupied in hearing confessions. It gave him great joy to reconcile sinners to the Church and to assist the dying. He gave conferences and retreats, and also taught a band of 150 select youths to go about giving lectures.
He writes: "I have what I call 'Eucharistic Stations' where I go around every day to distribute Holy Communion. To baffle the agents who go about here like night birds, I go some days to one place and other days to another, with an average of 300 Communions daily." One First Friday the number reached 1,200!
He passed under the scrutiny of the police in a variety of guises: "I look so much like a student that no one can possibly guess my real profession. Day and night I go from place to place doing good, sometimes with a beautiful police dog following at my heels, sometimes riding my brother's bicycle to which I owe a bruise on the arm and a bump on my head."
How did the sickly Father Pro do it all? His superiors, it seems, had sent him home to die of his ailments. Yet the assurance he had received at Lourdes was real. After eight years of agonizing daily attacks, the ulcer had subsided to an occasional "fluttering of wings," and his health held until the end. He wondered himself, "How do I stand it ... It proves that without the fullness of the Divine Element which uses me merely as an instrument I'd have made a mess of everything. I know that of themselves my person and results are worthless." He adds, "Not I, but the grace of God in me."
In response to the anti-religious laws the League for the Defense of Religious Liberty organized a boycott, encouraging Catholics to buy only necessities, abstain from all luxuries and entertainments, and withdraw their funds from banks. A variety of leaflets, promoting the boycott and proclaiming the Kingship of Christ, flowed from secret printing presses. Calles executed League members at every opportunity. In life, or in death, the slogan of these confessors of the Faith was "Long live Christ the King!"
Father Pro's brothers, Humberto and Roberto (both in their early twenties and living at home with their father and sister Ana Maria), were active in the League. They gave religious conferences and helped priests who were in hiding.
The Pro Family
Standing: Edmundo, Miguel, Ana Maria
Seated: Maria de la Concepcion, Roberta, Senora Pro,
Humberto (executed with Miguel), Senor Pro, Maria
Father Pro had his pockets filled with League leaflets once when he was picked up by the police. On the way to the station he distracted the driver of the car while he surreptitiously threw the incriminating leaflets out the window!
In October of 1926, on the Feast of Christ the King, over two hundred thousand pilgrims defied the anti-religious laws and assembled at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Father Pro was deeply moved to see people of all classes marching on bloodied bare feet, or inching forward on their knees. As the singing was rather subdued, he elbowed his way into the crowd and loudly intoned a hymn. In minutes thousands were singing in unison, proclaiming Christ their King. "There is no doubt about it," he wrote, "the whole of Mexico is Catholic! Our Lady of Guadalupe is Queen of the Mexicans!"
He continues, "The number of martyrs increases day by day. I hope I shall have the luck to be among the first, or among the last, but to be one of the number. If so, prepare your petitions for Heaven!"
His Poor People
Father Pro's heart went out to the poor, to those living in dire misery because their breadwinner had been imprisoned for the Faith. Though begging humiliated him, for his poor people he begged homes and provisions, and was soon supporting a hundred families. He would give his own coat to a poor man. Or he might be seen laboring along in the heat carrying a heavy sack of flour, or boarding a bus with a half-dozen live chickens in his arms.
He organized a dozen volunteers to help with this work. "Officially I call them 'Investigation and Commissariat Section' but between ourselves they are 'beggars on the go'! I am in close touch with what we read of in the lives of the Saints (Oh, don't take me for one of them!) for without knowing who the benefactor is I receive at one time fifty kilos of sugar, or biscuits, coffee, chocolate, rice, and even wine ... Ordinarily my purse is as lean as the spiritual part of Calles, but this causes me no anxiety, for the Heavenly Procurator is so generous .... I see the hand of God in everything and almost fear they won't kill me in these adventures, which will be a fiasco for me who sigh to go to Heaven and play arpeggios on the mandolin with my guardian angel."
He found himself taking in abandoned babies. Once as he had paused for a railroad crossing someone slipped a baby onto the back seat of his car! He describes how he took a baby to its foster parents: "I made the mistake of putting the baby by my side on the car seat. At the first jolt the baby bounced up and had I not caught it on the fly I should have had to take it to the cemetery instead!"
"Nobody knows where I live. I receive letters, and beans for my poor people, at four different addresses. I have even heard confessions in prisons. Really, I go there more often than anywhere else because they are overflowing with Catholics. I take food, blankets, money. If the guards only knew what sort of bird passes right under their noses!"
Twice Father Pro was arrested, but released. Without ever denying his priesthood, he could calmly make witty remarks to divert his interrogators, as on the day when two policemen stopped him on the street. He was so relaxed that they began to have second thoughts. When he took them into a cafe and treated them, joking all the while, they decided they had the wrong man after all!
By February of 1927 there was a reward out for his arrest; traps awaiting him everywhere. He approached a house to say Mass and saw two policemen guarding the door. "To go in was very risky. To turn back was to desert the faithful, and to my mind a disgrace. I pulled myself together, and coolly walked up to the house. With an air of being in on the secret I jotted down the house number in a notebook, drew back the lapel of my coat as if to show a detective's badge, and said, 'There's a cat bagged here.' Convinced that I was a secret agent, they let me go in. I ran up the inside stairs thinking, 'Now there is a cat bagged here!' " After conferring with the faithful, Father Pro left as he had entered, and received a superb military salute from the policemen!
Early one morning he was distributing Holy Communion at one of his Eucharistic Stations when a servant ran in shouting,"The cops!" Father Pro calmly told everyone to scatter through the house. He hid the Blessed Sacrament over his heart, and, attired in cap and overcoat, went to the door. The police took him to be the owner of the house. They insisted that there was public worship inside and were determined to search the premises. Father Pro told them to go right ahead, and to prevent greater harm he accompanied them through the house. Finally, he left them, saying that if it wasn't for an appointment with his girlfriend he would stay until they seized the insolent priest who made sport of such keen policemen. And he went off on his rounds distributing Holy Communion!
At times, for his own safety, Father Pro's superiors ordered him into hiding. He obeyed, remarking, "Obedience is better than sacrifice," but it was a heavy cross for him to hide when he knew that souls needed him. He pleaded with his superiors. "They fear for my life. Would it not be to save it if I gave it for my brethren? Certainly we must not give it foolishly. But the most they can do is kill me, and that only in God's good time .... Permit me to stay at my post until this persecution passes." Though he desired martyrdom, at the same time he had no intention of willingly deserting his flock, and he took every means to preserve his life.
Retreats in Unusual Surroundings
Toward evening a man in a business suit and straw hat might be seen entering an office building. It was Father Pro coming to give a retreat to office employees after their day's work. The retreatants knelt among the typewriters, unafraid, while agents prowled in the street below.
In his lighthearted fashion Father Pro described another retreat given to chauffeurs (taxi or truck drivers). He called them "the people of pro," (A pun, for pro means "worth"). "Imagine fifty noisy chauffeurs, fine types with their rough unpolished manners. To my astonishment I found that the language of the common people flowed quite naturally from my lips. I thought I had forgotten it in the sixteen years since I left the mines, but strike me pink! it was as though I had left but yesterday. I gave these conferences in a large yard with the usual junk lying around, myself disguised as a mechanic in cover-alls with a cap drawn down to my eyebrows, and giving a spiritual shove to my responsive audience. God bless all the chauffeurs of the world!"
Next, he tackled some eighty sophisticated professional women, influenced by modern thinking, "They feared nothing—not even the devil, denied the existence of hell, and refused to submit to the sweet truths of our religion. I strained every nerve, but was more than repaid by seeing them all receive the sacraments." He added that it was not anything of himself, but the grace of God that worked in these souls. "Blessed be mi Padre Dios Who is so very good!" This loving term, "my Father God" was his life-long expression.
Depth of Soul
The witty Father Pro was deeply spiritual, and his true holiness was unconsciously revealed in unguarded moments. A young girl who sought him to deliver a message related, "I found him with his hands joined and his eyes cast down. His whole being was transformed by prayer and recollection. I quite forgot my message. I fell on my knees and went to confession."
Father Pro imitated the hidden sacrifices of St. Therese of Lisieux, whom he greatly admired. When he was slandered, he refused to defend himself, imitating Our Lord by his silence. Often he was too busy helping souls to stop for food or sleep; but in his incessant activity he never neglected prayer, the source of his strength.
In his dealings with souls there was never a joking word. Speaking of temptations against purity, he said, "Nothing is so noble as the terrible struggle known to God alone and to the soul ... I do not dread it; the Blessed Virgin is so kind to me, so motherly."
His flock cherished his words: "I endeavor to do all my actions in the presence of God, my Father .... I am ready to give my life for souls and want nothing for myself .... When a heart has once drawn its sap from the wood of the Cross, it can no longer turn away .... Do you know where I learned to love? In the Heart of Jesus."
"If life daily becomes harder and more burdensome, a thousand times blessed be He Who wills it so! If life becomes harder, love also grows stronger.
"Heart of Jesus I love Thee, but increase my love; Heart of Jesus I trust in Thee, but strengthen my hope; Heart of Jesus I give Thee my heart, but sink it so deeply in Thine that it will never break away; Heart of Jesus I am all Thine, but keep my promise that I may redeem it unto the utter sacrifice of my life."
Toward the Supreme Sacrifice
As the months wore on, Father Pro lived under a continual strain, criss-crossing the city, eyeing those who eyed him, with threats at every turning. At times he sighed for the quiet and order of the Jesuit houses; but he hung on, always marvelling at the special care and graces of God, and could still find a humorous way to describe his life:
"Here things are getting on like a house of fire! Christians are dispatched to heaven for the slightest trifle. When one of us leaves the house, instead of saying adios, we make an Act of Contrition. We have officially said goodbye to each other until we are reunited in heaven. But instead of weeping we have uncontrollable fits of laughter. Wouldn't it be wonderful to go straight to heaven for so noble a cause!
"We are seven and have just five chairs, four plates, four knives, eight bedsteads, three mattresses, and a broom. It is all loaned, but really it is a gift because it is certain neither we nor our heirs will return anything. In three recent police raids they left us without even a cuspidor, but as that article is not necessary to go to heaven, we gave it up without complaint!"
In October of 1927, that bloody October when three hundred citizens were slaughtered in its first week, Father Pro give a Triduum at Toluca for the feast of Christ the King. He was amazed at the numbers of people who risked detection by the police to attend the exercises, waiting patiently for Mass as he heard long lines of penitents. At times up to two hundred stout workmen would be crammed into the three little rooms where he preached. Disguising a postcard in the jargon of a salesman, and signing it "the Miner," he wrote to a priest friend, "I have come here to sell my wares ... I am rather tired, because my sale was more of a clearance than I expected."
As Father Pro viewed the reign of terror with its tortures and killings he had to admit, "I am broken, more and more broken by this barbariousness! Poor, poor people!" As he looked at the hopeless plight of his people, he longed the more to suffer himself as a victim for them. Though he humbly felt himself unworthy, he often asked his friends to pray that God would grant him the grace of martyrdom for the cause of the Faith in Mexico.
On November 13, 1927, he composed a touching prayer in which he asked the Blessed Virgin to let him spend his life near her, not enjoying the joys of Bethlehem, but rather sharing her sorrows in the ignominy of Calvary "to love my God and thy God in the immolation of my whole being." She took him at his word, for on that very day his fate was sealed.
On that fateful Sunday an attempt was made on the life of Calles's partner, "President-elect" Obregon. A bomb was thrown at Obregon's limousine from a passing car. The attempt was a failure; Obregon was barely scratched. Neither Father Pro nor his brothers had anything to do with the assassination attempt. In fact, Father Pro did not tolerate the desire of some Catholics for the deaths of Mexico's leaders. His look would become severe as he told them, "They are instruments of God to punish us for our sins. You should pray every day for Calles; I remember him every day in my Mass."
Father Pro had spent Sunday, the 13th, ministering to his flock, having dinner with his family, and entertaining them with some of his antics. When he heard of the assassination attempt he exclaimed, "Heaven knows how many people will have to pay dearly for this unfortunate affair!"
When Father Pro learned that the car used in the attempt was an old Essex that Humberto had used till recently in his League activities he heard his brothers would in some way be implicated in the affair. Though he wasn't worried for himself, he decided they should all hide out for awhile.
In hiding, on the 17th of November, Father Pro said his last Mass. That day agents bullied a young boy into giving away the Pros' hiding place, and during the night they broke into the room where the three brothers were sleeping. Father Pro immediately gave his brothers absolution, and encouraged them to join with him in offering up their lives for religious liberty in Mexico.
A police agent asked the lady who had sheltered the Pros if she knew she had been hiding conspirators. "What I know," she retorted, "is that I've been hiding a saint!"
For five days the three Pro brothers were confined in the damp filthy underground prison of the police station. The other prisoners were edified by Father Pro's spirit of joy and prayer. He led them in the Rosary, other prayers, hymns, and popular ditties. He scrawled on the wall in big letters, "Blessed be Christ the King! Blessed be Our Lady of Guadalupe!"
The prisoners were frequently summoned to make declarations to the courts. Two of the would-be assassins, Vilchis and Tirado, had been captured, and had confessed their guilt. When asked directly if he was a priest, Father Pro readily admitted that he was a priest and a Jesuit, and declared his innocence in the affair. He was never even questioned about having any part in the assassination attempt.
Calles knew very well that Father Pro was innocent but now that he had bagged the most popular priest in Mexico, a priest who stood in the way of his designs of wiping out the Church, he was not about to set him free. Calles, who according to Father Dragon, once affirmed in a speech to his Cabinet that he had a "personal hatred against Christ," ordered the execution of the Pro brothers out of sheer hatred for the Church.
Police Chief Cruz, like Pilate, was nervous about killing innocent men. Obregon was uneasy also. Cruz suggested that for appearances' sake the execution should be given some form of legality. Calles brutally replied, "I do not want forms, but the deed."
"Viva Cristo Rey!"
On the morning of November 23rd Father Pro woke with a headache. He had given his straw mattress to another prisoner and had slept but little during the night on the hard floor. At 10:20 a guard called out, "Miguel Augustin Pro!" Father Pro went up without his jacket, but when he was sent back for it he sensed what was about to happen, and squeezed Roberto's hand in farewell. In the corridor he exclaimed, "Goodbye, brothers, till we meet in heaven."
As he went out, an agent who had participated in his capture asked his forgiveness. Father Pro embraced the man and said, "I not only forgive you, but I thank you and will pray for you."
Outside in the courtyard a crowd had gathered: invited dignitaries, reporters, photographers. Calles's policy of intimidation included the publishing of photographs of condemned prisoners. In this case he provided us with a deeply moving record of a martyr's heroic death.
And what had the crowd come out to see? A young man in a rumpled suit and tie, calmly coming from the darkness of the prison to blink in the morning light. They were shaken by his quiet composure as he walked unbound between the guards, his eyes cast downward, his hands crossed before him.
He went to the place indicated by the guard. There, in front of a stockade of logs stood an ugly bullet-chipped row of human-shaped target boards. When he was asked his last wish he replied, "Permit me to pray."
Kneeling in the dirt he reverently made the Sign of the Cross. He was oblivious of the cameras as he crossed his hands on his breast and communed with his God in those final moments. What did he say? Did he once again ask his Lord to accept the sacrifice of his life? Fervently he kissed his little Crucifix.
Rising, he refused the blindfold, and turned to face the crowd, his expression gentle, almost meditative, as he drew his Rosary from his pocket. His demeanor was his most eloquent sermon.
Observers said his face bore a certain radiance. Had he beheld his patron St. Michael, the angel of the dying, going before him? Had he already glimpsed his King in eternity?
He raised the little Crucifix and gave the crowd his last blessing. "May God have mercy on you! May God bless you! Lord, Thou knowest that I am innocent. I forgive my enemies with all my heart."
With the crucifix in his right hand, the Rosary in his left, he stretched out his arms in the form of a Cross. He lifted his eyes to heaven, and in the low firm tone of the priest at the Consecration of the Mass he uttered his final words, "Viva Cristo Rey!" "Long live Christ the King!"
"Long live Christ the King!"
Father Pro facing the firing squad.
23 November 1927
He closed his eyes, shots rang out, and five bullets pierced his breast. His arms were still outstretched as he crumpled to the ground. To be certain of death, a guard stepped up and delivered a final shot into his head.
Soon after, Humberto died bravely, and Vilchis and Tirado. Roberto had seen it all from his prison window. He would have been next, but in the last moments, through the intervention of the Argentine minister, Roberto, at least, was let off with exile.
Ana Maria was outside the gates trying to get in and had heard the shots. When the ambulances came out bearing the bodies she followed them to the hospital. She was there when she heard the voice of her aged father, Don Miguel, "Where, where are my sons? I want to see them." He kissed their foreheads, and with his handkerchief wiped the blood from Miguel's face. Ana fell into his arms sobbing, but he said gently, "My daughter, this is no cause for tears." That evening in their home he knelt between the two coffins and said calmly, "Miguel was an apostle; Humberto an angel all his life. They died for God and are already enjoying Him in heaven."
A continual stream of visitors poured into the house: diplomats, Father Pro's poor people, and even some of the police. They came to pay their last respects, and to touch religious articles to the venerable remains.
A priest smuggled in a consecrated Host so that Roberto, who was to be released, could receive Holy Communion. The promise was broken, however, and the Blessed Sacrament reposed during the night on Padre Pro's coffin, as if upon an altar. An all-night vigil was kept; confessions heard; and Mass celebrated the following morning. People continued to stream to the house. When the time came for the procession to the Dolores Cemetery the crowds were packed densely round the front door. "Make way for the martyrs of Christ!" shouted one of the priests. The thunderous response shook the windows: "Viva Cristo Rey!"
The funeral procession was composed of over five hundred cars, and thousands of people marching on foot. Risking arrest, they prayed and sang. And no one attempted to stop them. Flowers were showered down from windows; people knelt in the street as the procession passed. An estimated thirty thousand gathered at the cemetery.
Deep silence prevailed during the burial service. At the end, Don Miguel turned to the priests. "It is finished," he said,"Te Deum Laudamus." With that the Church's great hymn of thanksgiving rose from thousands of hearts and lips. Desolation had turned to triumph.
"Prepare Your Petitions for Heaven "
Father Pro did not forget his people. Favors of intercession began immediately. On the day after his death a poor blind woman commended herself to Father Pro and her sight was instantly restored.
At the beginning of December, 1927, a woman with inoperable cancer implored the help of Father Pro. Her doctor certified that when he examined her a few weeks later the terrible cancerous lesions were entirely gone.
These are only two out of thousands of favors that have been reported from all over the world; reports of physical cures; assistance in all sorts of difficulties; and most important, spiritual cures—the reconcilement of hardened sinners.
The story of Miguel Pro holds a perennial attraction, especially for young people. He does not tower over us; he is one of us. He makes sanctity attractive; showing us that it is meant for all, and that one need not be dismal to be truly holy. Joy flowed naturally from him, the joy that accompanies a perfect confidence in God. The practice of virtue, of self-sacrifice, of penance, did not stifle in him his most attractive good humor.
The cause for his beatification has moved forward step by step. The various processes are finished. Now we can only wait and pray that soon Mexico's beloved Father Pro, will see the honors of the altar. And may we never forget his greatest secret: that amid the worst trials of life, we can retain our true Christian joy.
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