Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
About a hundred years ago in Mexico, the Catholic faith was under fierce persecution by the Mexican government, which gave rise to what is referred to as, “the Cristero War,” waged from 1926 to 1929. In those three short but extraordinarily bloody years, over 90,000 lives were lost on both sides.
In that dark period of Mexican history, in the name of separating Church and state, the government sought to subjugate religious freedom to a terrifying degree. It had confiscated all Church property, including hospitals, monasteries, convents, and schools. It restricted religious gatherings outside of state sanctioned places and forbade the wearing of religious clothing outside of Church or religious premises. Can you imagine living in a place where wearing a Crucifix was a crime?
The state had also regulated the number of priests in each region, maybe one priest for 30,000 Catholics, and even reducing that number to zero priests in some places. All foreign clergy were deported. Clergy weren’t allowed to express opinions on politics, not even in private conversation. They couldn’t seek justice in the Mexican courts. Taking a religious vow was considered a criminal act.
Unable to operate publicly under those conditions, the Mexican bishops, after agonized deliberations and consultation with the Holy See, suspended public worship on July 31st, 1926. Three bishops went into hiding; the rest fled the country in exile. The next day, for the first time in over four hundred years, no priest in Mexico ascended ad altare Dei (the altar of God) to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Priests who remained in Mexico faced two choices: they either cooperated with the government fully or they lived on the run, carrying on their ministry in secret. One such priest who ministered clandestinely was a Jesuit named, Father Miguel Pro.
Father Miguel had been studying for the priesthood in Mexico until 1914 when anti-Catholic legislation forced his novitiate to dissolve. He fled to the United States, and then continued his education in Spain and Belgium. He then returned to Mexico as a fully-fledged priest, in order to serve the Christ’s flock. And serve well he did.
In our gospel today, we hear our Lord say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me… whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me”.
Despite such difficult and dangerous circumstances, Father Miguel truly ministered to Christ through his service to the least of his brothers. He fed the Eucharist covertly to the Church that in hiding. He had offered the Mass in small secret gatherings in many places. To those who thirsted for righteousness, he gave the drink of God’s grace. To those stripped of grace and made naked due to sin, Father Miguel restored the purity of their baptismal garments through the sacrament of Confession. It can already be difficult to bring ourselves to Confession. Can you imagine risking your life to go to Confession?
To those who were ill spiritually, he brought the remedy of the Gospel of of Jesus Christ. He also visited the imprisoned—literally—while in disguise, to administer the sacraments to those who were about to be executed by the government.
Father Miguel himself “pulled a Jesus.” As our Lord hides behind the faces of the poor, Father Miguel himself hid behind many faces. He was known to be a master of disguise—that’s how he was able to move about freely in public. He appeared at times as a street sweeper, a beggar, a wealthy businessman, or many other characters that he assumed. He even went into a police station once to ask for directions, despite being a wanted criminal.
Eventually, however, he was caught and arrested, and without trial or evidential support was condemned to death on false charges. His executioners wanted to be sure that the word got out of his fate, so they invited the media and photographers to witness the event. There are many photos take at his execution. On the cover of our bulletin this week, you can see one of those photos taken from moments before his death.
Before he was executed, he knelt down to pray. You can find that image online as well. He offered forgiveness to his executioners. And then standing with rosary in hand, and with arms outstretched in the shape of the Cross, my brother priest, Father Miguel Pro cried out his last words, “Viva Cristo Rey!” Which is Spanish for, “Long live Christ the King!”
His highly publicized death was meant to dishearten and intimidate other believers, but it had the opposite effect. It helped to stiffen resolve against religious persecution, and served as a reminder to that ancient adage, “the blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church”.
Despite an authoritarian regime intent on repressing the faithful, tens of thousands of believers gathered together to bury their shepherd. An image of that is also online. Blessed Father Miguel died in service to Christ’s flock. He was beatified in Rome on September 25th, 1988, by the Great Pope Saint John Paul the Second as a Catholic martyr, killed in odium fidei, as we call it. He was killed “in hatred of the faith.”
You and I live in a very privileged time in history. We live in a nation where religious freedom is a right that is protected. This goes beyond being able to worship freely. We’re able publicly live our religion. Our nation is strong in the world, arguably the strongest that the world has ever seen. And so, our right to publicly live our religion may also be unrivaled in human history.
You and I have not yet been summoned to shed our blood for the faith we’ve inherited. But we can express our gratitude to the witnesses who have gone before us, like Blessed Miguel Pro, and to all the patriots who have secured for us this freedom. We do that when we, from the depths of our hearts, pronounce with conviction their same battle cry. With his last breath, Blessed Miguel cried out in seeming solitude before his executioners that glorious vow of supreme loyalty.
On this Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, under the title, “the King of the Universe,” we join in their creed, shared by all the martyrs, saints, and angels: Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King! The Lord of the Universe!
Blessed Miguel Pro, SJ, executed by a firing squad in Mexico City, November 23, 1927 [Public Domain]