Martyr for our time

At Christmas, someone gave me a video about the life of Blessed Miguel Pro. I watched it, and I thought about it ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico.

Blessed Miguel Pro was born in 1891, in Mexico, the son of hard-working, religiously devout parents. He wanted to be a priest. In 1911, he entered the Jesuits, but times were not good for Catholics in Mexico.

While the Mexican population then, as now, overwhelmingly identified with the Roman Catholic Church, Catholicism was having a difficult time. It had suffered restrictions and hostilities for generations, but early in the 20th century, prominent figures in the country began to attack the Church with special vigor.

Young Miguel Pro was sent to Europe to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in Belgium in 1925. By then, things back home were much worse, but he wanted to serve his own people. So, he returned home.

Laws were in force forbidding the wearing of any religious garb on the street, so many photographs show him in lay clothes. Much more insidious were government rules regarding the number of priests and their rights under Mexican law to function.

Unafraid, determined, he disregarded these laws. He simply went to people to guide them to Christ. He provided the sacraments.

He was a thorn in the government’s side, and the welcome that he received from people angered the government, because this was a visible sign that religion indeed meant very much to many Mexicans.

At last, he was arrested on the trumped-up charge that he had conspired to assassinate the Mexican president. Tried in a kangaroo court, convicted, he was shot by firing squad on Nov. 23, 1927. The government had sent photographers to the execution lest anyone claim Padre Pro actually had survived.

This part of the government’s plan backfired. As the young priest was placed on the spot where he would die, he lifted his arms outward, to make of himself a cross, and he shouted, “Viva Cristo rey” (Long live Christ the king!).

The picture was circulated far and wide, making clear that Padre Pro had died as a martyr.

Times did not immediately change, but they changed gradually and significantly. For years, Mexican presidents disavowed any association with the Catholic Church, but when Pope Francis was installed as Bishop of Rome, Mexico’s current President Enrique Peña Nieto was in Rome to represent Mexico, and Peña Nieto, who openly describes himself as a Catholic, was scheduled to greet the pope when the pontiff arrived in Mexico for his visit.

Mexico is hardly the only place where Catholics have suffered and died for their faith. The history of the Church sparkles with the names of martyrs. Untold numbers have died rather than abandon their Catholicism.

When religion is not taken as seriously as once was the case, it is interesting to ask why, over the centuries, so many have died, and often under terrifying circumstances, simply to be true to their belief that Jesus is Lord and the Church is the Lord’s Mystical Body.

In the harsh realities that many martyrs faced, the Faith meant even more than family relationships. When St. Thomas More was awaiting execution for refusing to recognize King Henry VIII’s repudiation of the Roman papacy, More’s own daughter went to plead with him to give into the king. More refused.

All these stories are glorious, but they are of people usually at other times and in other places.

They present us now with this question. What does my religion mean to me? Why was it so important to the martyrs, such as Blessed Padre Pro?

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.