Viva Cristo Rey!

An unfortunate fact of life in 2007 is that the word "martyr" conjures up for most of us images of Islamic suicide bombers. In fact, the first martyrs were Christians who died at the hands of Romans, hundreds of years before Mohammed came along. Unlike today's terrorists, the first Christian martyrs did not seek to die for their faith. Many stories show them accepting their fate, and as the moment grew closer they often embraced it. They did not try to take others with them.

Americans have a hard time understanding the reality of true martyrdom. Other than a few cases of early missionaries being killed by Indians, it's just not part of our heritage. Martyrdom is something that happened a long time ago in places far, far away - but not always. 1927 was not so long ago, and Mexico is not so far away.

In 1917 Mexico adopted a new constitution that, among other things, imposed a number of restrictions on the religious freedom. The specific target was the Catholic Church but others were affected as well. Churches were forbidden to operate schools and their ability to own property was severely restricted. Ministers were stripped of the right to vote and ordered not to wear clerical garb in public or speak about political issues. Worship services outside of church buildings were outlawed.

For the first few years these provisions were only sporadically enforced. In 1924 Plutarco Elias Calles took over as president and soon began oppressing the Church with gusto. A resistance movement called the Cristeros arose in parts of Mexico.

Keep in mind, this is not that long ago. In 1927 Ronald Reagan was a teenager, Billy Graham a child, and George H.W. Bush a toddler. Josef Ratzinger was an infant and Karol Wojtyla was a small child. People are alive today who saw these events in Mexico. It's not ancient history.

The Calles government was ruthless. Between 1926 and 1934, the number of Catholic priests in Mexico dropped from 4,500 to 334. Most were expelled or left the country voluntarily, but at least 40 priests were killed. One was a young Jesuit named Miguel Agustin Pro.

Padre Pro served his flock faithfully despite the very difficult conditions. He used a variety of disguises to reach people who needed him, sometimes dressing as a beggar and arriving in the middle of the night to perform baptisms. He reportedly donned a police uniform in order to visit condemned prisoners in jail.

With an assassination attempt on an ex-president as pretext, in 1927 Padre Pro was arrested along with his brothers Humberto and Roberto. Another man confessed to the crime and said the Pro brothers had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, President Calles ordered Padre Pro executed while sparing his brothers. Calles wanted to use the execution to inspire fear and so invited reporters to document everything. We have photographs of the event.

On November 23, 1927 - eighty years ago today - Miguel Agustin Pro, S.J., was led from his cell to a courtyard where the firing squad waited. After blessing each of the soldiers, he asked for a moment to pray. This last request was granted and he knelt on the ground. Then, refusing a blindfold, he faced his executioners with arms outstretched in imitation of Christ on the Cross. He clutched a crucifix in one hand and a rosary in the other.

As the soldiers prepared their weapons, Padre Pro shouted "May God have mercy on you! May God bless you! Lord, thou knowest I am innocent! With all my heart I forgive my enemies!" Just before they fired, he cried out "Viva Cristo Rey!" "Long live Christ the King!"

Padre Pro lived through the first rifle volley, and a soldier killed him with a bullet at point blank range. He was 36 years old.

Fifty-two years later, another priest came to Mexico and was greeted with open arms by a different president. This was no ordinary priest; it was the Bishop of Rome. You see, the gates of hell did not prevail against God's church; they could not prevail. In 1988 Padre Pro was beatified by Pope John Paul II - the first step toward sainthood.

Will there be more such martyrs? Times change. Constitutions can be amended, or just ignored. There are more than a few people in the United States right now who would like to do what President Calles did in Mexico. Will today's Christians have the courage of Padre Pro?

I'm afraid some of us may find out.

Padre Pro web site
Video dramatization (in Spanish)

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