“A joyful heart is a good medicine,” reads Proverbs, and Blessed Miguel Pro would know. For years, the Jesuit martyr grappled with debilitating stomach problems that not even a series of surgeries could remedy. And during his convalescence in December 1925, he celebrated Christmas with Jesuit Father John J. Druhan, then a New Orleans Province scholastic, in a Belgian hospital. Pro was just 34 years old at the time, Druhan 32.
The two Jesuits, having met the previous year in the Belgian house of studies, had an easy rapport, and Fr. Druhan wrote that “…Pro’s quips and pranks and infectious good humor spoke all languages with equal fluency.” Pro spoke American slang in his Mexican accent, Druhan said, and he liked to sing popular songs, particularly “random bars of a song which was quite popular during the war and in which a doughboy pledged a tryst with a certain Katherine while the moon was shining over the cowshed.”
Though their Christmas celebration was hampered by illness, Druhan and the newly ordained young Jesuit entertained themselves with a camera; Druhan captured a pensive Pro reading a commentary on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. “The exposure was so long that the subject confessed he nearly ruptured his inner sutures,” Druhan wrote, “A month later the developed picture and print proved that the foolhardy virtue of amateur photographers sometimes brings its own reward.”
The invaluable discoveries of this rare photograph of Pro and Druhan’s account of their time together are credited to Joan Gaulene, volunteer for the New Orleans Province Archive at Loyola University New Orleans.
“I picked up a negative in Druhan’s box and put it aside thinking it was him, but the last item in his box was this writing about his time with Miguel Pro,” she recounts. Druhan’s reflection, Side Lights on Father Miguel Pro, S.J., is five pages in length, typed with proof marks and signed by its author. It reveals their storytelling and the “tricks and jokes” by which Pro entertained and eventually convinced the sisters of the hospital that he was “well enough to resume the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.”
Realizing the subject of the negative was Blessed Miguel Pro, Gaulene contacted the province archivist, Jesuit Father William Huete, who says of these newfound treasures, “Druhan’s account shows us Pro was a modern person. He was disarming.” It was because of this, Gaulene adds, that “he was able to pull off all sorts of things.”
Miguel Pro’s mischievous character and funny bone were among his greatest gifts – gifts that enabled his ministry inMexicoeven when it was outlawed. As a scholastic, he was forced out of his homeland during government-imposed religious suppression, returning 12 years later as a priest during the Cristiada, the rebellion of Catholics against Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles. The Cristiada escalated to such dangerous heights that priests were exiled and Catholic bishops elected to halt public worship in Mexico, a decision approved by Pope Pius XI, who himself condemned, in two encyclicals, the Mexican government’s persecution and murder of Catholics.
Through all this, Pro considered his re-admittance into the country a miracle. No one examined his passport or searched his bags. Upon arrival inMexico City, he realized that Catholics were starved for communion, leading him to create “Eucharistic Stations” throughout the city where he distributed daily communion to as many as 300 people and on First Fridays to well over 1,000 faithful souls.
He administered the sacraments in secrecy and in disguise, donning the clothes of a cab driver or a mechanic to share the Spiritual Exercises or to perform baptisms and wearing a business suit to solicit donations from wealthy Catholics or to celebrate marriages. Under the long nose of local government, he impersonated a prison guard to hear confessions and pray with prisoners. He was always on the move, and though he received messages and donations in a variety of locations, the police were never far behind.
Pro’s own writing tells of an occasion when police entered a private home as he celebrated Mass; after rushing everyone into other rooms of the house, he hid the Blessed Sacrament in his suit pocket. He accompanied police on their search for a priest and when none was found, a guard was posted at the door of the residence. Upon his exit, a jovial Pro informed the guard that he would have remained behind to catch the priest were it not for a date with his girlfriend. Jesting about the near snare, he later wrote, “…I returned to the place, but, somehow or other, the priest had not yet appeared…”
On another occasion, Pro approached a house to celebrate Mass but was met by two policemen standing guard at its entrance. “It’s all up this time,” he wrote in recollection of the confrontation. He knew entering the house was dangerous, but he would not submit to fear. “With as much coolness as I could summon up,” he wrote, “I advanced until I stood in front
of the policemen, took down the number of the house, opened my vest as if I were showing them a badge, and said significantly, ‘There’s a cat bagged here,’” insinuating that he was on the case of busting up the Mass. His clever ruse earned a military salute from the policemen and entrance into the guarded house. Once inside, he tried to ease the fears of his Mass participants, informing them that, “We couldn’t be any safer than we are now, for the police themselves are guarding the door for us.” It did not relieve their fears, and they urged him to leave. “I left by the way I entered,” he wrote, but “not without receiving two magnificent military salutes from the police.”
They caught him on several occasions, however, and Pro was imprisoned for short stints which had the unintended consequence of greatly aiding his prison ministry. By his own account he witnessed the conversion of many hearts, which inspired him to continue his work despite great peril, and he pressed on to promote the faith. As “chief of the lecturers” for the Catholic Association of Mexican Youth, Pro organized over 100 men to give religious instruction in the absence of the many exiled priests and to help combat anti-Catholic sentiment. His brother Humberto Pro was a member of the group, as was Louis Segura Vilchis, an engineer who was among the association’s best speakers. “The first to suffer will be those who have put their hands into the religious question, and I have put mine in up to the elbows,” Pro wrote. “God grant that I may be among the first, or, for that matter, among the last; but at least one of the number. If that happens, get ready to make your petitions to me in Heaven.”
The three men were arrested on November 17, 1927, and charged with the attempted assassination of former president General Álvaro Obregón, who days earlier was injured when a bomb was tossed into his vehicle. The attempt was linked to a car formerly owned by the Pros. Obregón himself suspected someone else in the assassination attempt, and at his request an appeal was made to the chief of police to begin the judicial process immediately. He was assured by the chief’s secretary that a trial would be held the following day.
The next morning in the courtyard of police headquarters, however, a firing squad awaited the Pro brothers and Vilchis. The deception was carefully orchestrated at the request of President Calles who had made the execution request to the chief of police six months prior. Professional photographers were on hand to document the executions. No time was spared for the men to see their families, and Fr. Miguel Pro was summoned first. He forgave and blessed his prison guard and once in the courtyard, he knelt for a brief prayer and blessed his executioners. Without a blindfold and with a crucifix in one hand and his rosary in the other, he outstretched his arms and exclaimed, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long Live Christ the King!) He was 36 years old.
The same fate awaited Pro’s brother Humberto and their brother in Christ Louis Segura Vilchis. Later, at the vigil held in the Pro home, countless people paid respects to their courageous friends. The following afternoon, thousands flooded the streets in anticipation of Pro’s funeral, and when the remains of the Pro brothers were carried out of their father’s house toDeloresCemetery, it was to tremendous shouts of “Viva Cristo Rey!”
Shortly after Pro’s death, relics were reported to have worked miracles, and his intercession has been credited with curing terminal illnesses and conquering
addictions. But his ministry itself was a miracle – a single year of priestly ministry that encouraged countless Mexican Catholics to persevere in their faith.
Fr. Pro’s ministry and martyrdom occurred at the height of the Cristiada, and the effects of Calles’ ruthless pursuit of Catholics were devastating to the Church. It is estimated that as many as 4,000 priests were exiled or killed during his term. And after a so-called truce with countrymen, the Calles regime is alleged to have executed thousands more for their defense and practice of the faith.
Fr. Miguel Pro was beatified on September 25, 1988, by Pope John Paul II who said, “Neither suffering nor serious illness, neither the exhausting ministerial activity, frequently carried out in difficult and dangerous circumstances, could stifle the radiating and contagious joy which he brought to his life for Christ and which nothing could take away. Indeed, the deepest root of self-sacrificing surrender for the lowly was his passionate love for Jesus Christ and his ardent desire to be conformed to him, even unto death.”
Blessed Miguel Pro is most remembered as a martyr, but his inspiring life was that of an amiable man for others, a Jesuit confirmed in his vocation, armed only with his gift of humor and a courageous heart. Ending his reflection on Fr. Pro’s admirable life and death, Fr. Druhan penned, “And if in the course of this article undue stress appears to have been placed on the purely human and natural traits of the man and the priest, it is because we have wished to show that a heroic life is not infrequently hidden behind a smiling countenance.”