A photo that reveals what faith is all about

'Peace at the moment of death': Blessed Miguel Pro prays before his execution

As a new book reminds us, Blessed Miguel Pro was a high-spirited man who gave everything to Christ - including his last moments

In their series of biographies for young people entitled “Portraits in Faith and Freedom”, Bethlehem Books, a small publishing house in North Dakota dedicated to reviving for youthful readers out of print books of particular merit, has recently republished Padre Pro: Mexican Hero by Fanchon Royer. It will introduce this most attractive of men, beatified by John Paul II in 1988, to a new readership.

There are some saints, such as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and Blessed Miguel Pro SJ (1891-1927), whose exuberance and joy leap from the pages when one reads about them. They remind us that holy men and women are not models of conventional piety but people of excess; they cannot follow Christ by slow degrees but have to run headlong towards him. In the case of Miguel Pro, the oldest son of a large Mexican family, close-knit, happy and devout, his high spirits, impulsivity and jokes did not stop when, aged 20, he entered the Jesuit novitiate. They merely took on a new form, especially when he returned to his own country after a long period of study in Europe.

This was in 1926, a dangerous time in Mexico, where the fiercely anti-clerical government of President Plutarco Calles was outlawing and persecuting priests and religious. Pro was forced to lead a clandestine ministry, baptising babies, marrying couples, preaching and offering Mass in secret. Living in different disguises to outwit his enemies did not dampen his spirits; the “playful Pro” continued alongside the “prayerful Pro”, as a friend had once observed.

Royer, who became a Catholic convert in her 40s having been a Hollywood actress and producer, tells the story well, though the fast-changing political situation in Mexico is sometimes hard to grasp. Yet young readers will easily understand the central drama: a brave and holy priest is being pursued by other ruthless men who finally catch up with him and execute him without trial, along with one of his brothers, Humberto. When he saw the bodies of his two sons, their father showed his own faith, saying “They died for God and are already enjoying Him in heaven. Te Deum laudamus!”

In front of the firing squad Fr Pro knelt briefly in prayer. Then, refusing a blindfold, he stood with his arms held out in imitation of Christ on the Cross. Seconds before the shots rang out he called out “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”) All this has been captured in photographs ordered by the Mexican authorities (though not reproduced in the book). They are profoundly affecting images, showing Pro’s recollection and peace at the moment of death; they reveal to each new generation who sees them what faith is ultimately about. His feast-day is coming up shortly: November 23 – perhaps someone to pray to for sons who have lapsed from their faith.

Incidentally, Graham Greene knew of Pro’s life and death when he was researching his novel The Power and the Glory (1940). His “whisky priest” is also shot, violently concluding a life which was largely one of failure and discredit to the priesthood, though redeemed at the end. This priest, whose name is never revealed, “felt only immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed … He knew now at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.”

Blessed Miguel Pro, seemingly light-hearted and irrepressible, had incorporated this knowledge into his entire priestly life.