Remembering Miguel Pro

Today, we remember Miguel Pro  – executed by a firing squad on this day (November 23) in 1927. He was beatified in Rome on September 25, 1988, by Pope John Paul II as a Catholic martyr.

It’s easy to think we have to be solemn or pious for God to like us, as if to be orthodox means that we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves. Miguel Pro can help us with our temptation to solemnity, this temptation to hide our silliness. He was born in 1891 in Mexico and he was a natural mimic, actor and clown. There’s a lovely story that when he was a child he went to a cattle market with his elder sister and, impersonating her voice, he put in a bid for a cow at an auction. Then he slipped away and his poor sister was left explaining why she didn’t want the cow she’d just bought. It’s not what you’d expect of a saint.

When he was 20, Miguel Pro joined the Jesuit novitiate. Soon after, the situation in Mexico turned hostile. There was a wave of anti-Catholic attacks, priests and religious were tortured and the Jesuit house where Miguel Pro was training was attacked. He had to flee to California, then continued his training in Spain, Nicaragua and finally Belgium. During all this he was so much fun, exuded such joy, that people didn’t realise he suffered from terrible insomnia, and excruciating and incurable pains in his abdomen.

At the age of 34, he was ordained a Jesuit priest. Back in Mexico, the country had now become a full-on atheist police state. To be a priest was to be a criminal. Miguel Pro decided to return.

You might think this turned him serious, a very different person from the boy who impersonated his sister and bought a cow. And this is true. You have to be serious to put yourself in such danger for others. In Mexico, he ran retreats for everyone from taxi drivers to civil servants. He begged food for families whose fathers and sons were in prison and he gave out communion to 300 people a day and 1200 people on feast days.

But he was also still a clown. How else would he have avoided the secret police? He went around with a case of disguises: false moustaches, fakes noses, different costumes. Sometimes he walked the streets with a police dog, and the police just assumed he was one of them. Once, two policemen came to arrest him and he persuade them to go into a café for one last drink. He got them so drunk, he managed to convince them they had the wrong man. Another time he was arrested and persuaded the jailer to let him escape, only to show up the next morning with blankets, food and cigarettes for the other prisoners. This was a man on fire with God, helping to reveal that the kingdom of heaven is already among us.

My favourite story is when he was leaving a house after saying Mass and met a policeman at the door. The policeman told him there was a priest in the house. Miguel Pro looked shocked and helped him to search for the priest in cupboards and under beds, at the same time hiding any evidence of the Mass he’d just said. Then he looked at his watch, apologised, and said he had to go, but that he’d call back later to see if they’d found the priest.

Then, in 1927, after two years in Mexico, he was arrested for an attempted assassination which he had nothing to do with. On the third day in prison, he was brought out to be tried, but something wasn’t right. The prison yard was full of people. He saw a photographer and then the firing squad. He realised what was about to happen. He knelt down to pray. Then he stood up with his rosary in one hand and his crucifix in the other, held out his arms and said, ‘Viva Cristo Rey,’ Long live Christ the King. At the same moment, the guns fired.

If you google Miguel Pro, you can see a photo of him kneeling in prayer and another of him as the shots are fired. His arms are outstretched, his legs are next to each other, slightly bent, as if they’re buckling. He looks small and vulnerable, like he’s just been punched. It’s the moment before he falls down, dead. It’s very moving. The moment a man gives his life for Christ.

So how can Miguel Pro help us? He reminds us that God loves, transforms and uses all of who we are, he doesn’t want us to hide bits of ourselves away, however silly or embarrassing. And he doesn’t want us to be ambivalent about our gifts. Just look how God used Miguel Pro’s sense of fun, and his abilities as a clown. If he’d tried to hide away his sense of humour, God wouldn’t have been able to put it at his service and Miguel Pro wouldn’t have helped so many hundreds of people.

But that’s only the half of it. Miguel Pro also reminds us of something more fundamental. He once said, ‘If I meet any long-faced saints in heaven, I will cheer them up with a Mexican hat dance!’ ‘If I meet any long-faced saints in heaven, I will cheer them up with a Mexican hat dance!’  I think we should take this seriously. Miguel Pro’s whole life is a reminder that the Christian vocation, our vocation is fundamentally a joyful one. Christ longs to share his joy with us even or perhaps especially in the midst of great suffering. This is something to be asked for, hoped for, received and never forgotten, so that like Miguel Pro we may live joyfully in the belief that the kingdom of heaven is already among us.