This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of Christ the King, the culmination of the Church’s entire liturgical year, and on Nov. 23 we remember the martyrdom of Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J. whose death came only two short years after the very first Feast of Christ the King.
Blessed Miguel Pro was a Mexican priest in a time of great revolt and religious persecution. Consequently, it was also a time of anti-clerical hounding based on a militant enforced atheism. This turmoil left many religious and priests with no option but to flee Mexico’s borders or take the Church underground. Fr. Miguel Pro S.J., only 36 years-old, fearlessly continued serving the poor, the destitute and the oppressed. As he biked from town to town, it was only a matter of time before he was eventually identified as a Roman Catholic priest and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Fr. Pro was able to evade authorities for nearly a year as he continued his ministry, but on Nov. 23, 1927 he was caught and immediately sentenced to death without trial.
Mexican dictator, Plutarco Calles, sought to use the priest’s death as a public example of the fate of any Christian and ordered that a professional photographer document the event. He wanted every countryman to see the gruesome death he too could face for proclaiming faith in God.
A firing squad and crowds were efficiently assembled and as his last request, Fr. Pro was brought before the people to pray in silence for two minutes. Upon rising, he said to the firing squad, “May God have mercy on you. May God bless you. Lord, You know that I am innocent. With all my heart I forgive my enemies.”
He was offered a blindfold, but declined. Instead, with a rosary in one hand and a crucifix in the other, he outstretched his arms as Jesus on the cross and said in a firm, unshaken voice, “Viva Christo Rey!” “Long live, Christ the King!”
The next day, as the priest’s lifeless body was carried to the cemetery, nearly 10 thousand Mexicans risked their own lives to accompany it, courageously passing in front of the dictator's house. They chanted Fr. Pro’s words throughout the somber walk. “Viva Christo Rey! Viva Christo Rey!”
Copies of the execution photo with Fr. Pro’s arms outstretched spread madly across the country and were immediately banned. People everywhere knew the power of his words and the power of his witness.
They were Pham Van Cong, one of the prison guards who discovered Christ’s love through the Vietnamese Cardinal who treated him like a son and instructed him in the faith. The second man, Nguyen Van Trong, was a prison guard whom the Cardinal befriended during a period of “house arrest.” Tron secretly assisted the Cardinal in celebrating daily Mass, and later converted to Catholicism through the Cardinal’s witness. Also present was Nguyen Ngoc Dien, a neighbor of Cardinal Van Thuân during his period of house arrest who worked clandestinely to arrange meetings for priests and religious with the Cardinal, and who labored to spread the faith across Vietnam.
Next Sunday, the lay brother who became a legendary healer of the sick and afflicted will be elevated into the rarefied sphere of sainthood at a canonization ceremony at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, presided over by Pope Benedict XVI...
The Archbishop of Montreal, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, recently called Brother André – born Alfred Bessette in 1845, an orphan who could barely read and write and became the doorkeeper and janitor at Collège Notre-Dame, across the street from the basilica – a folk hero, akin to hockey great Maurice Richard in the hearts of Quebeckers.
In Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete's weekly article, he notes that in America, with our Protestant mindset, we recognize saints at most for their institutional achievements. Our political vision is also reduced to a utilitarian quest for material well-being for the many. He quotes Pope Benedict: "Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such."
Without the contribution of saints in society, he writes, politics will become most inhuman:
When the Holy Father talks about faith and Love, he is referring to the quest for a share in divine life, that is, to the quest for sanctity. What he is telling us is thus that without saints a society will not be a just society. Its politics will be dominated by anger and the struggle for power in order to protect personal interests from competing ones. Saints are needed to make society human.
The Pope was barely on the plane to go back to Rome, when the news wires all agreed: his visit was the UK was a great success! Apparently even the AP was impressed:
Yet more than 100,000 cheering people lined London's streets to watch the pope go by in his Popemobile on Saturday night and another 80,000 massed in Hyde Park for a prayer vigil, remarkable numbers given the indifference and downright hostility prior to the visit and the fact that Catholics make up only 10 percent of Britain's population.
Just a few days ago there was hand-wringing over how many tickets to the papal events had not been sold. There was concern that the protesters were discouraging the faithful from showing up. There was all that earlier bluster from the village atheists about having the Pope arrested. Not that Popes haven't been arrested, imprisoned, and even executed in the past. Even if the crowds were smaller than for Pope John Paul II's visit in 1982, it was a different time and a different man at the helm. Maybe the naysayers overplayed their hand. Today Britain's News of the World called Benedict "the People's Pope".
Here the Pope spoke in the very place where St. Thomas More was condemned to death for upholding Catholic teaching on marriage, still a contentious issue. This journey was historic, after 500 years of strife which ranged from bloody strife to the equivalent of the cold war, an official state visit by the Pope on the invitation of the Queen, who is still head of the Church of England. It was only five years ago that Tony Blair bucked the trend by sending a Catholic to the Vatican as their ambassador.
The Pope addressed sex abuse victims, educators, the elderly, clergy from other churches, politicians and schoolchildren, the skeptical and the faithful. And the beatification of Cardinal Newman had a much broader appeal than just to Roman Catholics, as he had helped shape Anglican Church practice through the Oxford movement even before his conversion. The Pope recalled that Newman was in a "long line" of English scholars, including St Bede, St Hilda, St Aelred, and Blessed Duns Scotus and called theirs a tradition “of gentle scholarship, deep human wisdom and profound love for the Lord”.
As John Waters pointed out just ahead of the visit: "One of the many paradoxes of being pope in the modern world is that it is necessary to speak to your people through a megaphone controlled by your enemies. Still, Benedict XVI insists on speaking clearly and unapologetically of the immediate reality and how it ticks and tocks." And so the pope seems to have taken the megaphone out of their hands, at least for a time.
The pope was only himself. To the elderly residents of a nursing home, he referred to himself as “a brother who knows well the joys and the struggles that come with age”. But what he carries is something unstoppable.
The pope said on his departure: "Thank you for the warmth of your welcome". Indeed.