I still remember the first time I heard his name. “Blessed Miguel Crow” is what I thought I heard. “Who is he?” I thought.
It was the final prayer in the Litany of Saints at Our Lady of Walsingham Catholic Church, and we had just finished a long, classical Anglican Rite liturgy. After the dismissal and recessional, the deacon came back into the middle of the aisle and intoned in a deep Louisiana baritone a short Litany of the Saints. The last name was “Blessed Miguel Pro.” “Pray for us.”
For those of you trying to keep track, this was a deacon intoning a Litany of the Saints in a dramatic Louisiana baritone after a classical Anglican liturgy (of the sort that is difficult to find in any contemporary Anglican church), in a Catholic church named after an 11th-century Marian apparition—with a shrine out back modeled after the ruins of the medieval abbey in England razed to the ground by Henry VIII, and with statues of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More gracing the sanctuary (a development that neither Thomas Cranmer nor Pope Clement VII could possibly have foreseen)—in a parish with a special devotion to Miguel Pro, a priest martyred during the 20th-century Cristero Revolution in Mexico.
You’ve gotta love Catholicism.
I was reminded of this the other day when a friend posted a picture of a stained-glass church window of the man I now knew as Blessed Miguel Pro, whose memorial the Church observes today. The window, which I subsequently discovered had been commissioned by the inimitable Bishop Robert Barron when he was rector of Mundelein Seminary, can be found in the Mundelein Seminary chapel near Chicago. The scene is a famous one: Miguel Pro, with cross and rosary in hand, cries out “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”) as he is shot by a firing squad in Mexico. Unlike many other legendary scenes from saints’ lives, we have actual images of this one. The government forces seem to have thought it would be worth documenting their extermination of this disruptive Mexican priest, to show others what would be in store for them if they continued their resistance to the ineluctable forces that would relegate the Catholic Church to the dustbin of history.
Not being an especially pious fellow, my first thought when I saw this wonderful window was: “Can you imagine being the guy with the gun? I don’t suppose he thought, ‘I’m going to be in a beautiful stained-glass window some day for doing this—as the bad guy!’” This should give us all pause about things we’re ordered to do.
Can you imagine, decades later, one of those soldiers showing the famous images to his grandchildren, pointing exuberantly, and saying: “You see that rifleman third from the left? That’s me! Look; there’s your grandpa shooting a saint down in cold blood!” Not likely.
If you read the book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, you’ll find that when the author, Christopher Browning, went to interview some of the “ordinary men”—not battle-hardened soldiers or ideologically devoted Nazis, but average, working-class men from Hamburg, Germany—who in 1942 had obeyed orders to shoot, one by one, 1,500 innocent Jewish women and children in a Polish village, the men overwhelmingly said that they hadn’t thought about it much since then; that they didn’t remember the details very well; or that it was hard to explain because “it was a different time and a different world then.” (Was it really so different a world then?) None seemed eager to talk about what they had done; certainly none was eager to trumpet their involvement to their neighbors, children, or grandchildren.
It is often said that “victors write the history books.” I suppose there’s some truth to that. But as much as that might be true about the stories of the “ordinary men” from Hamburg, Germany, who murdered all those innocent women and children, it’s clearly not the case with Blessed Miguel Pro. The Cristeros lost—badly. If “the victors write history,” then why is Blessed Miguel Pro’s image in a beautiful church window near Chicago? Perhaps this is a different sort of history: part of salvation history; a history that runs alongside, within, and above the history one reads about in the history books. In that history, unknown nomads like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had a major role to play. In that history, a constantly persecuted and defeated people known as the Hebrews had a major role to play. In that history, an excitable Jewish fisherman and a Pharisee-turned-tentmaker had a major role to play. At the center of that history we find an obscure Jewish carpenter nailed to a cross. If history is written by the victors, then we shouldn’t know anything about this man or any of the others, should we? That is, unless something other than “history” in the sense of “what victors say” is going on here.
Perhaps, in the end, victors don’t write history. Perhaps only God writes history. Perhaps this is why, when a man is standing before a firing squad, he cries out, “Viva Cristo Rey!” Not that Christ is a “king” in the usual sense of worldly power and domination—as if by crying out “Viva Cristo Rey,” one were saying basically the same thing, without irony, as a French partisan exclaiming, “Vive la revolution!,” or a British Royalist proclaiming, “Long live the king!” Christ is “king” in a different sense; a deeper, more profound sense—a sense often hidden from the writers of standard history books. When a man standing before a firing squad, dying in a political battle he has every reason to believe is lost, cries out, “Viva Cristo Rey,” he can only mean two things. First, that Christ is the Lord of history, so whatever you men do to me, my life is ultimately in the hands of God. And second, within this very imperfect context of human history, I confess that Christ is the Lord of my life. I submit all to Him. Do as you will; you stand before Him as Lord as do I, as do we all.
It is perhaps not without reason, then, that Blessed Miguel Pro’s memorial falls during the week after the Feast of Christ the King. For this was a man who knew what proclaiming Christ as “king” meant: both that Jesus is my Lord and the Lord of History. I subject myself to Him freely, because, in the end, all things are subject to Him as their Creator and Redeemer. Human kings and empires come and go; they live and die. Christ lives. Therefore He alone is King.
But let me insist again, this does not mean quite the same thing as when a political partisan cries out slogans when he or she is being executed in a political battle. In those circumstances, one’s “faith” is that “the revolution,” or the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie, or whoever, will reign victorious, no matter what these soldiers do now. The “faith” is that the arc of history is with me, not them; their side will fall to defeat in time, and my side will emerge victorious. The revolution will spread across all of France; Prince Charles will be proclaimed the rightful king of all England. It would be a mistake to see “Viva Cristo Rey” in the same way.
For Christ is “king” in a different sense. And precisely because He is not a “king” in this worldly sense, His followers will always be losing in order to gain. Political victories are always ephemeral. They endure even less than gold, which the Scriptures say is worthless chaff. But the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. In losing, we win. When we are weak, then we are strong, if we do the will of God and let the Holy Spirit work in and through us. Ours is not to know the whole story; ours is to serve faithfully—not human kings and human precepts (“kill or be killed”), but a divine king and divine precepts (“Thou shalt not kill”; “Love your enemy”; “Love as I have loved you”—you who crucified me).
I have not written in praise of Blessed Miguel Pro, a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, so that readers would be inspired to hate the Mexican government, or take the lesson (as in the cramped viewpoint of the movie For Greater Glory) that the fight for religious freedom in the political sphere is a fight worth killing and dying for.
The political is not unimportant, but it is not primary; and “religious freedom” is more than merely political. What we call “religious freedom” in the political sphere can only be at its best a pale imitation or a means to a deeper kind of religious freedom: the kind of freedom one finds in a prison; the kind of freedom Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke of when he realized on such a prison floor that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.” This was the kind of freedom Miguel Pro witnessed to not only in the struggles of his life, but also with the witness of his death.
As much as we might want to identify ourselves with Blessed Miguel Pro, if we do not see ourselves in the soldiers with the guns, or in the crowd yelling “crucify him” at the foot of the cross of Christ—if we do not see and recognize that part of ourselves—then we are unlikely to learn the hard truths his life and death have to teach us. To read the life of Blessed Miguel Pro and be filled with hatred of our enemies—even the gunmen in the photos or the centurions and citizens at the cross of Christ—would be to do an injustice to their memories.
As the poet T.S. Eliot has written:
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
Re-read those lines about “the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching,” and then look at the picture of Blessed Miguel Pro again. That image is as good an illustration of Eliot’s point as you’re likely to find.
As the world continues its descent into madness, pray that we will have the grace to refuse to be caught up in the “ineluctable arc of history” that has repeatedly killed, maimed, and destroyed millions of lives in its ceaseless quest to bring about a “better” world. Pray that we will be instruments of a different sort of history, written by a different sort of King.
In the Scripture readings for this season, Jesus warns us that, after his death, “Nations shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place.” But He also promises that, in the midst of these horrible events, “awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” There have indeed been famines and plagues, and nation has risen against nation. But saints like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Blessed Miguel Pro have been sent—as if miraculously, from heaven—to serve as signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God, a presence that can only be seen, if it is seen at all, with the eyes of faith.
St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, and Blessed Miguel Pro, pray for us.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!