By Diogenes ( articles ) | Nov 23, 2007
This is the feast day of Blessed Miguel Pro, a Mexican Jesuit martyred by a firing squad 80 years ago today in Mexico City. The President, a fiercely anti-Catholic Leftist named Plutarco Calles, famously blundered by publishing photographs of Pro's execution to serve as a deterrent to potential adversaries. The photos were so instantly popular among Mexican Catholics that within a week of their publication by the government it had become illegal to possess one.
I much like the way Graham Greene has fictionalized the figure of Miguel Pro in his 1940 novel of the Mexican persecution called The Power and the Glory. Greene's hero is a nameless priest who is being hunted down by the government -- a wreck of a man, alcoholic and the father of a bastard child, in whom self-disgust is exceeded only by a pained sense of duty to the Faith and to the faithful.
Greene deftly provides the historical background of anti-Catholic persecution by showing us, at intervals, a devout Catholic mother (repelled and dismayed by "the whiskey priest") reading to her children from the sugary hagiographic life of a Mexican martyr named Juan, clearly Miguel Pro. Her possession of the book is itself illegal, of course, and there's a pointed irony in the contrast of pious domesticity and political subversion taking place in the same act. Her daughters are enthralled by the story; the bored and sulky boy fidgets as he waits for the firing-squad scene, the "good part."
In the back room of the Academia Comercial a woman was reading to her family. Two small girls of six and ten sat on the edge of their bed, and a boy of fourteen leant against the wall with an expression of intense weariness.
"'Young Juan,'" the mother read, "'from his earliest years was noted for his humility and piety. Other boys might be rough and revengeful; young Juan followed the precept of Our Lord and turned the other cheek. One day his father thought that he had told a lie and beat him: later he learnt that his son had told the truth, and he apologized to Juan. But Juan said to him: "Dear father, just as Our Father in heaven has the right to chastise when he pleases ..."'"
The boy rubbed his face impatiently against the whitewash and the mild voice droned on. The two little girls sat with beady intense eyes, drinking in the sweet piety.
"'We must not think that young Juan did not laugh and play like other children, though there were times when he would creep away with a holy picture-book to his father's cow-house from the circle of his merry play-mates.'"
The boy squashed a beetle with his bare foot and thought gloomily that after all everything had an end -- some day they would reach the last chapter and young Juan would die against a wall, shouting: "Viva el Cristo Rey."
When we next meet the family the woman is still engaged in the story:
The mother went on reading: "'Next day the whole family received communion from the hands of a son and brother. Then they said a fond good-bye -- they little knew that it was the last -- to the new soldier of Christ and returned to their home in Morelos. Already clouds were darkening the heavens, and President Calles was discussing the anti-Catholic laws in the Palace at Chapultepec. The devil was ready to assail poor Mexico.' "
"Is the shooting going to begin soon?" the boy asked, moving restlessly against the wall.
The trite and syrupy biography of Young Juan/Miguel Pro is given a very adroit twist by Greene. The young boy to whom it is read finds it tedious and improbable and, as a consequence, part of a bygone world of unreal holiness. Then "the whiskey priest" -- whose flaws made him all too real and contemptible to the boy -- is finally arrested and put to death. In one stroke the world has turned upside down, and the legendary and improbable past is brought vividly home to him. He even hears his mother, in response to his sisters' questions, admit that the whiskey priest was a martyr, one of the heroes of the faith. And, of course, that's the day on which his own faith grows up. But the sugar had done its job.
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