the legacy

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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  • Posted by: - Nov. 29, 2007 11:49 AM ET USA

    There was a batallion of Irish soldiers that defected to the Mexican army, but this happened in the Mexican-US War of 1846-1848. They defected because they wanted to fight with their fellow Mexican catholics and because the abuse and discrimination from the Anglo soldiers in the U.S. Army. In Mexico they are considered heroes, the St. Patrick's Batallion (even though their memory is fading). When the war ended they were branded with a D in the face by the U.S. Army and most of them hanged.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 24, 2007 2:56 PM ET USA From this HLI website: "There is a famous story of Irish Catholic soldiers in the US military being sent down to Mexico in the 1920s to help quell the Catholic uprising against the vicious government persecutions of the Church, and when they realized that the US government was officially backing the anti-Catholic regime of Plutarco Calles, they deserted the US Army and joined the Catholic rebels!"

  • Posted by: - Nov. 24, 2007 9:21 AM ET USA

    Thanks for the great posting. First read it as Labyrinthian Way. Numerous times since. Just gave it to a grand daughter as extra reading for her Soph HS English class. Have always thought it to be Greene's best. His ability to understand personality and develop his characters was extraordinary. Seems to me that is such an important benefit to be gained from HS Lit classes. Wish there were a revival of interest in Greene's "Catholic" novels in Catholic schools.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 23, 2007 2:43 PM ET USA

    Bravo! A good post. I have long been a fan of Miguel Pro and "The Power and the Glory".

  • Posted by: - Nov. 23, 2007 12:42 PM ET USA

    I have known of Father Pro from childhood--way back perhaps from the Truman years--because our nuns, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, taught us our faith--the Church Militant--as experienced around the world--a world they also helped us know through fine geography lessons. These same sisters today, mostly few and aged, have drifted off the stage of orthodoxy, and might seemingly find more in common with Plutarco Calles than Miguel Pro. They remain always in my prayers to come home.