At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the world was in tumult. Peoples were restless, governments were being overthrown and wars both large and small were being waged.
Mexico was no exception. In 1911, its longtime president was overthrown in a bloody revolution which eventually brought into power Plutarco Elias Calles. A sworn enemy of the Catholic Church, he worked vigorously to erase any trace of the Church and her charitable work from the nation of Mexico. In 1917, a new constitution was drawn up which prohibited the Catholic Church from opening schools, outlawed religious orders, and took basic civil rights away from the clergy including the right to vote or to speak freely on public affairs.
With the new constitution in place, a full blown persecution of the Church was underway resulting in the massacre of thousands of priests, religious women and members of the laity who refused to comply.
One outstanding victim of this persecution was Blessed Miguel Pro. He began his studies for the priesthood as a young man in Mexico. However, because of the persecution of the Church, he was forced to complete them in Belgium. Upon his ordination, he returned to his native country to find his people forced to celebrate Mass in secret with many of their priests either killed or imprisoned. Blessed Miguel Pro worked vigorously to bring the sacraments and preach the gospel to the small group of Catholics who continued to worship and live their faith under these difficult circumstances.
Unfortunately, Father Pro did not manage to evade the authorities for long. He was arrested eventually in November 1927 and charged with the attempted assassination of a former president. Without any trial, he was condemned to execution by firing squad. With the same courage he showed in ministering to God’s people, he stood before his executioners, held his arms out in the form of a cross and shouted “Viva, Cristo Re!”, that is, “Long live Christ, the King!” as the bullets rang out.
This past Friday, November 23, marked the eighty-fifth anniversary of his martyrdom. In 1988, Blessed John Paul II traveled to Mexico for his beatification giving him the title of “blessed”.
Like so many martyrs before him, and so many martyrs since, Blessed Miguel Pro witnessed with the shedding of his blood that Jesus Christ is King. There is no higher authority than Jesus Christ and there is no law higher than God’s law. No authority can force believers to break the commandments or to obey an unjust law. We remain loyal and patriotic citizens of our beloved country but our first allegiance is to Almighty God and the unfailing truth of His commandments. Though worldly powers wield vast wealth and powerful armies, in the end Jesus Christ prevails.
Today reading from John’s gospel contrasts the real power of Jesus with the transitory and illusory power of human authority.
Jesus is standing before Pilate having been accused of everything from blasphemy to plotting to overthrow Caesar. Pilate believes that he has power over Jesus, that he can crucify Him or set Him free. However, Jesus makes it clear to him that he would not have that power unless it had been given to him by God. Though Pilate judges Jesus to be innocent and wants to let Him go free, he is unable to because of his fear of the crowd. He appears to have the power to set Jesus free, but in reality he cannot.
On the other hand, Jesus has the power to set Himself free. At His command, all the angels of heaven could come down and release Him from Pilate’s grasp. Yet He hands Himself over freely to be crucified so that by His death we might be freed from the grasp of sin. As we read in today’s second reading from the book of Revelation, “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood...be glory forever and ever.” Jesus uses His power not to dominate others but to set them free.
After the example of Christ our King, we must work not to gain power, wealth and influence for ourselves, all of which are illusory and fading. Rather we must sacrifice ourselves for the needy. We must give to those who cannot repay us. We must speak out tirelessly against the unjust laws that fail to protect the life of the unborn, fail to recognize the dignity of all workers, fail to treat the sick and dying and fail to secure the rights of migrant workers. When we commit ourselves to the powerless, the weak and the marginalized as Blessed Miguel Pro did, then we show ourselves to be citizens not only of our great country but of the Kingdom of Heaven. By doing so, we enrich our homeland and make it a place where all people can enjoy freedom, prosperity and happiness.
The martyrs throughout history have witnessed to one basic fact - that there is a law and authority greater than any man-made law or any human authority. The law and authority of Christ our King, Christ who created the world and holds it in existence, is the measure of when and whether a law is just and when and whether an authority should be obeyed. Jesus is the Truth we are to obey at all times and in all circumstances. His is the dominion, the power and the kingship. Like Blessed Miguel Pro, we must obey God no matter what the cost. In doing so, we lift the world up from slavery to wealth and addiction to power so that we can all live freely and enjoy the beautiful gifts this life has to offer.