Icons of Faith: Blessed Miguel Pro and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

In the images and mementos of Bl. Miguel Pro’s martyrdom and Mother Seton’s sacrificial life, we see everlasting signs of Christ’s incarnation in the Church and the world.

It was the newspaper picture that changed the world.

Blessed Miguel Pro refused to be blindfolded as his captors stood him in front of the firing squad on Nov. 23, 1927. Instead, he held a rosary in one hand, a crucifix in the other, held his arms out like Jesus Christ on the cross and shouted “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” “Long live Christ the King!”

First, the cameraman shot the photo, then the firing squad shot the priest. Mexican authorities thought photographing a martyrdom would show that it was futile to resist the revolution. Instead, the photo became an icon of defiance and fidelity to Jesus Christ. Everyone knew why he held his arms out; everyone knew what he shouted before he died. I first saw the photo in my Mexican grandparents’ house as a child because every Catholic in Mexico cherished it.

The picture is an icon that tells us what we need to know about Blessed Miguel Pro, just as the black-bonneted classic image of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also says a thousand words.

Miguel Pro often called himself “a poor miner.”

Miguel Agustín Pro was born in the mining town of Guadalupe in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1891. He was the third of 11 children, four of whom  died as infants or young children. The family had two religious Sisters among the seven who survived. Miguel entered the Jesuits in 1911.

Beautiful stories are told about his childhood.

There was the time when a woman who had long admired the boy’s looks gave Miguel fruit that she didn’t know had started to spoil and ferment. It made him very sick, such that he didn’t recognize his parents for a long time, and doctors predicted that he would be permanently brain-damaged.

His mother begged, “Madre mia, give me back my son!” and Mary did. Miguel was restored to health with no apparent long-term effects.

Then, there was a time when little Miguel threw a fit in a store because he wanted a marble horse he saw on the shelf. Since he yelled and cried, his mother gave it to him, but when his father heard what happened, he was furious. He made the boy ask forgiveness of his mother in front of the family and then kept the marble horse on his own desk. Seeing the horse kept the lesson learned that day fresh in Miguel’s mind: “For this thing I made my mother weep, he said.

But the most telling moment was the time when Miguel said, “Mama mia, I would love to die a martyr’s death!” His mother answered: “May God hear you, child. But that is too great a happiness for me.”

As a young man, Miguel was a practical joker and was known for how hard he played and prayed. He was still in his early 20s when an anti-Catholic government took over in Mexico, and enacted a new Constitution that would stand for the rest of the 20th century. Its anti-Catholic measures weren’t always enforced, but they were on the books until 1998, including their prohibition of the Church from primary and secondary education, outlawing monastic orders and religious garb, forbidding religious processions and restricting Church property rights.

To ensure his studies as the new Constitution was taking effect, Miguel was sent to study in Belgium with French Jesuits, where he worked with miners before being sent back to Mexico in 1925.

The Mexico that Miguel came back to was very different from the one he left.

Plutarco Elías Calles began his presidency in December of 1924, and was determined to fiercely enforce the anti-Catholic provisions of the Constitution. British novelist Graham Greene modeled his book The Power and the Glory on the martyrs’ tales from that time, and he called the persecutions “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.”

In the harshest anti-Catholic states officials killed priests or forced them to marry or go into exile. Father Pro served the Church in secret, wearing civilian clothes or laborers’ overalls as a disguise. He wrote of his ministry in letters which became widely circulated and alerted the authorities to his location. .

Father Pro was arrested with his brothers, Humberto and Roberto, ostensibly for being involved in an assassination, though historians have cleared them of involvement.

Calles had the priest executed and ordered the event be photographed to frighten the opposition—making it perhaps the first photographed martyrdom ever. It was also among the last, because the photos had the opposite effect, inspiring and emboldening the Catholic majority in Mexico. Calles looked on as 60,000 pilgrims gathered for the funeral and burial of the priest.

He should have known better. Iconography has long celebrated martyrdom.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s attire reflected her identity.

Mother Seton is known for her black bonnet and black gown, and we can meet living history interpreters at the Seton Shrine who dress as her original Sisters did.

Rather than provide a habit for each woman in the early days of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, Mother Seton simply told prospective Sisters to bring any black clothes they had. Sometimes this backfired—for example when Elizabeth’s own daughter, Cecilia, brought black silk.

Mother Seton’s early Sisters were called “black caps,” an affectionate nickname she embraced. It is true that Elizabeth was a widow, but that’s not the main reason she dressed in black. She meant the funereal color to be a continual momento mori, and she would say that she was “always dressed for the grave.”

Mother Seton may have dressed like she was attending a funeral, but, like the playful Father Pro, she didn’t act like she was. After entering religious life Elizabeth told her old friend Julia Scott, “I think you will all come to see me next summer and take a laugh at our black gowns and demure looks which however hide a set of as lively merry hearts as ever met together.”

The Sisters of Charity of New York recently donated a collection of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s relics to the Shrine, including the saint’s religious bonnet, rosary, and crucifix.

Blessed Miguel Pro is also remembered for the rosary and crucifix he brought with him to his death, and like Mother Seton’s widow’s garb, his jacket and tie themselves became a symbol of his dedication to his people. He served his flock in disguise because religious garb was denied him.

Jesus Christ is God’s revelation of the invisible Father in the flesh. Religious habits, vestments, and icons, as well as crucifixes and rosaries, are signs of Christ’s continued incarnation in the Church. We can see Christ’s sacrifice in the images and mementos of Blessed Miguel Pro and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.

Click here to view all Seton Reflections. 

Image: Public Domain 

Sign up below for Seton Reflections!

You'll receive saintly wisdom and timely topics on life, faith, and Holy days, delivered directly to your inbox!