by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The Holy Father has written: “The seeds of discord sown far and wide; those bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, which still hinder so much the cause of peace; that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under the pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten and neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin” (No. 24).
These are the words of the pope, but not Pope Benedict XVI or Blessed John Paul II. They are the words of Pope Pius XI found in his first encyclical — “Quas Primas” — published on Dec. 11, 1925, and instituting into the liturgical calendar the solemnity of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI, in establishing the feast, expressed the hope that the annual celebration of Christ the King “may hasten the return of our society to our loving Savior” (No. 24).
Pope Pius XI issued a challenge to the Catholics of his time that remains a fitting challenge for the church today: “This state of things may perhaps be attributed to a certain slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict or oppose but a weak resistance; thus the enemies of the church become bolder in their attacks. But if the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ the King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to their Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him, and would valiantly defend his rights (No. 24).
“While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim his kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights” (No. 25).
On Nov. 23 each year, the church, in her liturgical calendar, remembers Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro. This modern Mexican martyr was born in Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1891. At the age of 20, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at a time when the church in Mexico was experiencing a harsh persecution. It was so bad that, three years after entering the Jesuits, Miguel Agustín Pro and the other men in formation fled Mexico to complete their training in Belgium. In 1925, while still in Belgium, he was ordained a priest during the very year that Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King.
The newly ordained priest returned to Mexico where all public worship had been banned. Father Miguel Agustín Pro, a master of disguises, traveled incognito, celebrating Mass and the sacraments clandestinely.
In 1927, he was apprehended by government authorities and found guilty of subversion for celebrating Mass and the sacraments. Father Miguel Agustín Pro was executed by a firing squad.
Mexican government officials, wanting to make an example of him, allowed his execution to be witnessed and even photographed, hoping this would discourage others from practicing the faith. Father Miguel Agustín Pro stood courageously before the firing squad with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross and shouted his last words: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” — “Long Live Christ the King!”
The government had prohibited a public funeral. In defiance of the authorities, thousands of Mexicans prayerfully filed by the casket of the slain priest, demonstrating their respect for Miguel Agustín Pro’s fidelity and courage. Instead of discouraging the Mexican people from practicing the faith, his courageous death ignited a renewed and deepened love for Jesus and his church throughout Mexico.
I recall the words of Pope Pius XI and the testimony of the life and death of Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro because they illustrate that the attack by our government today on religious liberty and conscience rights is not a new experience for the church. Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King in the context of the conflicts the church was experiencing at that time in fascist Italy, as well as with other European governments.
If you did not see the movie, “For Greater Glory,” when it was in theaters, I encourage you to purchase it on DVD or Blu-ray. This movie’s depiction of the Cristero revolt in 1920s Mexico provides the historical context in which Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro gave his life in testimony for Christ the King. Because of its graphic depiction of the violence of war, it is not a film suitable for children.
Certainly, it is true that the attacks on religious liberty and conscience rights today in the United States have not yet reached the level that was experienced in Mexico in the 1920s or in fascist Italy.
However, we see parallels to what laid the groundwork for these much harsher persecutions in the effort by our government to force Catholics and other people of faith to violate their conscience by becoming complicit in the provision of abortion, sterilization and contraception.
As I mentioned last week, our first response in combating the current attacks on religious freedom and conscience rights must be prayer and acts of penance. On Dec. 6, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, announced on behalf of the bishops’ conference a pastoral strategy urging American Catholics to pray and sacrifice for life, marriage and religious liberty.
Archbishop Cordileone stated: “It’s not meant to be another program but rather part of a movement for life, marriage, and religious liberty, which engages the new evangelization and can be incorporated into the Year of Faith. Life, marriage, and religious liberty are not only foundational to Catholic social teaching, but also fundamental to the good of society.”
As part of this pastoral strategy, Archbishop Cordileone called for monthly Holy Hours in cathedrals and parishes dedicated to praying for life, marriage, and religious liberty. The strategy also includes an invitation to individuals and families to pray a daily rosary for these intentions. The bishops are also exhorting American Catholics throughout the year to abstain from meat and fast on Fridays for a renewed respect for human life, the strengthening of marriage and family life, and the preservation of religious liberty in our nation.
I personally urge every Catholic in the Archdiocese to take seriously this summons to prayer and to incorporate it into your observance of the Year of Faith. Pray for wisdom and courage for all Catholics and all Americans as we strive to preserve our freedoms and renew our society.