ZACATECAS, Mexico -- Imagine a merry combination of Thomas More and Peter Sellers, and you may get a sense of an extraordinary personality who came from this silver mining capital's adjoining colonial town of Guadalupe and, during his brief career in the early decades of the 20th century, made a lasting impact on the Mexican nation.
Mexico was suffering through one of the grimmest chapters in its history -- the arrest and execution of priests and closure of churches in an overwhelmingly Catholic country that had come under control of a militant atheist dictator, Plutarco Elías Calles. One of the most successful subversives against the Calles police state was the canny, clownish Zacatecas native. According William J. O'Malley, one of his biographers, this hunted man, a clandestine priest, "had a case filled with disguises, false mustaches, putty noses, spectacles of all kinds, costumes from dungarees to morning coats, and a rubber face that could flicker from peon to patrician in an instant, no matter what the clothes."
Like a character out of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, this real-life hero "grimly marched the streets with a huge police dog, and the police were so numerous they couldn't tell whether he was one of them or not." Though it was a capital offense, he administered the sacraments to hundreds of people each day in Calles' Mexico City, right under the noses of the secret police. The pantomime-priest was Orthodoxy's Charlie Chaplin versus the Dictatorship of Relativism. As did Chesterton and Walker Percy, he understood that sacrilege is countered most effectively not with sanctimony but with ridicule.
Had he lived a few more decades, I think this lover of satire, slapstick and puns who died at the age of 36, would have relished Percy's Love in the Ruins, whose protagonist regards with amused horror the conflation of Christian virtue with suburban prosperity. One of Percy's most powerful punch-lines is his description of the Christian Pro-Am Golf Tournament at Paradise Estates Country Club, whose entrance is decorated for the event with a big banner: "Jesus Christ: Greatest Pro of them All."
Which brings us to the Mexican priest-comedian's unusual surname, resembling a play on words: Pro.
After countless escapes and escapades, the secret police arrested Mexico's greatest Pro -- Jesuit Father Miguel Pro -- in 1927. In that era before the advent of Freedom House and Amnesty International, Graham Greene noted, "The American ambassador thought he could do more good by not intervening and left the next day with the [Mexican] President and Will Rogers, the humorist, on a Pullman tour."
Pro's execution --without a trial -- became a textbook case in how an unpopular dictatorship's propaganda efforts can backfire. Intending to frighten the Cristero insurgents in the highlands of the states of Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Guanajuato, Calles ordered the Mexican newspapers to give detailed photographic coverage of Pro's execution. "When he came out into the prison yard to be shot," wrote Greene, Pro wore "a dark lounge suit, soft collar and tie, a bright cardigan. Most priests wear their mufti with a kind of uneasiness, but Pro was a good actor."
Facing the firing squad, Pro refused a blindfold. As the rifles were raised, he lifted his arms in imitation of the crucified Christ, brandishing a crucifix in one hand and a rosary in the other. As the shots rang out, he exclaimed, "¡Viva Cristo Rey!" Graham Greene observed that the photographs of the execution had been made "to show the firmness of the Government but within a few weeks it became a penal offence to possess them, for they had had an effect which Calles had not foreseen." The Cristero rebellion gained energy and inspiration from Pro's martyrdom.
Jerez, in the hinterlands of Zacatecas, gave birth to one of Mexico's greatest poets, Ramón López Velarde, who died young as so many good poets do, best known for an elaborate love-song to his homeland, Suave Patria. In the next district stand the ruins of the rich haciendas that might be called the Spanish Catholic colonial, throne-and-altar counterpart to Percy's Protestant Paradise Estates -- Valparaíso. Three centuries ago, a silver magnate with interests in Zacatecas parlayed his wealth into acquisition of a noble title from the Spanish Crown -- Conde de San Mateo de Valparaíso. At the sleepy village of San Mateo, it can take a whole day just to stumble through the weedy remains of the Conde's sumptuous palace, granaries, counting-houses, and other once imposing buildings -- and this was just one of more than a dozen haciendas the Conde held in his condado. One of the first count's descendants built a palace 500 miles away in Mexico City, now the magnificent seat of the National Bank of Mexico.
In 1822, just after Spain had conceded Mexico's independence, in a house across the street from the palace in San Mateo was born Jesús González Ortega, who became one of the most prominent generals and liberal politicians in the 1860s War of the Reform. Streets and plazas and public buildings here and throughout Mexico tend to get named for the sanguinary figures of the Reform and the Revolution, including the unlettered marauder Francisco (Pancho) Villa and his Zacatecan sidekick Pánfilo Natera, who seized the city of Zacatecas in 1914 in one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolution. A conservative historian in Zacatecas, Bernardo del Hoyo, speaks bitterly of the myth-making and hero-worship accorded to monsters such as Villa, no more deserving of good reputation than Saddam Hussein. Del Hoyo observes, "Villa destroyed Zacatecas." Terrorized by Pancho Villa, thousands of Zacatecans fled across the border, many to Chicago, which boasts a big community of Zacatecan origin today.
The municipio (county) of Valparaíso and its neighboring district of Huejuquilla in the highlands of Jalisco were home to the legendary Cristero fighter, Valentín Ávila, immortalized in a folk ballad "Valentín de la Sierra." Except for a couple of recently built but already run-down houses, all that stands at what once was Valentín's Rancho de los Landa is the new "Escuela Pública Francisco Villa." In the ancient towns nearby Huichol Indians in their indigenous garb loiter stoically in the plazas, indifferent to the Spanish-Americans' contentions regarding faith and disbelief, liberalism and conservatism, freemasonry and ultramontanism, history and myth.
In 1927, the parish priest of the town of Valparaíso was Mateo Correa Magallanes, the man who years earlier in Guadalupe had given the boy Miguel Pro his first communion. Like Pro, he was rounded up by the Calles government's authorities. The head of his prison camp instructed him one day to see some condemned prisoners, Cristero leaders, who wanted the sacrament of confession. After Father Correa heard the confessions, the cacique representing Calles demanded that he tell what he had heard in the confessional. Father Correa said he would die before disclosing these confidences, and promptly he was shot.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II canonized Father Correa and some other Mexican martyrs of the era. In 1988 the same pope beatified Father Pro, whose cause for canonization is still pending.
In the Franciscan monastery in Guadalupe close to Miguel Pro's boyhood home, a playful painter three centuries ago adorned the periphery of the atrium with scenes from the life of St. Francis. In the trompe d'oeil perspective, the toes of some of the friars in the portraits point towards the viewer whichever way the viewer moves. Teri Garr and Gene Wilder would be at home in this spooky cloister, where in several of the paintings a severely tonsured friar's eyes follow visitors around the monastery. In another painting, a dining table appears bigger and bigger the farther one walks away from it. The paintings may have influenced Miguel Pro's combination of irrepressible prankster and man of faith. One should hope and pray that he too will attain the highest honors of the altar and that as the years recede people will perceive his significance as ever greater. Our troubled time, like all seasons, needs heroes such as Miguel Pro.
(Mr. Duggan is a visiting professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico City.)