“Heroic People Need Heroes”

by Rev. John Nicholas Blaha (’02)
Priest of the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas 
Commencement 2022
Thomas Aquinas College, California



Brothers and sisters in Christ:

Glory, honor, blessing, and praise to Almighty God, Who has called us out of darkness into His wonderful light.

With 50 years of service to our Holy Mother, Christ’s Bride on the record, we arrive at this happy day in which we confer these degrees upon you and send you out to serve God and neighbor. In the name of the innumerable figures who have visibly and invisibly contributed to your success, I pray that the Spirit of truth, the Advocate, be with you. For our Lord promised: “You are to recognize Him; He will be continually at your side, nay, He will be in you” (Jn. 14:17).

Fr. Blaha
Rev. John Nicholas Blaha (’02)

It is this Truth-giving spirit that flows ex corde ecclesiae which is the principle and foundation of your education. Your perseverance in this gift has brought you to a place of unimaginable abundance, a fulness that makes you like God. Today marks a turning point in which you must bear this Spirit of truth into the disorienting maze of the world. Today begins a new entry in the history of your perseverance that will not be complete until you stand before your Redeemer to deliver your account. May it be an heroic one.

Heroic people need heroes. Heroes beget heroes. So, search them out. Stay close to them. Let their lives find an echo in yours.

I found a hero here, though at the time I did not know it. In 2013, I came to Los Angeles for an ordination, and paid the College a visit during my stay. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to see this beautiful new chapel and utter my lament before God as to how decadent the present generation of students was in comparison to the spartan days of yore. Imagine, if you can, what it was like to pray while deprived of the aid of majesty!

My visit was marked by the deaths of two individuals. The first was the death of one of the College’s founders, Dr. Ronald McArthur, by any account the hero of many, and rightly so. The news of his passing reached us just a few hours before I was scheduled to offer the midday Mass here, and I found myself scrambling to find the words to honor the passing of one of the College’s founders in the presence of an unexpectedly packed chapel.

This was difficult for me. I had never had Dr. McArthur as a tutor, and the only contact I ever had with him was an informal visit he made to the campus during my junior year, about which I remember only two things: the first was that, during an informal talk to group of students in the Commons, he attributed not just the survival of the College but its continued fruitfulness to the daily recitation of the Rosary, the habit of which was carried forward mostly by the students. He was emphatic about this. I was gratified to learn that you were just presented with a Rosary in his memory.

The second thing I remember was his declaration that most Catholic institutions of higher learning were not worth the dynamite it would require to blow them up. Despite being in his eighties, his booming voice made me wonder what it would have been like to hear him in the flowering of his strength. Dr. McArthur was a giant that changed the course of many lives, present company included, and many hundreds more. His legacy is enormous and unbelievably beautiful, and we would be remiss for not acknowledging here in the Lord’s presence the foresight and determination of those who cut and graded this road for us, in Christ’s name.

The second death was one that had happened a month before. Rosie Grimm was a member of the Class of 2010. She died of cancer, surrounded by her family, minutes after concluding the Rosary. I read that the chaplain of the College at the time said that it was the most beautiful and peaceful death he had ever seen. I don’t believe I ever met Rosie, and if I did, it was probably as a member of a vast herd of Grimms that periodically stampeded through campus during their seasonal migrations. Rosie’s Mass of Christian Burial had been offered here, I suspect, and a few of the memorial prayer cards with her picture on it remained on a table near the Chapel doors. I picked one up and read the following words:

Does our life become from day to day more painful, more oppressive, more replete with afflictions? Blessed be He a thousand times who desires it so. If life be harder, love makes it also stronger, and only this love, grounded on suffering, can carry the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.

Love without egotism, without relying on self, but enkindling in the depth of the heart an ardent thirst to love and suffer for all those around us: a thirst that neither misfortune nor contempt can extinguish ...

There suddenly appeared, clear in my mind’s eye, the image of a young woman, mute with pain, and clutching this prayer with the arms of her soul, serving her as a staff in her agony.

It was a prayer written by Bl. Miguel Agustin Pro, taken from one of his many letters. I placed the card in my breviary, little knowing that this was the beginning of a long friendship with this dashing and daring martyr priest.

If you are not familiar with the life of Fr. Pro, allow me to share this brief excerpt from a book Graham Greene wrote about his travels in Mexico not long after the revolution:

In July 1926, Father Miguel Pro landed at Veracruz. He was twenty-five years old and a Jesuit. He came back to his own country from a foreign seminary much as Campion returned to England from Douai. We know how he was dressed when a year and a half later he came out into the prison yard to be shot, and he may well have worn the same disguise when he landed …: 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. He needed to be. Within two months of Pro’s landing, President Calles had begun the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth. The churches were closed, Mass had to be said secretly in private houses, to administer the Sacraments was a serious offence. Nevertheless, Pro gave Communion daily to some 300 people, confessions were heard in half-built houses in darkness, retreats were held in garages. Pro escaped the plain-clothes police again and again. Once he found them at the entrance to a house where he was supposed to say Mass; he posed as a police officer, showing an imaginary badge and remarking, There’s a cat bagged in here, and passed into the house and out again with his cassock under his arm. Followed by detectives when he left a Catholic house and with only fifty yards’ start, he disappeared altogether from their sight round a corner — the only man they overtook was a lover out with his girl. The prisons were filling up, priests were being shot, yet on three successive first Fridays Pro gave the Sacrament to nine hundred, thirteen hundred, and fifteen hundred people.

This is the stuff of legend. This is the stuff of the most excessive hagiography. How could the biography of one priest read like it was cobbled together from fragments of The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Acts of the Apostles, and Jeeves and Wooster? But this is no legend.

Fr. Pro was executed without trial by the Mexican authorities. I have read somewhere that his was the first martyrdom in history to be photographed.

In fact, this photographic record led to a marvelous twist in the story. Because of those famous photographs, the most immediate and temporal fruit of Fr. Pro’s life was after his death. The publication of the image of his final moments, his arms outstretched and the words, “Long live Christ the King” gentle on his lips, served only to galvanize popular resistance against the anticlerical and atheistic governing class. It was a profound miscalculation on their part to publish it as a demonstration of their firmness.

Many who had been deceived about the true nature of the revolution, or who had made a cowardly peace with it, were deceived and were mute no longer. The faithful turned out by the thousands to escort his remains to the cemetery, where they wept as Pro’s father threw the first spade of soil upon his bullet-ridden body. The tide of the struggle turned; the president was soon in exile, he who had sent so many to their deaths and who had desecrated the holy sanctuaries of religion with hatred and blasphemy.

All this was more or less unknown to me at the time. Years later, I found myself in a dark wood, as it were, grieved by the sorry state of the Church, which seemed to grow at once more craven and more timid by the hour. I grieved the betrayals that have stained and wounded so many, and the oppression of disillusionment pressed me into mediocrity and lukewarmness. It was as if as the lights that were to brighten the darkness of this present age were winking out around me, one by one. It was then that little prayer card of Rosie Grimm’s inside my breviary made its way before my eyes again, and I discovered that the need of my soul was for a hero: a steady light that could not be obscured.

And in Father Pro, I felt the fresh breeze of the Lord’s breath, what He himself promised as “the truth-giving Spirit, for whom the world can find no room, because it cannot see Him, cannot recognize him” (Jn. 14:17).

The power of the martyrs is that they draw evil into the open in the same way as Christ Himself did on Golgotha. It is their fidelity, their justice, their very innocence that seems to provoke the enemy’s disgust and incite him to deliver a smashing blow — and in the power of Christ they do not flinch when that blow lands, though it bring devastation. For in the reign of Christ the victory of evil is always a Pyrrhic one.

Fr. Pro has become a waypoint of what the Gospel calls the truth-giving Spirit. He became that for Rosie as well, under far more dire conditions.

And so I thought it fitting on this occasion to present you with the little gift that you found in your seats, an image of Fr. Pro with the words of the prayer that gave supernatural purpose to the suffering of a young woman, and to a young priest, hope.

Many of you are set on your path, with your next steps in God’s service confidently discerned. Others have yet to settle on what the “anything” refers to, in the phrase “you can do anything with a liberal arts education.” Some of you will continue your studies, some enter religious formation, and if this class is anything like mine was, some will be married before the year is out, and not a few of you to each other. Your most sincere and disciplined efforts to be faithful, to be just, to be innocent will provoke your enemy. Let him strike.

And against that day, wind around your finger this little thread that has been spun, a thread that runs from Ronald to Rosie to Miguel: that when the Master weaver has need of you in His handiwork, you will not miss the tug that assigns you to your place within that matchless fabric. And then, in whatever way it is being asked of you, stretch out your arms, profess your loyalty to His reign, and say then as we say together now:

I believe, O Lord; but strengthen my faith ...
Heart of Jesus, I love Thee; but increase my love.
Heart of Jesus, I trust in Thee; but give greater vigor to my confidence.
Heart of Jesus, I give my heart to Thee; but so enclose it in Thee that it may never be separated from Thee.

Heart of Jesus, I am all Thine; but take care of my promise so that I may be able to put it in practice even unto the complete sacrifice of my life.