Sunday, March 24, 2024

We Begin Holy Week With the Memory of St Oscar Romero

[Credit for detail from iconic mural: The Claretians/Cerezo Barredo]

This year Palm Sunday falls on March 24th — which supersedes what would ordinarily be the feast day of Saint Oscar Romero. Therefore, many churches in Latin America moved the celebration of the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador to Saturday March 23rd this year — one day prior to the 44th anniversary of his being gunned down at the altar while saying Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador.

In fact, Saint Romero’s funeral was held on Palm Sunday in 1980, the week after his death. In the midst of the vast crowd that had gathered in the cathedral and out in the piazza on this profound beginning of Holy Week for Salvadorans, multiple gunmen opened fire, killing forty people and turning the ceremony into a scene of violence, havoc, and terror for the people.

Soon, the long and brutal civil war would begin in full force. But the people kept the courageous witness of the Archbishop in their hearts.

Today Romero’s testimony speaks to our own time. The search for a genuine and just peace must remain the formative purpose and guiding light even in the midst of conflict. Even those who take up arms to defend themselves against unjust aggression need to keep this light burning in their hearts. They must never forget that even the aggressors and their leaders are human persons with ineradicable dignity; a vigorous self-defense can (must) also be an honorable self-defense. Maintaining a spirit of “inner non-violence” is very difficult in these circumstances, but the Christian and human vocation requires it, promises the grace to make it possible, and gives it a supernatural efficacy to extend the influence of God’s Kingdom within the realities of the temporal world—which are signs (that can be imbued with the foretaste and anticipation) of the Father’s House toward which we journey in this life.

Romero expressed it in this way: “Peace is a product of justice. But justice is not enough. Love is necessary: the love that makes us feel that we are brothers and sisters is properly what makes for true peace.” How can living with this love, looking upon everyone as a brother or sister (including the enemy who attacks you and compels you to fight to protect yourself and the rights of your people), generate new possibilities for peace in the midst war or any of the other forms of struggle among human beings?

We will only find out by actually living this way. Insofar as we adhere to God with obedience and love through His crucified Son Jesus, and love every human person as brother or sister, children of the same Father, called in the depths of their hearts by Holy Spirit to eternal life in Jesus who is the “firstborn” of the New Humanity through His cross and resurrection—only insofar as we live this way will we realize the possibilities it opens up for a more just and peaceful world. Saint Oscar Romero reminds us that the vocation to eternal life confers on us responsibilities regarding this world and its concrete circumstances. Our life of faith, hope, and love touches the whole reality of the here-and-now “so that, illuminated with the vision of eternity, we make this earth what it was meant to be, a foretaste of heaven.”

But let me quote this entire segment from a homily in 1979 where Saint Oscar Romero encapsulates his understanding of his own calling as a bishop of an unimaginably impoverished and ruthlessly oppressed people, of the Church’s calling, of the calling of every Christian and every human person.

As we follow the “Way of the Cross” during Holy Week 2024, let us not forget what Romero taught us about the scope and the radical risk of living the Gospel, the totality of Christ’s love for which Romero gave witness in his words and actions, and ultimately in the shedding of his own blood:

“The voice of the Church continues to be known and wants to be the voice that preaches the eternal message of the Lord. Despite the distortions and ill-will and slanders and defamation the voice of the Church wants to be that voice that from the heights of heaven draws all things unto herself so that we can speak about the meaning of death and life, the meaning of government and the struggle for just demands, the meaning of well-being and misery and living on the margins of society and the meaning of sin. The Church wants to speak about all these realities so that, illuminated with the vision of eternity, we make this earth what it was meant to be, a foretaste of heaven and not a war zone or a place where passions run wild. Indeed, as sisters and brothers, as children of God, we are all on a journey toward heaven, toward [Christ] the head of the body.”