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On Holy Thursday, the Life of Oscar Romero Provides Rich Material for Meditation

Archbishop Oscar Romero at home

Alex Bowie/Getty Images

John Burger - published on 03/24/16

Let us beg his intercessory prayers for so many priests at risk for the sake of Christ

Moveable feasts sometimes give rise to convergences of “red-letter days” that suggest a deeper meaning for both observances. This year, Good Friday falls on the traditional date for the feast of the Annunciation — when the Christ who would die on the cross took flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

But there’s another anniversary that many Christians may not be aware of, and it seems fitting that it falls on Holy Thursday, the night when we commemorate the Last Supper, the institution of the Holy Eucharist, and the beginning of the priesthood. Thursday, March 24, is the 36th anniversary of the assassination of Blessed Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador whose story is told in the 1989 biopic Romero.

Ten months after his beatification, one could profit much by including the life of Blessed Oscar Romero in one’s meditations on this night, when Christ was taken away by the authorities.

Holy Thursday is a great feast for priests, and Romero was first and foremost a priest.

It is the Eucharistic feast par excellence. Blessed Oscar was shot while holding up the chalice at the consecration.

It is the night when the celebrant of Mass reenacts the act of humility by which Christ instructed his apostles to lead through service. Blessed Oscar Romero certainly did that.

Born in 1917, Oscar felt called to the priesthood at an early age. He entered the seminary at age 14 and was ordained at 25, in 1942. He served in parishes for more than 20 years, promoting various apostolic groups and devotion to the Our Lady of Peace. He was later appointed rector of the seminary in San Salvador and in 1966 was chosen to be secretary of the Bishops Conference of El Salvador. He also became the director of the archdiocesan newspaper.

In 1970, he was consecrated a bishop, and he became keenly aware of the needs of the poor in his diocese. Becoming archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero soon had to deal with an extremely difficult political situation in the country. As Catholic author Mark Gordon explained, El Salvador at the time was marked by “grotesque economic inequality. For generations, a tiny elite class of landowners had conspired with the government and foreign corporations to appropriate the natural wealth of the country while keeping the majority of Salvadorans poor. Attempts at reform in the 1960s and ’70s resulted in a ferocious backlash by the landowners and their allies in government and the military. That backlash included brutal repression of the Church whenever it spoke out against injustice and violence.”

The military was killing activists, including priests and nuns. After the new archbishop’s friend Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, who had been working to organize the rural poor, was assassinated, the archdiocese issued a statement saying the true reason for his death was his “prophetic and pastoral efforts to raise the consciousness of the people.”

Romero spoke out on behalf of the poor, “decrying the violence of death squads and private militias, calling for political and economic reforms that would bring some measure of dignity to both campesinos — rural peasants — and the urban poor,” Gordon wrote. “For his efforts, the government redoubled its persecution of the Church.”

Then, on Oct. 14, 1979, a group of current and former military officers called the Revolutionary Government Junta deposed the president and took power in a coup d’etat. The archbishop continued to speak out.

On Sunday, March 23, 1980, Romero called upon Salvadoran soldiers to refuse orders that violated the human rights of the people.

“Brothers, you come from our own people,” he said. “You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination.”

The following day, March 24 (which, that year, was not Holy Thursday) Romero celebrated Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital. “Those who act out of love for Christ and give themselves to the service of others will live,” he told the small congregation, including nuns from a nursing order. Referring to the Eucharist he was about to celebrate, he said, “May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain — like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.”

Moments later, as he elevated the chalice filled with the Precious Blood, a gunman shot Romero from the back of the chapel. He died almost immediately.

Romero’s martyrdom at the summit of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass can remind us that each time we reverently attend the Eucharistic liturgy we stand at the foot of the cross, witnessing the spilling of the Precious Blood from the side of Christ. In his 38 years of priesthood, Blessed Oscar repeated the words of his Master thousands of times: “Do this in memory of me.”

Most priests won’t have the chance to “do this” the way he did at his very last Mass, but no priest, even today, is exempt from being called to that ultimate sacrifice. Just this Monday, at the beginning of Holy Week, an Assumptionist priest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Father Vincent Machozi, was gunned down, apparently in retaliation for his activism on behalf of an oppressed minority in the country.

Reporting on the death, John L. Allen at Crux quoted Father Emmanuel Kahindo, vicar general of the Assumptionist order, as saying that Father Machozi felt that his activism would come to this. He told his superior last October: “My days are numbered. I will be murdered, I feel it … but like Christ, for the sake of our people, I will not be silent.”

Meanwhile, Salesian father Tom Uzhunnalil, who, like Blessed Oscar Romero, worked among and served the poor, is still missing, having been abducted during the March 4 attack on the Missionaries of Charity compound in Aden, Yemen. He had just celebrated Mass for the five sisters who live there and care for the elderly and was praying in the chapel when he heard screaming. Islamic terrorists had stormed the compound and killed 16 people, including four of the sisters.

But Father Tom’s first thought was not for himself. Desirous above all of preserving the Eucharist from desecration, he consumed the hosts reserved in the tabernacle. However long this took, the delay gave the attackers a chance to find him.

A rumor has been circulating that ISIS plans to crucify Father Tom on Good Friday. The Salesians have issued a statement saying there is no truth to the rumor, but they are asking Christians to “live a very intense moment of prayer on Holy Thursday, when we will accompany Jesus in the pain and loneliness of Gethsemane.”

We might add that they pray for the intercession of Blessed Oscar Romero on this very special Holy Thursday.

John Burgeris news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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