On Friday, August 15, 2014, the St. Egidio Community of Rome will lead a prayer service at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island—a shrine to the Church’s modern martyrs—to show solidarity with the persecuted Christians of Iraq and the Middle East. That same day will mark the 97th anniversary of the birth of the martyred Archbishop Oscar A. Romero of El Salvador, whose prayer book is kept as a relic at the church. This year, Romero’s birthday comes amid a renewed climate of Christian persecution and its commemoration provides a solemn occasion for solidarity, prayer, and prophetic denunciation of those unjust situations.
Here are three points for reflection and prayer:
First, the life and example of Oscar Romero becomes a vivid point of reference, which shows that persecution and martyrdom continue to be relevant for the Church. Before he became himself a victim of church persecution, Romero was a valiant voice of denunciation of the policies of repression that targeted his Church. “Persecution is a reality that is necessary for the Church,” he declared. “You know why? Because the truth is persecuted. Jesus told his disciples: if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you (John 15:20).” (May 29, 1977 Hom.) He recalled Pope Leo XIII’s corollary to the well-known “Four Marks of the Church”— One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic—“I would add another: persecuted.” (Ibid.) “A Church that does not suffer persecution is not the true church of Jesus Christ,” Romero declared (Mar. 11, 1979 Hom.) “Thanks to God,” Romero said, “we are not only aware of the stories of the martyrs of past ages but we are also conscious of the martyrs of our own time.” (Apr. 14, 1979 Hom.) For example, “Cardinal Woytila reminds us of the times of the catacombs and the times of the [Roman] circus,” Romero said: “the times of the martyrs.” (Oct. 29, 1978 Hom.) And Romero always joined in solidarity when the Popes of his time called for prayers for the conflict in the Holy Land and the region.
Second, we are living a moment that calls for prayer and solidarity. On Friday, August 15, the Italian Church is holding its Day of Prayer for persecuted Christians. On Saturday the 16th, Pope Francis will beatify 124 martyrs in Korea, an occasion which will surely remind the world of the urgent situation for Christians in the Middle East and in other conflict areas. Sunday the 17th is the day the U.S. bishops have called for prayers for the “Nazari” persecutions (of Christians) in Iraq. Filipino Catholics have been urged to set aside Aug. 18, Monday, as a day of prayer for peace in Iraq. In sum, if the theme of the times proves the relevancy of Archbishop Romero, we can also say that the memory of Romero must be considered in a key of solidarity and prayer, which helps the reflection recover the fullness of its meaning and importance.
Finally, we can also couple our reflection with profound contemplation of the Feast of the Assumption, and the figure of a Mother of Christ who ascends to heaven at the dawn of that first Age of Martyrs. However, that ascension was by no means an alienation: the Mother of God does not abandon the Church at the onset of that tribulation. Instead, Mary becomes a guiding light from on high, a torch that provides a perspective of Transcendence, and thus can give a new impulse and inspiration for the faithful. In the words of Oscar Romero, “Beyond the night, dawn already glows and we carry in our heart a hope that never fails. Christ is with us. We are not afraid!”
Have a blessed Feast of the Assumption, which marks the 97th anniversary of the birth of Oscar Romero. Let us ask for his intercession on behalf of our Christian brothers and sisters who suffer persecution today.