Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Romero’s Feast Day

Next week, on March 24, the Catholic world will commemorate the XXXV anniversary of the death of Archbishop Óscar Romero for the first time with the official recognition that his death was a martyrdom in the eyes of the Church.  For Romero’s admirers, there was never any doubt that he died a martyr, and there also is no doubt that the date of his death is a great day of remembrance and prayer.  They may be surprised to learn that there is no certainty that March 24 will be Romero’s liturgical Feast Day* after he is beatified.
To be sure, March 24 starts out as the top contender for the date Romero will be honored in the Church’s calendar every year after he is beatified.  Traditional dates selected to honor saints include the dates of their births, but the dates of death are generally preferred as symbolic of their births to eternal life.  The tradition is particularly strong with respect to those, like Romero, killed in hatred of the faith.  Their Feast are set to memorialize the dates of their martyrdoms.
Catholic writer Rocco Palma points out the problem with a March 24 Feast Day: “the date's frequent occurrence during Holy Week … would prevent it from being observed in any fashion” by the Church’s internal rules regarding the liturgy when the 24th falls on a day that the Church has reserved for a higher priority commemoration, like Holy Week or the Easter Octave.  According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the liturgical arrangements dictated for Lent, including liturgical colors and Scripture readings, may not be changed for the observance of the Feast Day of a saint.  The restrictions are even more severe on Ash Wednesday and during Holy Week and the Easter Octave.  No saint’s day may be celebrated at all during these days of solemn reflection on Christ’s death and resurrection. [GIRM 355.]
The Church’s practice when there appears to be a conflict between the date of a saint’s death and the liturgical restrictions is to select another date as the feast day.  An illustrative example is that of St. Damien of Molokai, who entered into eternal life on April 15.  However, because of the frequent occurrence of the date within Lent, it was found that setting the saint’s Feast Day on April 15 would have resulted in “a feast in name only” (because it would effectively not be celebrated).  Accordingly, St. Damien’s Feast Day was set on May 10 instead—to honor the day he arrived on Molokai.
The arguments to salvage March 24 for Romero would be threefold.  First, it appears that the 24th is not completely eclipsed by the Paschal season.  For example, while it generally always falls within Lent, it only falls within Holy Week about 20% of the time over the next 100 years.  A web site that came up with a formula to calculate the frequency that Easter Sunday fell on different dates found that March 24 was the least common date for Easter over a three hundred year period, constituting a single occurrence of Easter falling on that date between 1900 and 2199.  (That single occurrence already passed: it was in 1940.)
Second, to the extent a Lenten Feast Day would result in a more sober commemoration of Romero’s memory, the abstinence seems altogether fitting.  By all accounts, Romero was a model of self-negation for the sake of solidarity with the poor.  It has been noted by numerous observers that Romero seemed to be attune to Pope Francis’ call to have “a poor Church, for the poor.”  Establishing a Feast Day for Romero with built-in Lenten fasting and sacrifice would seem to be a fitting tribute to both Romero and to the Pope who approved his beatification.
Finally, and most importantly, there is a unity between Romero’s martyrdom and the date of his martyrdom that may prove hard to separate.  Romero’s killing at this time, during Lent, seems to reinforce its martyrial nature as much as the fact that he was killed at the altar.  Both place and time were part of the same setting, inextricably entwined, which confirmed his status as a martyr long before the unanimous vote of the Vatican theologians did.

As Fr. Jon Sobrino put it, “The time [of his death] has now been canonized.”  The Jesuit theologian explains that, “it is not necessary to explain what ‘March 24’ means, just as it is not necessary to explain December 25 or September 15 [Salvadoran Independence Day] here in El Salvador.”  Accordingly, the date has been the focus of universal acclamation around Romero:

·         The Catholic Church itself commemorates the Day of Fasting and Prayer for Missionary Martyrs on March 24, because of Romero’s sacrifice on that day.

·         The Anglican Church inserted a memorial of Romero in its liturgical calendar on that day.

·         The United Nations established its International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims to honor Romero on that day.

·         El Salvador has legislatively established March 24 as the day to pay tribute to Romero.

·         Catholics have established Romero commemorations around this date in San Salvador, Rome and London for many years running.

Accordingly, Church authorities may find that it there are grounds to justify sticking to the rule that martyrs are remembered on the days of their martyrdoms, rather than following an exception based on the Lenten occurrence of March 24.

[* Note: this article uses the term “Feast Day” for ease of reference.  For the proper nomenclature, please consult this useful guide.]

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