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Fifth Wednesday in Lent: Martyrdom and Romero and Dorothy Day

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Today we celebrate the Annunciation that pivotal moment in salvation history when Mary’s “yes” to God changed each of our lives. Another emphatic “yes” to God is shown by the lives of the martyrs and martyrdom is one of the central themes of the ferial readings for the Fifth Wednesday of Lent. Thus it is particularly appropriate that at 5pm on Wednesday, here at Blackfriars, Oxford, marking the 35th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero, the Las Casas Institute welcomes Fr Brian Pierce OP to deliver a lecture on the Archbishop and his legacy entitled ‘He Heard their Voice: Archbishop Romero – Mystic and Prophet’. There are still a few spaces left so do RSVP on lascasas@bfriars.ox.ac.uk if you wish to come along.

In the first reading from Daniel we can admire the fidelity and integrity of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refuse to submit to King Nebuchadnezzar’s command that they worship the golden statue that he had erected and are prepared for martyrdom if necessary. Their faith eventually leads the King to exclaim: “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God (Daniel 3:95).”

Whilst it is to the glory of Christ and His Church, it is nonetheless tragic that martyrdoms occur with great frequency in modern-day Babylonia. Fr Brian Pierce knows this only too well, having recently visited Iraq, with Fr Timothy Radcliffe of this Priory, witnessing at first hand displaced and persecuted families who have lost love ones who refused to compromise their faith.

Refugee children in Iraq

Neither Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, nor Romero, sought out martyrdom, yet they knew ultimately that that which is worth living for completely is also worth dying for. Respectively they prefigured and followed Christ in speaking truth to powerful figures knowing that it created malevolence in those who heard his words, as Jesus Himself tells us in today’s Gospel: “. . .but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God (John 8:40).”

We are not called to seek out martyrdom, we might even pray that that particularly cup should pass us by. However, we do need to live our lives guided by the example of the martyrs and Christ, such that should the ultimate sacrifice be asked of us, we might be in a position to say yes.

Many of us have reason to be grateful to the relative freedoms that we enjoy to practise our faith, but we should not be complacent. If we do not take a stand on the comparatively small challenges to our current religious freedoms, we cannot expect that when something truly heroic is asked of us that we will have the fortitude to respond as we would wish.

Francis Cardinal George once figuratively warned in relation to the dangers of an overly secularised society: “I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Romero was killed for speaking out in the public square. St Thomas More in this country was killed for his refusal to bend his religious beliefs to the King’s political will. It is a stark reality that our failure to make a stand now, only makes more this scenario more likely for the future.

Romero shot dead at the foot of the Cross and the altar

Romero knew the dangers of a government that failed to respect the dignity of each and every one of its citizens, including the very poorest. He may well have been afraid about speaking out in the way he did, but he did not let fear prevent him from saying that which needed to be said. Cardinal George said that in the quote above the point he wanted to make was that “the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making “laws” beyond its competence. Few there are, however, who would venture to ask if there might be a better way for humanity to organize itself for the sake of the common good. Few, that is, beyond a prophetic voice like that of Dorothy Day, speaking acerbically about “Holy Mother the State,” or the ecclesiastical voice that calls the world, from generation to generation, to live at peace in the kingdom of God.”

Let us pray that our small penances this Lent might be our first steps towards the courageous witness of prophetic voices such as Romero and Dorothy Day.

Readings: Daniel 3:14-20,24-25,28; Canticle Daniel 3:52-56; John 8:31-42

Top Image: Icon of Oscar Romero

Toby Lees O.P.

Br Toby Lees O.P. Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London.  |  toby.lees@english.op.org


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