Scripture tells us, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13.) Thus, the most famous biblical formula for martyrdom equates and balances sacrifice with a service or benefit for others. This formulation also crystallizes the distinction between the Christian conception of martyrdom and other models—such as the suicide bomber or the kamikaze—that fail to meet the Christian standard because those forms of self-immolation recklessly harm ourselves and others.
This nuance takes on a sudden urgency in the face of the worldwide Coronavirus epidemic, as some misguided hardliners openly resist Church cooperation with civil authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These purists object to the cancellation of Masses, and protest the substitution of livestreamed Masses on the Internet or broadcasted on television as poor replacements for those attended in person. They pledge to organize “underground masses,” often with rhetoric about their willingness to be exposed to the virus and risk their lives for the Eucharist. These protests distort and misrepresent the meaning of martyrdom.
St. Oscar Romero, the Church’s most recently canonized martyr—the fortieth anniversary of his martyrdom will be observed later this month—modeled the proper balance between sacrifice and service in the Christian ideal of martyrdom. Romero did not shy away from danger or personal risks. He “left the security of the world,” Pope Francis said during his canonization Mass, “even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters.” Even this cursory synthesis reveals the equilibrium in Romero’s action: his heart was drawn to Jesus and to his brothers and sisters.
There is no question that Romero cherished the Eucharist as a priceless gift from God to humanity. In 1977, he faced down a hostile army to enter a town where soldiers had occupied a church and defiled the Eucharist. The scene was dramatized in the 1989 film “Romero” with Raul Julia as the timid archbishop scraping up desecrated hosts from the floor of the sanctuary. In an August 1979 sermon, Romero lauded the example of St. Damien of Molokai, who volunteered to serve in a leper colony and eventually contracted leprosy. “The bread of eternal life gave Father Damien strength,” Romero said, “gives strength to every missionary, to all Sisters, to all priests, gives life to the ecclesial base communities, and becomes the center of parish life.”
Pope Francis does not take a different view. During his March 10, 2020 morning homily, the Pontiff stated, “We also pray to the Lord for our priests, that they have the courage to go out and go to the sick, bringing the strength of the Word of God and the Eucharist and accompanying the health workers and volunteers in this work they are doing.” And during his March 15, 2020 Angelus address, Pope Francis thanked “priests who think of a thousand ways to be close to the people, so that the people do not feel abandoned; priests with apostolic zeal, who have understood well that in times of pandemic one must not be like ‘Don Abbondio’ [a priest in a popular Italian novel who refuses to marry the heroes of the work].”
That said, Romero agonized over the concern that innocent people might become collateral damage if he was attacked. He famously turned down bodyguards, saying that the shepherd should not have protection while his flock had none. He also said that the pastor must be where the suffering is, and he traveled extensively to remote villages to visit endangered communities, often behind enemy lines. But he was always troubled when the danger extended to others. He wept when his family members were the subject of retaliation by their employers. And he was horrified at a foiled attempt to bomb a basilica where he was preaching, where many would have died if the attack had succeeded. As a result, in the final months Romero lived and traveled alone, in order to bear all risks alone.
These decisions reflected Romero’s understanding of martyrdom. In May 1977, St. Oscar said that being a martyr,
is not only being killed; it means living with the spirit of martyrdom and giving through duty, through silence, through prayer. Indeed, it is in the honest fulfillment of duty and in the silence of everyday life that we give our lives to God. We give our lives as does the mother who with no fuss, with the simplicity of motherly martyrdom, gives birth and gives her breast to her children and lovingly cares for them. This is what it means to give one’s life.
Romero’s words recall the ancient Christian symbol of Christ as a Pelican feeding its young by pecking her own breast and letting the chicks nourish themselves from her blood to save them from starvation. This is Romero’s ideal of “motherly martyrdom.” It arises from the “honest fulfillment of duty.” It comes “with no fuss” or ostentation, but rather in “silence.”
This image informs not only Romero’s approach to martyrdom, but also his path to martyrial death. During the mass for Romero’s beatification, Cardinal Angelo Amato, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, explained it this way:
Who was Romero? How did he prepare for martyrdom? Let’s say first and foremost that Romero was a good priest, a wise Bishop, but mostly he was a virtuous man. He loved Jesus, he adored him in the Eucharist, he venerated the Virgin Mary, he loved the Church, he loved the Pope, he loved his people. Martyrdom was not an improvisation but came after a long preparation.
Romero’s martyrdom was not “improvised.” It was not impulsive, knee-jerk, or spur of the moment. It was a systematic choice that began with obedience, duty: “he loved the Church, he loved the Pope, he loved his people.” Romero’s motto was “Sentir con la Iglesia,” meaning “To Think and Feel with the Church.” Commemorative cards from his first Solemn Mass in 1944 document that this Mass was dedicated for the protection of the Pope. When he was an archbishop and people tried to pit him against the Pope, Romero declared, “I prefer to die a thousand times than become a schismatic bishop” (August 26, 1979 Homily).
Thus, the first martyrdom Romero underwent was obedience—abnegation of his own will, which he substituted with the will of the Church and, in a particular way, the Pope. Romero digested and accepted the teachings of the Church at the Second Vatican Council, even though they required him to make changes in his ministry. He accepted the teachings of Pope Paul VI, including the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, even though it challenged his conservative style as a bishop, and it compelled him to defend social justice. He listened to and obeyed St. John Paul II, even when he sought to reign in Romero’s pastoral action.
These facts strongly suggest that Romero would follow Rome’s lead in response to today’s pandemic. Moreover, the Vatican’s own actions here have been Romeroesque. While the Diocese of Rome has cancelled public masses, the Vatican is livestreaming Pope Francis’ daily morning masses in their entirety, without a congregation, so that “those who would like to follow these celebrations, praying in union with the Bishop of Rome” could do so. That decision is reminiscent of Romero’s action following the assassination of Fr. Rutilio Grande. Romero cancelled all the masses in the archdiocese except one “Single Mass” he celebrated at the Cathedral and broadcast to the faithful via archdiocesan radio as a sign of unity around the bishop (See “Information Bulletin of the Archdiocese, n° 6, ECA 341 [March 15, 1977], pp. 256-257). Romero also countered the argument that canceling masses belittles their value. To the contrary, Romero said, “At this time the Mass is recovering all its value. Perhaps because it is celebrated so frequently it is seen as an adornment and not with the splendor that it is recovering at this moment.” (March 20, 1977 Homily.)
In a word, martyrdom is not defiance but obedience. St. Oscar Romero did not improvise martyrdom, but followed an arduous path to a foreseeable end, pursuing not his own will but that of providence as revealed by the hierarchy, in a true expression of ‘Sentire cum Ecclesia.’ Martyrdom is not placing others in danger but shielding them. St. Damien did not expose others to leprosy; he ministered to those already infected. Martyrdom is accepted “with no fuss,” not in flagrant displays of pomposity. That ‘spirit of martyrdom’ is not dispensed with in a time of crisis; indeed, St. Oscar Romero shows us that this is when it is most essential.
Image: Icon of St. Oscar Romero by Vivian Imbruglia, at St. Oscar Romero Parish in Eastvale, Calif., showing the Christian pelican symbol on Romero’s chasuble (click here to see the full icon). Used with permission.
Pelican image: By Motacilla – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71144554