One of the great gifts of the Catholic tradition is that our communion in the Body of Christ is not cut off by death: in short, the communion of saints, of which the official canon is most likely the tip of the iceberg. We can seek spiritual companions from among this great cloud of witnesses for all kinds of reasons, and there are a few I’ve been calling on frequently amid so much troubling news. Especially as I keep hearing of crowds of people, God’s beloved all, fleeing danger in Central America and the Middle East, crossing literal deserts on their own present-day via crucis, a pair of exemplars that keep impressing themselves on my mind are Oscar Romero, killed in El Salvador in 1980, and Christian de Chergé, killed in Algeria in 1996 – two shepherds who bore witness unto death to the Good Shepherd. And on today’s feast of the exaltation, or triumph, of the cross, their witness illuminates the meaning of such a victory.
Both men are widely and deservedly acclaimed as martyrs, though admittedly the definition of a martyr is not without controversy. John Allen makes a strong case in the introduction to his book The Global War on Christians (by the way, if you read any book on Christian persecution, make it that one) that “it’s not enough to consider what was in the mind of the person pulling the trigger – we also have to ponder what was in the heart of the believer getting shot.” A case can also be made for the classic criterion of odium fidei in the hatred provoked by the faith these two pastors preached in word and deed, whether or not that was an explicitly professed motive on the part of their killers.
Both of them foresaw their own deaths, not in a crystal-ball kind of way but as a very real risk of continuing the ministry they were called to. And both united their deaths to that of Christ by preemptively forgiving their killers, de Chergé doing so with a direct allusion to the dying words of Christ, and Romero ultimately being killed at the very altar of Christ’s sacrifice. Reading the words by which they foreshadowed their own final moments, in the knowledge of the fruit they bore, leaves no doubt in my own mind that these are the words of saints.
But, as LeVar Burton would say, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here first is a famous excerpt from the interview Romero gave two weeks before his death:
I have frequently been threatened with death. I ought to say that as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. I am not boasting, I say it with the greatest humility. I am bound, as a pastor, by a divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadoreans, even those who are going to kill me. If they manage to carry out their threats, from this moment I offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality. Let my death, if it is accepted by god, be for my people’s freedom and a witness of hope. You may say, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it. Would, indeed, they might be convinced not to waste their time. A bishop will die, but God’s Church, which is the people, will never perish.
I first encountered a portion of these powerful words in this video, made as part of a project setting the words of martyrs to music, which brings out their potency all the more.
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims—finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church.
My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.
For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families—the hundred-fold granted as was promised!
And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not [know] what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this “thank you”—and this <adieu> [lit. “to God”]—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.
And may we find each other, happy “good thieves,” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
St. Paul wrote to the Romans (6:5) that “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This may not mean a literal martyr’s death for most of us, but in lives like these given in deaths like these, the triumph of the cross of Christ is made starkly visible. The cross does triumph, and its triumph is in the very moment of its apparent defeat – which is exactly what the crucifixion was in the first place. It is with this cross, this exaltation-in-humility, that we sign ourselves every time we pray.
So I give the final word, a poetic denouement if you will, to a verse by hymn writer Shirley Erena Murray, so fitting for today’s paradoxical feast:
Hope we must carry, shining and certain,
Through all our turmoil, terror and loss,
Bonding us gladly one to the other,
‘Til our world changes, facing the cross.
Oscar Romero, Servant of God, pray for us.
Christian de Chergé and companions, pray for us.