In case you hadn’t heard, I will be going to El Salvador for “Santa Semana” (Holy Week) with my family and a friend of the family. The six of us will be pilgrims, strangers in a strange land- yet, a place that seems familiar. We will be going to honor the memory of Archbp. Oscar Romero, who was killed at the hands of U.S. government-funded terrorists 25 years ago on March 24, 1980. That was the year I was born. Shortly after this martyrdom, the tiny nation of El Salvador (it’s smaller than Massachusetts) erupted into prolonged civil war. Thus, for as long as I have lived, the people of El Salvador have been in pain.
Reading about El Salvador is a jolting, jarring experience. It pulls you into the story of a people assaulted by ignorance. I have surfed far too many webpages to include them all here, but I encourage you to become informed about the role of the US, the decisions of Church leaders, and the questions Catholic citizens must ask themselves. I will include one link, though, merely because it helped me find my footing after swimming adrift in the myriad of questions brought on by even a casual survey of the facts. The link takes you to an article by the late Pedro Arrupe, former Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Fr. Arrupe asks key questions at the end of that article, which conveys his thoughts on education and the duty to teach social justice in the curriculum. As a Jesuit alumnus, I was touched. Here are his questions:
What is my response to the needs of people who suffer misery/oppression?
How do I transform the social reality of the world in which I live?
How do I come to understand my social obligation?
How do I take into account the Gospel’s preferential option for the poor?
What have I done for Christ in this world?
What am I doing now?
What should I do?
Let me include here a quote from the aforementioned article, attributed to one Fr. Alfaro:
“Inclusion in or expulsion from the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus depends on a man (or woman)’s attitude towards the poor and oppressed; towards those who are identified in Isaiah 58, 1-2 as the victims of human injustice and in whose regard God wills to realize his justice. What is strikingly new here is that Jesus makes these despised and marginalized folk his brothers. He identifies himself with the poor and the powerless, with all who are hungry and miserable. Every man in this condition is Christ’s brother; that is why what is done for them is done for Christ himself. Whoever comes effectively to the aid of these brothers of Jesus belongs to his Kingdom; whoever abandons them to their misery excludes himself from that Kingdom.”
When I go to this little country and meet these people, who have endured pain the enormity of which defies comprehension, what will I do for them? I- surrounded by innumerable blessings- have nothing to offer the people whose family members “disappeared” or were savagely killed, who slave through weeks of excruciating labor to earn what I make in one hour doing far less, who do not enjoy a US citizen’s life expectancy, health insurance, opportunity for work, national security, or financial assets. What I can share with them? If anything, I will be enjoying their hospitality, eating their food, and depending upon their provisions during this two-week journey. It hardly makes sense! And they will do and give and provide happily, gladly, with the easy generosity characteristic of people of this culture, a generosity unmatched by the culture into which I was born.
I will spend my currency in their markets on bottled water and souvenirs. Oh, how capitalistic! Yet, an economist would agree this is a very beneficial act. Beyond that, I will listen to their stories, view the killing fields of El Mezote, and see the bulletholes in the walls. In anticipation of the trip I have found myself vascillating between the sense of fear and the sense of adventure: fear, because there are venemous snakes in this equatorial country and people walking around with unconcealed weapons and appaling statistics on gang violence; adventure, because I have never been further south than Mexicali, Mexico, nor have I been to a Third World country, and I have held Romero in awe ever since I watched the movie as a child. So, this will be a learning experience par excellence, which is the first step towards solidarity: knowledge.
And that will be the whole mission in a nutshell. Solidarity. Being With. Emmanuel.
I am reminded of my experience as a Hospice volunteer my senior year of high school. Waiting at the bedside of a man who knew he was dying every Wednesday is an effective way to reflect upon mortality. But sharing that time, however meaningful a gesture, seems insignificant when you meet the nurses, aides, chaplains, bereavement counselors, and numerous individuals who provide for the patient’s many needs. In contrast, I just sat there for one hour with him.
But that’s precisely the role and purpose and gift of the Hospice volunteer. It meant so much to the caregiver to see a high school youth who cared. It was sufficient that I was simply there. That I shared those last months with my patient, held his hand, looked at pictures of his rose garden, listened to his stories, and talked about the afterlife. That was all.
The gift of self is never to be underestimated, for it is ipso facto the gift of Christ. Christ who came for us, to cling to us, to never let us go. Christ who pursues us, who challenges us, who demands justice, who models love. It is through Christ and with Christ and in Christ that I will go. I will meet Christ in the people of El Salvador. I will meet Christ Crucified in their tears, Christ Resurrected in their triumphs, and the Body of Christ, the Iglesia di Cristo in their hope, a hope witnessed in the words and life of Romero. I will meet Christ in mi familia, mi madre, padre y hermanes y amiga. I will meet Christ in myself and welcome Him.
When my fears, my worries, my typical trip-related anxieties start to get the better of me, I will go to Christ. When I act like a Yanqui tourist, I will seek Christ. When I stumble through the Spanish language, I will meet Christ. When I arrive at the airport and see the US military base or stroll the markets and see machetes or (saints preserve us) meet a snake, I will fly to Christ and try to see with His eyes. Eyes of a Just Lord, a Humble Servant, a Sacrificial Victim.
Even before I arrive at the airport, even before I get on the plane, I will go to Christ in prayer, and that’s what I ask from all of you who read this. Pray for me to the Lord our God. Pray for this pilgrimage, my family, and the many travelers who fly down there with us. Ask the intercession of Archbp. Romero, the four churchwomen, the Jesuit priests and their companions, and the countless souls whose fate is known to God alone.
May your Easter experience, your Passion journey, your sharing in Eucharist be as colorful, meaningful, and new as I pray for mine to be. May it bring us ever closer to Christ, more deeply in love with His Church, and more focused in our Christian mission. Pace~