Holy Week this year begins on March 24th, a day that marks the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. His death was preceded by the assassination of Rotelio Grande, a Jesuit priest and personal friend of Romero. Padre Grande had been working among the campesinos trying to encourage them to become more self-reliant and less intimidated by a repressive government. When his friend died, Archbishop Romero thought, “If they killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”
One month before his own assassination, Archbishop Romero was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Louvain for his humanitarian efforts. He had been denouncing the persecution of members of the Catholic Church who had worked for the poor. In accepting the doctorate he stated, “It is important to note why (the church) has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”
As we begin Holy Week, 2013, we remember the assassination of Archbishop Romero and Padre Grande, prompted by the same kind of fear that led to the execution of Jesus. Those men spoke up on behalf of those who were powerless. They challenged those who could do something to help them but chose to do nothing. The focus this week will obviously be on Jesus, but Romero’s experience reminds us that human suffering among people of faith continues in our own day.
But not all suffering is caused by violence and oppression. There is also human suffering that occurs as a result of some very natural causes such as sickness and natural death. At the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center we experienced such suffering and sadness that resulted from the sudden and unexpected death of our dear co-worker, Linda Weigel, the Director of our Archdiocesan Tribunal. She experienced a massive heart attack and died a week later. It was a great loss both personally and professionally for all of us.
For the good people of El Salvador, for the family and friends of Linda Weigel, as painful as their suffering may have been, such suffering has not been without hope. And why is that? Because of the events we shall be commemorating during the coming Holy Week, namely, the passion, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. Romero and Linda were true believers and they went to their graves with the knowledge that they, like their Lord and Savior, Jesus, will rise again. Those of us who share their faith, in spite of our sadness, are able to rejoice over their share in the Lord’s Easter victory.
Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday with the blessing of palms and the reading of the Passion of Jesus. This year we shall hear Luke’s version of that woeful tale. As we listen to the Passion this year, we shall once again be introduced to St. Dismas, the good thief whose conversion should be a true source of inspiration for all who feel terribly mired in sin and unable to embrace a life of virtue. When he implored Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the Lord assured him that not only would he remember him but that he, Dismas, would that night share in Christ’s heavenly glory.
Holy Thursday evening begins with the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. With that Eucharistic gathering the Easter Triduum begins, three days when we commemorate the paschal mystery, the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. The Triduum ends with evening prayer on Easter Sunday. Some folks mistakenly think that on Thursday and Friday we commemorate the Lord’s passion and death and then on Saturday and Sunday we celebrate His Resurrection. In truth, every day during the Triduum we celebrate the entire paschal mystery. We gratefully acknowledge our own share in that great mystery as we too suffer on this earth, face death with some fear and concern, but with hope in our hearts, look forward to the day of our own resurrection and glory.
We call the week before Easter Holy Week. Thursday’s celebration rejoices in the gift of the Eucharist, our spiritual nourishment on our journey of faith. Every time we gather for Eucharist we celebrate the paschal mystery. It is a feast not reserved exclusively to Holy Week. In that sense, every day we gather for Eucharist is a “holy day,” much as the week before Easter is “Holy Week”. When people know they are going to die, they choose their words carefully and often let their friends know how they would like to be remembered. Jesus did much the same when he told his disciples, “Take and eat, for this is my body. Take and drink, for this is my blood.” For nearly 2,000 years the church has done this in memory of Him. What a precious gift we have in the Most Holy Eucharist.
Then on Good Friday, not only do we listen once again to the reading of the Passion, this time John’s version, but many of us also partake in the Way of the Cross, remembering prayerfully the Lord’s journey, from his death sentence to his burial in the tomb, after his crucifixion on Calvary. The Pope traditionally leads the Way of the Cross at Rome’s Coliseum on Good Friday night. Each one of us, either in common or private, relives those moments of Christ on the Via Dolorosa, wondering where we might have been had we been in the city of Jerusalem on that unforgettable day so long ago.
Would we have been among the soldiers, pushing Jesus along the way and jerking him up when he fell? Would we have been with his mother when she greeted her son? Would we have come to his aid, reluctantly like Simon of Cyrene or courageously like Veronica? Or would we be weeping with the women of Jerusalem as he passed by, or berating him as he was stripped, crucified and hung on a cross? Would we have helped Joseph of Aramethea take him down from the cross and bury him in the tomb? Yes, we were there, but where?
On Holy Saturday night we celebrate the Easter Vigil, the principal liturgical celebration of the year. As our elect and candidates are received into the church, we too celebrate our own rebirth in Christ. We thank God for our faith, our church family, our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, our evangelizing mission. We leave church sent forth to proclaim the good news of all that we have experienced during Holy Week. I hope that we find time to be church together this Holy Week. It will be a time of transition for our Catholic family as Pope Francis steps forward to succeed Pope Benedict XVI and as Archbishop Sample prepares to be installed as our new archbishop.
It is my sincere prayer during these final days of my ministry among you that together we shall be strengthened and renewed in our commitment to embrace the full paschal mystery of suffering, dying and rising again like Archbishop Romero, like our dear sister, Linda Weigel and especially like our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. A blessed Holy Week and Easter to all of you!