By Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ
April, this year, is Resurrection Month. Everywhere, all the brothers and sisters of the human family, whether explicitly or not, are longing for new life, desperate for the deadly pandemic to end, for the fullness of life to free us from the terror of illness and death that has hung over us for over a year. We’ve seen so much selfless fraternity but we’ve also seen discord, violence and the spread of a harsh politics of hostility, even hate. It’s timely, then, that Pope Francis asks us, this month, to pray with him 'for those who risk their lives while fighting for fundamental rights under dictatorship, authoritarian regimes and even in democracies in crisis'.
Human Person, Human Dignity
Praying with the Pope this month is associating ourselves with his frequent assertion that human rights cannot be ignored, because of the basic dignity of each human person. This month is not the first time he has raised this. When, in 2018, the world marked the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Francis recognised that, with this landmark document, 'the family of Nations wanted to recognise the equal dignity of every human person'. Human rights, which he described as 'universal, indivisible, interdependent and interconnected', derive from the nature of the human person, an 'inseparable unity of body and soul'. We need to be particularly vigilant about the poor and dispossessed because, when they are denied these rights, they 'see their dignity ignored, despised or trampled on and their most basic rights ignored or violated'. That dignity is, of course, God-given.
Pope Francis in Iraq
Recently, Pope Francis has given us another example of combatting the virus of authoritarianism that has become a pandemic, even in democracies. His risky visit to Iraq included a historic meeting with the most revered Islamic Shi’ite cleric, the 94 year-old Ali al-Sistani. Their significant encounter came just when xenophobic nationalism, ugly populism and dangerous fissures in even democratic political systems are eroding fundamental rights worldwide. The Pope had spent time and prayed in ruined Christian places of worship, in solidarity with all those who had suffered – and been killed – by the forces of intolerance and hate. Both religious leaders thus promoted the rights of all oppressed religious and ethnic groups. But hard-liners within their own religions, and populist, authoritarian politicians, have opposed their peacebuilding efforts.
St Oscar and Fr Rutilio
Many of those who risk their lives under authoritarian dictatorships, for the sake of fundamental rights, are killed. They know the risks yet do not keep quiet. In our epoch, Oscar Romero is a notable example. We celebrated his feast-day as a Saint of the Church just last month, on the 24th, that being the date of his assassination, while celebrating Mass, in March 1980. We recalled how this rather shy and bookish archbishop of San Salvador had been seen by the ruling elite as no threat to their oppressive dominance. These few rich families had the government and army in their pocket and were sure they had the prelate there too. There was no risk that he would ally with those priests who stood up for the trampled rights of the poor. Many brave clergy and religious did speak out; contemporary eyewitnesses reported graffiti slogans appearing on city buildings, declaiming, 'Be a patriot – kill a priest'.
Assassinated for Justice and Human Rights
Things changed suddenly. Fr Rutilio Grande, his close Jesuit friend, was murdered by the state’s death-squads because of his advocacy for oppressed communities. Romero, seeing the bullet-ridden body of his best friend by the roadside later than same day (beside the murdered corpses of two parishioners) knew what he had to do. He began to denounce injustice and state violence. Poor and exploited people in villages across El Salvador tuned into his weekly radio homilies. Many called him the voice of the voiceless—and he encouraged others to become advocates too. This was too much for the powerful elites. Archbishop Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in the cancer hospital where he lived simply. He spoke out rather than remain silent, following the example of his great friend Rutilio three years earlier – and of his leader, Christ the King. St Oscar and Rutilio ask us now if we really can remain spectators, not speaking out.
Pray with the Pope
Praying with the Pope each month is praying with each other, as the people that God’s Holy Spirit gathers and inspires. Ours is his own personal prayer-group, the largest in the church, following a daily prayer pathway, a way of the heart that anyone can follow. Since the early days of the Apostleship of Prayer over 176 years ago until now, we’ve been devoted to the heart of Christ, from which flows salvation and nourishment for the world. The Pope entrusts to this Network each month, to make known to all people of good will, the concerns of his own heart as he surveys the challenges that face humanity and the church’s mission. We, the church, whether gathered or dispersed, join him in praying for these intentions, asking to place our own hearts next to Jesus’s Sacred Heart. Our morning offering prayer is how we express that deep desire.
A suggested Morning Offering:
Trinity of communion and mutual love,
Show me the world of today as you see it;
momentous acts of kindness and service but also intolerance, rage and basic rights denied.
Grant me and my community the wisdom and courage that inspired Rutilio, Oscar, Pope Francis and all fearless leaders who struggle for basic human rights.
As we have accompanied, in this strangest of years, your Son to his redemptive Cross, we now ask for inner knowledge of your resurrection, your continuing glorious presence to your people.
May the peace that you offered to your grieving friends inspire us as it consoled them.
I offer today, all my words and actions, for your mission
and may we pray, with the Pope, for all those who risk everything for the rights of all.
Proposals for April and Eastertide
- Explore the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, which enshrines the rights and freedoms of every one of us. Learn how it commits nations to recognise that every human person is 'born free and equal in dignity and rights'. Consider, and discuss if you can, with friends and parish groups, how well its precepts are observed in our times.
- Read about St Oscar Romero, his conversion to advocacy for the poor, his martyrdom and his canonisation in 2018. Read also about Rutilio Grande SJ. There are high hopes for his beatification and eventual canonisation, which will be joyous occasions for all Jesuits and Ignatian people and for all who fight for fundamental rights. See http://www.romerotrust.org.uk/martyrs/rutilio-grande-sj
- Read Pope Francis’s 'Let us Dream: The Path to a Better Future'; look for, or form, an online reading group to explore it together. Pray, share and discuss the Pope’s reflections on how to rebuild our world.