By Fr David Stewart SJ
The Pope’s prayer intention for March, shared through the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, coincides with the 40th anniversary this month of the assassination of Saint Oscar Romero. It comes also as we suffer with the people of China, devastated by the outbreak of coronavirus. Pope Francis asks us to pray this month ‘that the Church in China may persevere in its faithfulness to the Gospel and to grow in unity’. This unity and faithfulness extends to all of us as we practice solidarity, an essential component of Catholic Social Teaching, with those who suffer anywhere in the world. 40 years ago, the people of God and, indeed, the great mass of the populace in El Salvador, suffered under state oppression. In our time, the faithful in China suffer in a similar way and now have the added horror of this awful epidemic.
Prayer is at the heart of our mission
In 2019, Pope Francis reminded us that ‘the heart of the church’s mission is prayer’. When we pray with the Holy Father, we are opening our own hearts to mission, to discipleship, not merely making a resolution to do this or that good action. St Oscar Romero once preached: ‘people shine brightest when they are the Lord’s light, when they make their work a way of serving humanity, when they are lamps that are consumed as they give out light’. He was speaking of people who were putting prayer at the heart of their mission.
The Salvadorian people found their champion in Oscar, and in his Jesuit companion and mentor Rutilio Grande SJ, both men martyred for refusing to compromise with state oppression. The Holy Father invites each of us to partake in no less important a mission this month: praying in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in China. Few of us will be asked to give our blood, or indeed our lives, in solidarity with them; but by opening our hearts to their situation, we can unleash the power of prayer that motivates us towards discipleship, that forms our hearts.
Catholics in China
Most experts estimate China’s Catholics to number around 12 million. Some are members of the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, over which the Vatican has no authority. Others belong to an underground church loyal to the Holy See. It is the latter group that have experienced persecution. Underground priests and parishioners are frequently detained and harassed. Part of the prayer intention this month is that the Chinese church may ‘grow in unity’. Jesus, of course, prayed to the Father, ‘that they may all be one’. Pope Francis, who constantly promotes dialogue, recently reached an agreement with the Chinese state to recognise state-appointed bishops. This was a controversial decision, harshly criticised in some quarters. The Holy Father’s view is that reconciliation and mercy, what Oscar Romero called ‘the violence of love’, ought always to be our guiding principle. This conviction underlies the Pope’s approach to the difficult issue of Catholic Christians in China.
St Oscar Romero and Fr Rutilio Grande SJ
Perhaps our prayer for the church in China might include a prayer to St Oscar Romero for his intercession for these suffering people. We might think, too, of the recently-announced beatification of Oscar’s trusted companion and mentor, Fr Rutilio Grande SJ. This Jesuit priest became for Oscar an example of what his own mission and destiny would be. Rutilio worked tirelessly for the poor of El Salvador and was eventually assassinated, along with two of his parishioners. St Oscar knew that this would be his mission too, and his fate. From that moment onwards the shy Archbishop Oscar Romero became a true leader of all his people. Three years later, he followed his friend and mentor to martyrdom. Let us pray for all who are oppressed anywhere in our troubled world and let us remember all those in China affected and bereaved by the coronavirus epidemic.
Three proposals for this month, for your own mission
- Read about the discussions Pope Francis has been having with the Chinese government about the place of Catholic Christians in China.
- Ask a Jesuit to tell you more about the heroic life of Rutilio Grande SJ and pray in gratitude that the good news about his beatification has come.
Attend Mass on 24th March, which is the first time St Oscar Romero’s feast day will be officially celebrated since his canonisation. Ask your priest if the Mass of St Oscar Romero’s feast can be celebrated on that day and pray for St Oscar Romero’s intercession for all who suffer under state oppression, especially for their faith.