Oscar Romero was born in a small village in El Salvador. He became a priest and for many years lived a quiet and unassuming life as a pastor to his people. He was certainly not known for rocking the boat and so when the job of archbishop came up in his country, a land that was in a constant state of civil war and which was ruled by military despots, he was chosen to fill that post. The government believed they had found a man who would be little more than a puppet of their corrupt regime.
However, Archbishop Romero immediately began to speak out against the institutionalised violence in his country and in his sermons he supported the demands of the poor for economic and social justice. This upset the government who threatened him with assassination but he refused to be silenced and continued to preach Christ’s message of good news for the poor. On the twenty fourth of March, 1980, whilst presiding at Mass he was shot dead by a gunman.
In 1980, an uprising of the native people caused the overthrow of the government of the West African country of Liberia. There followed a time of uncertainty, civil unrest, and armed struggle between rival factions.
In 1989 the government of Samuel Doe, which had been in power since the coup in 1980, fell and Liberia was engaged in a civil war. One of the rebels was Charles Taylor, a warlord who led a brutal force of thugs and child soldiers, in a quest for power.
A small order of American nuns called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, had been working in Liberia since the 1970’s as missionaries and relief workers.
When the civil war erupted they continued in their ministry and were beloved for their willingness to provide relief and help to the poor and helpless people caught up in the civil war.
On the twentieth of October, 1992, five of the nuns ( Sister Barbara Muttra, Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, Sister Agnes Mueller, Sister Shirley Kolmer, and Sister Kathleen McGuire ) were brutally murdered by a group of Charles Taylor‘s soldiers.
These sisters had the opportunity to flee Liberia in 1990, but all of them believed that faithfulness to Christ demanded that they stay. They paid the ultimate sacrifice for their faithfulness.
When we think about saints and martyrs we tend to think about people who lived a long time ago. Saint Francis, for example, or the saints and apostles of the early Church.
However, as my two examples prove, martyrdom is still, in our own day, being demanded of Christians. Christians are being persecuted in many places in the world. We often hear reports of the killing of Christians in Pakistan, in Nigeria and in other countries.
When I was at college, one of my tutors was an Egyptian Coptic Christian. The Coptic Church in Egypt is constantly being persecuted by the Muslim majority in that land. My tutor, George, had been forced into exile because of his faith and when he visited his family in Egypt he feared for his very life.
One of my fellow students at college was from Pakistan. Often he would hear reports of Christians being killed or arrested in his homeland. He was stuck in a leafy suburb of Nottingham whilst his family was in danger back home.
I had friends who were Nigerian and Ugandan. Their future lives in the priesthood were going to be considerably more dangerous than mine.
For many Christians, persecution is a part of their daily walk with Christ.
Jesus promised us that being a follower of his would not be easy. He came, not to bring peace, but the sword. Don’t forget that Jesus was murdered because of his faith, he was the first martyr, and he was murdered because what he preached was dangerous. The Roman and the Jewish leaders would not have bothered with him if all he had said was “be nice to one another.”
No, he had to die because he attacked the status quo. He took sides with the poor and oppressed against the powerful, just as Oscar Romero and the nuns of Liberia were to do two thousand years later.
Of course, not all the saints that we commemorate today were martyrs. Many of them died peacefully in old age. Some were doyens of the spiritual life, some founded great religious institutions, some were writers or great philosophers, some gave up everything to work with the poor. Others became saints for just being pope or something in the same way senior civil servants and leading businessmen get knighthoods.
The list of official saints, although long, is, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg; it is merely representative. You see, the Christian world is full of saints, wherever you go you will come across them. They’re here in this church. We are the saints of God, or, at the very least, we are trainee saints. You see, we become saints when we sign up to the Christian faith and when we start to take what that really means, seriously.
A saint is somebody who lives the Christian life.
And what does that mean? Well today’s gospel reading, what we call the beatitudes, gives us examples of the different attributes of the saints.
As Christians we should be poor in spirit. That’s a strange phrase, at first you might think it means being lacking in spiritual depth. But it doesn’t mean that. The poor in spirit are those who bow humbly before God in total trust, who are willing to await everything at God’s hand. They have seen through the false promise of wealth. They do not crave riches or the things that riches can buy.
We should mourn. Not just when we are bereaved but also we should mourn for our world, governed as it is by the power of evil. We should mourn for the sins of the world and for our own sins.
We should be meek. Not meek in its modern sense. Not soft. The truly meek are, in the Bible, the considerate, the unassuming, the peaceable towards both God and their fellow human beings. They do not push their own plans to the detriment of God’s saving plan. Jesus is the model of the meek man who gives rest to others, the meek king who brings salvation through his own sufferings, the Son who through meekness gains all authority.
We should hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice. We should live just lives. We should be fair to other people wherever they live. We shouldn’t just talk about justice we should act in ways that bring justice into the world. And we must be prepared to be ridiculed and shunned when we do stand up for justice. Speaking out against the rich and powerful is a dangerous occupation.
We should be merciful. For only by being merciful shall we receive mercy. We should not seek revenge. We should forgive other people their trespasses against us so that God can forgive our trespasses against him.
We should be pure in heart. It is no good being saintly on the outside if on the inside you are a seething mass of hatred and bitterness. Purity of heart is achieved by concentrating on God so that thoughts about God replace the bad thoughts we all have from time to time.
We should be peacemakers. The Hebrew word for peace, “shalom,” literally means, “wholeness.” We should be striving to heal both people and situations, making peace between people and other people and between people and God.
It sounds a bit scary that list. How can we achieve all that?
Don’t panic, if you read the beatitudes carefully you will notice that you need only need of the eight qualities to get into heaven. I’m hoping that having a little bit of each one will also get us into heaven.
We can achieve that.
God isn’t after perfection. If he is then he’s going to be very lonely come the last judgment.
Anyway saints are not necessarily saintly all their lives. I bet Saint Francis had his off days when he snapped at his brothers or let slip a choice Italian expletive.
You and me, sometimes we are good people and sometimes we are bad people. We are going to fail sometimes, just as the great saints failed sometimes. But there will be times, a lot of times, when we succeed.
I am not a holy person, not as the world defines it. Neither, I expect, are most of you. But we are faithful soldiers and servants of our Lord, and we do try hard to be the people God wants us to be. I believe, that in the end, that will be enough for the God that I love, and we will join with those super saints as they gather around God’s throne of glory.