(This is the second in a three-part series on our parish’s upcoming celebration of the beatification of San Oscar Romero which will take place on May 23rd. The event will be observed in Berea’s St. Clare’s parish on June 3rd, when our new bishop, John Stowe, will join us.)
In the previous installment of this mini-series inspired by the upcoming beatification of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, I offered a thumb-nail sketch of the great archbishop’s life. Romero’s witness has been inspiring for many, including Lexington’s new bishop, John Stowe. (As I said, think of the thoughts that must have coursed through the bishop’s mind as he celebrated Mass recently at the very altar where Oscar Romero was shot. We look forward to his sharing those thoughts on June 3rd when he joins our local church to celebrate Monsignor Romero’s beatification.)
In fact, Monsignor Romero’s story should be encouraging to each of us because of its life-changing implications. It connects perfectly with the message of Pope Francis in his “Joy of .the Gospel.” Both tell us that political and spiritual transformation is not only possible; it is necessary to save our world.
First of all consider the example of Oscar Romero. His change was profound both politically and religiously. In both dimensions, he became a radical, like Jesus of Nazareth.
Remember, Monsignor Romero started out conservative in every sense of the word. To a large extent, that’s why he was appointed archbishop in 1977. Romero was considered safe. He was patriotic. He unquestioningly supported his country’s military. He looked on the widespread rebellion of the poor in El Salvador with great suspicion. He considered the would-be revolutionaries communist subversives.
And yet, the archbishop had this close friend on the opposite side of the political fence. He helped Romero grow. That friend was Rutilio Grande. Grande was a Jesuit who took very seriously his vow of poverty.
So the priest moved out of the parish rectory and lived with the poor in their barrio slums. He knew first-hand their struggles, their family break-downs, their unemployment, hunger, low wages, and harassment by local police. Those became his issues, his context for interpreting the Gospel of Jesus.
Even more, Grande knew the Salvadoran military’s strategy for defeating the country’s impoverished insurgents. It was simply this: kill everyone who might possibly be sympathetic to rebel forces. That meant targeting most of the country’s non-elite. It meant butchering many of their parish priests. For Rutilio Grande, the slogan of the White Hand death squad represented an everyday reality and threat: “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”
Eventually, of course, the White Hand killed Father Grande himself. It was his martyrdom that pushed Oscar Romero over the edge and radicalized him. He utterly abandoned his conservatism. He would later say, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” (The “they” Archbishop Romero referred to was his own government, its military, and their backers in the United States.)
So Archbishop Romero started listening to the poor. He attended their “biblical circles,” where peasants shared their thoughts about Sunday gospel readings. Once after listening to simple farmers sharing thoughts about “The Parable of the Sower,” the archbishop stood up without comment and walked away from the group. The local priest followed him and asked anxiously, “What’s the matter, Monsignor, did something offend you?”
“No,” the archbishop responded, “quite the opposite. It’s just that I think I’ve heard the Gospel of Jesus today for the first time.”
This is where Romero’s Other Gospel, Other Jesus, Other God comes in. The archbishop discovered that when poor people read the Bible, they see things that remain invisible for people like us who tend to be white, comfortable, patriarchal, and supportive of empire.
Jesus was none of those things, the archbishop realized. He was brown or black, poor, a victim of empire, and counter-culturally open to the viewpoints and experience of women. Those factors constituted the Master’s standpoint. They deeply influenced how he saw the world.
More specifically, Jesus stood on the same ground as El Salvador’s poor (and by extension, the poor of today’s Global South). He was conceived out of wedlock by a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He was a working man with calloused hands and sweat-stained clothes. His friends, people said, were drunkards and prostitutes. Rabbis expelled Jesus from the synagogue, and thought he was diabolically possessed. Even his family thought he was insane. Jesus became a vagrant without visible means of support. He lived under an oppressive empire. Imperial authorities saw him as an insurgent and terrorist. He ended up a victim of torture and of capital punishment.
All those characteristics, Archbishop Romero realized, described Another Jesus that to him was far more compelling, inspiring and faithful to the gospels than the abstract and other-worldly Jesus elaborated in the theological texts that guided his doctoral studies in Rome.
So San Romero concluded that the poor knew Jesus more deeply and authentically than he ever could. (They had what scholars called a “hermeneutical privilege.”)
The Jesus of the Poor revealed that Other God who alone could save El Salvador. Fidelity to that same Jesus can save our world from the path to destruction we’ve embarked upon. (And this is where Pope Francis’ continuity with Romero’s vision comes in.)
Francis too has chosen to prioritize the experience and understanding of the world that belong to its poor. In doing so, he challenges our very idea of God. He evokes the Other God who alone can save us from the abyss.. For the pope, God is not neutral, but stands with the poor in their struggles against oppression. What does it mean, he asks implicitly, that God chose the poor, oppressed and despised as the primary site of his Self-revelation?
It means the poor of the world are God’s Chosen People. That answer has led Pope Francis to be the voice of the voiceless. And he does so even at risk of being called a communist. In this, he’s like Dom Helder Camara the late and sainted bishop of Recife in Brazil. Dom Helder said, “When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a communist.”
Pope Francis does more than ask Dom Helder’s question. In his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (J.G.), he answers it. I’ll tell you what causes poverty, he says. It’s the reigning economic system that is homicidal (J.G. 53), and unjust at its roots (59). It’s allegiance to the “trickle down” ideology of the rich – a theory that has never worked (53). The world really belongs to the poor, the pope insists (57). The rich who refuse to return to the impoverished what is rightfully theirs are robbers and thieves (57). The rights of the poor take precedence over those of private property (189).
The pope’s choice to be the voice of the voiceless extends to the environment as well to impoverished humans. Watch for his encyclical on climate change to be published sometime next month. There he’ll surely give voice to the planet’s animals, plants, mountains, forests, rivers, and oceans. In the face of climate change, he warns us, “God always forgives. Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.” So what’s the proper response to the challenges of Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, and (we hope) Bishop Stowe? As I see it, proper response entails:
- Leaving behind the safety of contemporary Christianity’s conservative ways.
- Committing to a path of parish renewal and personal faith development intent on acquainting ourselves with the biblical God of the poor.
- Viewing the world and its conflicts from below – from the viewpoint of the Other Jesus embraced by Monsignor Romero – from that of unwed mothers like Miryam of Nazareth, of immigrants, the mentally unbalanced, sex workers, the homeless, insurgents, terrorists and those being water-boarded and executed by the state.
- Recognizing that with 1.2 billion members world-wide, a Catholic Church attuned to the spirits of Oscar Romero and Pope Francis has unlimited potential for changing the world.
- Embracing that change as our collective vocation.
- Abandoning pet convictions that national allegiance, military action, and trickle-down theories will solve our world’s problems.
- Embracing the Other Jesus of the poor
- His Other God
- And the Other World that Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, and Jesus proclaim as the very essence of God’s Kingdom.