Today is Pentecost Sunday, sometimes called the “Birthday of the Church.”
Significantly, Pentecost’s vigil (yesterday) is the day the church has chosen to “beatify” Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in El Salvador on March 24th, 1980. His beatification (the final state before canonization or sainthood) took place there yesterday.
The co-incidence of the two anniversaries is full of meaning for a community of faith desperately in need of rebirth.
Politically speaking, the unblocking of San Romero’s beatification process by Pope Francis represents the pope’s call to appropriate Jesus’ Spirit of Life and leave behind all traces of the political conservatism that characterized most of the archbishop’s life. Pope Francis calls us to boldness, radicalism and outspoken partisanship on behalf of the world’s poor. That’s the Spirit of Jesus, he says. It’s the Spirit Oscar Romero eventually embraced.
To get what I mean, please join me in reflecting on (1) Roman Catholic conservatism – at least as I currently experience it, (2) the conversion of Oscar Romero to the radicalism of liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor,” and (3) the directions for similar change given by Pope Francis in his “Joy of the Gospel.” Following those directions, I argue, promises his church a New Pentecost.
I The Irrelevance of the Catholicism I Experience
To begin with, consider the Catholic Church I experience each week. Its present form is a construction of the reactionary popes, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013). I consider their papal reigns disastrous.
Because of their counter-reforms, my local parish not only ignores the progressive initiatives of the Second Vatican Council, it gives every indication of attempting to reverse them in the minds of my fellow parishioners.
In fact, the documents of Vatican II are rarely referenced in our church. Their place has been taken by the conservative invention, The Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“Masses” from one week to the next show almost no variation or planning. Everything seems rote. Sermons are full of clichés about heaven and churchy bromides. Not a word connects the Radical Jesus with Ferguson, Baltimore, Iraq, drone warfare, torture, the LGBTQQ struggles, or climate chaos. To introduce such topics might “upset” some people, so they’re completely ignored.
No such sensitivity, however, is displayed regarding conservative issues concerning abortion, gay marriage or climate change. The latter is almost never mentioned, while the former issues (abortion and gay marriage) are highlighted at every opportunity. Our diocesan newspaper, The Crossroads, communicates the distinct impression that good Catholics are good Republicans and vote accordingly.
II Oscar Romero’s Pentecost
For most of his life, Oscar Romero would have been comfortable in my local church.
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 end of the political spectrum. He helped Romero grow. That friend was Rutilio Grande. Grande was a Jesuit who took seriously his vow of poverty.
So Father Grande moved out of the parish rectory and lived with the poor. He knew first-hand their struggles, their family break-downs, their unemployment, hunger, low wages, and harassment by local police.
Worse still, 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 most of the country’s non-elite. It meant 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 Rutilio 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.”
In other words, the archbishop discovered that when poor people read the Bible, they see things that remain invisible for conservatives comfortable with whiteness, patriarchy, and 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 were the Master’s viewpoints. They deeply influenced how he saw the world.
More specifically, Jesus stood on the same ground as El Salvador’s poor (and the poor of the Global South). He was born out-of-wedlock to a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He was a working man with calloused hands and sweat-stained clothes. He loved fiestas. His friends, people said, were drunkards and prostitutes. Rabbis expelled Jesus from the synagogue, and thought he was diabolically possessed. Even his family questioned his sanity. 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 on death row, 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 Romero concluded that the poor knew Jesus more deeply and authentically than he ever could. (They had what scholars called a “hermeneutical privilege.”)
Even more, the Jesus of the Poor revealed Another God who alone 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.)
III Pope Francis’ Pentecost
Like the converted, Spirit-led Oscar Romero, Pope Francis does not shy away from radicalism, controversy or partisanship in the name of social justice. In fact, the pope identifies the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” [“Joy of the Gospel” (JG) 220, 258].
And the pope walks his talk. Think about his:
- Part in negotiating an end to U.S. policy towards Cuba, despite what Miami Cubans might think.
- Recognition of the Palestinian state in the face of objections from Israel and its supporters.
- Identification of the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace” over the same objections.
- Famous “who am I to judge” statement about homosexuality.
- Unblocking of canonization procedures for Oscar Romero, the patron saint of liberation theology.
- Embrace of liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor.”
- Planned encyclical on climate chaos, even over objections by U.S. Republicans and their think tanks like the Heartland Institute.
- Stated intention to influence the Paris Climate Summit next December.
Yes, (in U.S. terms) the pope has not been afraid to alienate Republicans and give the distinct impression that their agenda is largely incompatible with Christian faith.
I’d even go so far as to say that “The Joy of the Gospel” is like a manifesto against Republican approaches to social issues. I mean, JG:
- Condemns wide disparities in income (188).
- Advocates redistribution of wealth (189)
- Rejects trickle-down economic theory as illusionary and entirely dysfunctional (54).
- Sees unfettered markets as homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).
- Demands market regulation as indispensable (56).
- Views “each and every human right” [including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192)] as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (213).
- Presents environmental protection as a moral imperative (215, 216).
- Dismisses war as incapable of combatting violence which the pope sees as caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59).
It will no doubt offend some in my parish to read these words. But that’s the point of Pentecost, isn’t it – to shake us up?
After all, Jesus offended the conservative members of his parish-equivalent. Romero offended conservative Salvadorans and conservative U.S. “Americans.” Pope Francis makes no bones about offending Jewish Zionists, Miami Cubans, U.S. Republicans and climate change deniers.
The Spirit of Life is not conservative. It is not imperial. It wants everyone to survive and thrive – especially the ones the dominant order rejects as unworthy.
In those senses, It makes a preferential option for the poor.