It was the best event our parish has experienced in my 40 years of membership there. Around 225 people attended. I’m talking about our celebration of Oscar Romero’s beatification.
There was even a miracle! After a dreary day of clouds and threatening rain, the sun came out exactly at 5:00 as everyone assembled.
There were smiling faces (young and old, Hispanic and Anglo), children chasing each other across the parish lawn, reunions of friends including former pastors, loud Mexican music, a great DJ, dancing, embraces, back-patting, handshakes, laughter on all sides, an abundance of homemade food, buy-in on the parts of everyone, beautiful table cloths and tents with white folding chairs, and energy that wouldn’t stop.
I’ve never heard more enthusiastic singing in St. Clare’s. The church roof seemed in danger of just flying off into space. The choir was magnificent, enthusiastic, and well-prepared; it was backed by horns, guitars, drums and beautiful vocals.
Never before have the Hispanic and Anglo communities interacted so seamlessly. The program was beautifully printed, the sound system flawless. Songs and hymns alternated between Spanish and English. Everything was translated beautifully.
“This is the best thing we’ve ever done!” was the euphoric refrain.
Our new bishop, the Franciscan, John Stowe, was there unpretentiously in his friar’s garb and scarlet skull cap. He was everything we hoped for – arriving half an hour early, mixing effortlessly, and staying afterwards to enjoy the rich variety of desserts and sweet drinks served under the tents.
His Spanish is beautiful, and he was careful to translate everything he said. He spoke of the Guadalupana, of his own visits to El Salvador, of Oscar Romero’s heroism, and of the martyr’s influence on his own life. He challenged us to follow the archbishop’s example of commitment to the poor and voiceless. He referenced liberation theology, and ended his remarks shouting “Viva Oscar Romero!”
As for my own remarks I was so worried about . . . . The audience was so attentive.
My former teaching associate and good friend, Ann Butwell, translated everything sentence-for-sentence. She was wonderful. Afterwards I was told that a college student said he had never heard such a radical speech, but that the words were welcome. And that’s what I felt from the entire audience; though I’m sure a good number of listeners were scandalized.
Nonetheless, I let it all hang out. I spoke of the cruelty of U.S. policy in El Salvador, its support of the elite minority, its death-squad strategy there and in Iraq. I spoke of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and their reluctance to advance Oscar Romero’s canonization. I asked the audience to imagine 1.2 billion Catholics becoming true peacemakers and dissuading their sons and daughters from joining the military. I suggested we should rain books, schools, and hospitals on perceived enemies rather than bombs and hellfire missiles.
The first time I mentioned Pope Francis, everyone applauded.
All of that taught me something. People are ready to hear strong words and critical thoughts even in church. It’s the same experience I’ve had in the classroom, both in Berea College and among the American fundamentalist students when I taught liberation theology in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica.
There’s a new spirit in the air; people are ready for the truth. They’re ready for change, despite the power and money trying to convince us that the old spirit with its falsehoods and denials are universally accepted as “common sense.”
Here in Kentucky – in St. Clare’s parish – we find ourselves in a Kairos (a special time of God’s grace). But our window’s opening is small, and we must act quickly to take advantage of the opportunities for meaningful change in the church and in society at large.
It’s true; Bishop Stowe is absolutely channeling Pope Francis. That’s wonderful. But Bishop Stowe is young (49 years) and will soon be moving on to a bigger stage. Meanwhile Pope Francis is old and will soon be known as Pope St. Francis. Who knows what disasters might succeed their periods in office?
But think of the moment we have:
- The parish Peace and Social Justice Committee has just sponsored the most wonderful event in the history of our local church. (Even before last night, remarks I’ve heard overestimate the size and activity of our twenty-person group.)
- As a result of the Romero event, the committee enjoys a higher profile than it’s ever had.
- So the community is likely to be receptive of the events the Committee has been considering around the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change later this month. Those activities include buying copies for everyone in the parish, discussing the encyclical in pre-Mass “Sunday Schools” next September and staging screenings and discussions of the pope’s speeches delivered to the U.S. Congress and U.N. during his visit that same month.
- Meanwhile, we’re in a national election cycle, and our planned events around climate change will raise consciousness (and questions) about candidates’ positions on that pivotal issue. It all may influence the way people vote.
The pope, Bishop Stowe, the success of the Romero event, the pope’s encyclical, his visit to the United States, the coming national elections, the crisis of climate chaos, and the enhanced status of the St. Clare Peace and Social Justice Committee – it’s all coming together.
We must seize the moment!