I’ve been agonizing about this little talk I’m to make tomorrow evening at the beatification celebration of Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Everybody will be there: parish members, guests from other churches (Protestant and Catholic), former pastors, and John Stowe, our brand new bishop.
So I’ve been boring my friends (and readers of this blog) with draft after draft. To begin with, my worries have centered on the writing concerns I’ve inflicted on my students over the years. You know, the ones about having a sharp thesis, a clear preview of the points to be made, good follow-through on those points, and a strong conclusion.
More than that, however, I’ve fretted about possibly offending my audience. I mean, if I really articulated what I think must be said about Oscar Romero, many listeners might just turn me off. “Too political,” they’d say, “inappropriate,” “polarizing,” “ranting.” I’ve been warned against all those things. (In any case, I’ve been told by a prominent member of my church that “90% of the people are offended by what you write in the Lexington Herald-Leader every month!”)
Yes, I’m worried.
But then I thought of Dan McGinn, a mentor of mine during my doctoral studies in Rome. Like me, he was (but Dan still is) a priest in the Society of St. Columban. He was always refreshingly outspoken and unfailingly called things by their names.
Dan was fond of saying that if he ever “made bishop,” he’d put a special motto on his coat of arms. [Every bishop has a coat of arms with his motto at the bottom. For instance, the motto of the new bishop (John Stowe) heading our diocese of Lexington, Kentucky is “Annunciamus verbum vitae” (We proclaim the word of life.)] Well, Dan said that if ever made bishop, the motto under his coat of arms would be “No more bullshit!”
Bottom line is: I’ve decided to follow Dan’s implicit advice and throw caution to the winds. I no longer know exactly how my talk will come out. But I intend to say something like the following:
I’ve been asked by the parish Peace and Social Justice Committee and by the Lenten “Joy of the Gospel” Study Group to say a few words reminding us of why we are here.
Of course, we’re here to celebrate the beatification of Blessed Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador. But why should we care?
We should care, I think, because Romero’s beatification personifies and embodies Pope Francis’ basic call in “The Joy of the Gospel.” There the pope summons the entire church to reform, to be converted, to repent, and be transformed. Nothing can remain as it has been, the pope says. The church must become relevant to the problems of poverty, inequality, and war that afflict our world.
So I suggest that the pope’s decision to beatify Oscar Romero dramatizes the pontiff’s exhortation.
But which side should we take in a politically polarized world? Which side are we on?
The side of the poor, the pope says. And by that he doesn’t mean greater generosity in making up our Christmas baskets or giving an extra dollar in Sunday’s second collection. He means doing what Oscar Romero did – what Jesus of Nazareth did. He means identifying with the poor, their ways of seeing the world. He means refusing to support our culture’s favorite way of dealing with them – treating them with “tough love,” depriving them of life’s basics, waiting for wealth to “trickle down,” and when push comes to shove, killing them (whether that’s in Ferguson, Baltimore, Bagdad or Palestine).
In other words, Oscar Romero provides a case study of the kind of conversion and relevance the Holy Father urges us to embrace.
Like most of us – I speak for myself – Oscar Romero started out uncritical and unquestioningly patriotic. Until he was 60 he supported a system that had 1% of El Salvador’s population controlling 90% of its wealth. He sided with his county’s police and military which were at war with its own people to keep things that way.
He bought the line that those opposing the system were communists. So while his country was on fire, his sermons addressed the usual banalities: the afterlife, heaven, hell, and individual salvation.
The United States supported El Salvador’s government too. All during the 1980s, it gave its military more than one million dollars a day to fund what was called “the El Salvador option” for defeating the country’s insurgency. It was a “death squad” solution which killed everyone who might be connected with the insurgency – teachers, union organizers, social workers, priests and nuns. The slogan of the military’s “White Hand” death squad was, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”
That slogan took on new meaning for Archbishop Romero when his good friend, the Jesuit, Rutilio Grande, was martyred by the White Hand. Grande was killed because El Salvador’s government saw how he lived among and served peasants and slum dwellers sympathetic to the insurgents. So they considered him a terrorist.
In reality, Father Grande was entirely motivated by the Gospel. He had come to see the world from the viewpoint of the poor. That was the essence of Jesus’ message, he said – good news for the poor. In the gospels, Grande found, Jesus not only saw the world from the viewpoint of the poor, he identified with them becoming one of them. He shared the values and characteristics of the poor that El Salvador’s rich despised.
For instance, Jesus’ skin was black or brown, not white like the elite of El Salvador. Jesus was dirt poor. He was conceived out-of-wedlock by a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He belonged to the working class. His hands were calloused; his clothes were sweat-stained. Jesus liked fiestas and was accused of being a drunkard, possessed by the devil, and friend of sex workers. He was harassed constantly by the police and died a victim of torture and capital punishment, because the occupation forces of Rome considered him a terrorist.
That was the Jesus Rutilio Grande worshipped and preached – a Jesus completely like the people he served.
And so the “White Hand” or “The Secret Anti-Communist Army” (or one of those death squads) killed him – along with 75,000 other El Salvadorans. (Imagine the impact of those deaths in a country of just 6 million people!)
Grande’s death profoundly changed Oscar Romero. He said, “When I saw Rutilio lying there dead, I knew I had to follow his path.” And he did.
Archbishop Romero began speaking out against the government, army and police. He saw that the soldiers fighting against peasants and poor people weren’t heroes, but misled and brainwashed victims. Just before his death, he fairly shouted at them in a final homily: “No soldier is bound to follow orders that contradict the law of God. Don’t you see; you are killing your own brothers and sisters? . . . I beg you; I implore you; I order you: stop the repression!”
Those words sealed San Romero’s fate. The next evening while celebrating Mass for nuns in a hospital chapel, a sniper got him too. He became the first bishop to be murdered at the altar since Thomas Beckett at the beginning of the 12th century.
That’s the Romero story. It’s the story of a churchman converted late in life to centralizing peace and social justice concerns. And that’s the “Joy of the Gospel” connection. In that Apostolic Exhortation, the pope calls us to a similar centralization. The beatification of Oscar Romero reinforces that message.
To understand all of that, you have to grasp one shocking fact: Oscar Romero was killed by Catholics. And when he was murdered, there were fireworks and celebrations in the neighborhoods of El Salvador’s elite. These people were friends of the Vatican.
As a result, Pope Francis’ predecessors (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) were not anxious to canonize the archbishop. He was too polarizing, they thought. He too clearly took the side of the poor in their struggle with the rich. They even wondered if he had been duped by the communists.
And besides, how could Romero be classified as a martyr? After all, martyrs, by definition are defenders of the “true faith” against non-believers. But (again) Romero was killed by Catholics and hated by people who went to Mass each Sunday and believed all the right things about abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and divorce.
So John Paul II and Benedict XVI blocked Romero’s canonization and put the process on hold.
Francis has removed the block. Do you see what that implies?
It implies that “the true faith” is Romero’s faith. Its hallmark is identification with the poor in their struggle for justice — not those other narrow “moral” concerns. The true faith addresses issues like the justice of our economic system, wide disparities between the rich and the poor, and an economy based on war. It addresses climate change as a moral problem. All of these are themes central to “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Can you imagine what would happen to our state if the diocese of Lexington followed Romero’s example and became famous and distinguished as “that little peacemaking diocese in Central Kentucky” that everyone’s talking about?
Can you imagine what would happen in Berea if St. Clare’s worked closely with Union Church and cooperated to become as outspoken as Oscar Romero about issues of economic justice, racial and gender equality, war and peace?
Can you imagine what would happen in the world if 1.2 billion Catholics adopted Archbishop Romero’s spirit? What if Catholics on principle decided to absolutely reject war as a solution to the world’s problems and adopt economic justice instead? What if (in effect) we decided to drop books, hospitals, and schools on our perceived enemies instead of bombs and drone “hell fire”?
This evening, as you listen to the words of Oscar Romero during our celebration, please keep those questions in mind. They are vital to our faith.
What I’m saying is that all of us should care about Oscar Romero. He remains relevant to us; he challenges us today.
Archbishop Romero, Pope Francis, and Jesus Himself call us to radical change – to take sides. In effect, Oscar Romero’s beatification raises that old question: “Which side are you on?”
What’s your answer?