Oscar Romero and Paul Vl Canonisation – Two faces of Justice and Peace

Faced with so much to say about Oscar Romero and Paul Vll, I turned to St Teresa. It seemed she was saying: keep it short and focus on what made their hearts burn as for the disciples today in the hope that our hearts would also burn when confronted with the word of God. We cannot relegate the lessons of any hero to the abstract or superficial. In lieu of platitudes, and avoid domestication, we need to make a living, active tribute to such peacemakers, whistle-blowers and prophetic voices who call for peace and justice, sound governance and responsible use of power. In both Oscar Romero and Paul Vl – there is a clear message: solidarity with the ‘poor’ must take centre stage.

Last year, a book called Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians tells of her humanness where she could not suppress, despite shortcomings, her deep sense of compassion and justice that connect people with others, and live it in communion with God, people and the planet earth. She saw the world through the eyes of the marginalised, the working poor, the single mother, the homeless, the migrant worker, the addict, the prisoner, the pusher and the prostitute. She was transformed by what these people and their experiences revealed. It was a gradual process of conversion ….. a transformation of one’s way of seeing, feeling, valuing, understanding, and relating. This is the transformation that affected Oscar Romero. The murder of Rutilio Grande, his Jesuit friend, opened his eyes to widespread injustices around him. Jesuit theologian, Ignacio Ellacuria, said: ‘With Archbishop Romero God passed through El Salvador’ and we can now say that with Archbishop Romero God passed through the universal Church. His words and actions incarnate the gospel of Jesus for all people who are undergoing systematic brutality from the Pharaohs in their midst.


Though finally to be canonised, Oscar Romero was already acclaimed a saint by the people. His cause would not have happened without Benedict XVI giving the green light to restart the process in 2012 after being blocked for over 30 years. There was a fear he was killed for his politics, not religious reasons. At the time, anyone standing up for human rights or challenging the social order, was classified as a subversive. Thousands paid the price. His death has finally been recognised, like that of Jesus, as a consequence of witnessed to God’s reign, his faithful proclamation of the Gospel. John Paul ll pushed for détente with a government that was in league with landed oligarchs and most of Romero’s fellow bishops, the papal legate, and U.S. government representatives sought to dampen his activism. It is still a sore point that Romero’s own church failed to fully embrace liberation theology in Central and Latin America. It was the campesinos, who had lived under five decades of military dictatorships who saw him differently and he saw them differently. His heart burned!!


Dorothy Day once said ‘don’t you call me a saint. You cannot get rid of me that quickly’. So, Romero’s witness must not be blunted or domesticated. He became, emphasis on ‘became’, a tireless advocate for the poor and against state-sponsored repression acts of terror—intimidation, kidnapping, torture, and murders (3,000 a month) by paramilitary death squads.

Days before his murder, Romero publicly chided Jimmy Carter’s administration for pledging aid to the ruling military junta and urged soldiers to practice civil disobedience. People like Romero emerge with an alternative historical possibility to brutal systems and brutal silence. It was a time when survival meant silence. These are human agents of divine alternative have generated historical possibility where none existed. They appeared in the Bible and in our own time.


Romero’s naming as archbishop of San Salvador shocked both clergy and people. He was seen as a conservative, who would not rock the boat. The Vatican was persuaded to appoint this apparently bland and socially conservative prelate who seemed to share their distaste for this dangerous social involvement of the Church and get the crazy clergy back into the sacristy and out of the public square. Church declarations about peace and justice were anathema to the oligarchs and military classes in the country who were determined to hold on to their wealth, power and privileges and not be challenged by the Church or the poor.


He changed and was changed. When his friend, Rutilio Grande, was murdered with two other people, a few days after his installation, he stunned supporters and detractors by cancelling all Masses except for one in the Cathedral vowing to boycott all government events until Grande’s case was investigated. It never happened. After that one Mass, the anger of land-owning Catholics, the commercial class and the military, was palpable. As in the case of Jesus early in his ministry, they began to plot against him.


What we see is a conversion, a process of coming to being ever more deeply immersed in God, through Jesus, in the conflicts of the polis. Was this the burning in his heart that we saw in the Gospel today? He once said that the gospel ‘illuminates beautiful things, but also things which we would rather not see.’ This belief compelled him to challenge the ruling classes which lorded over the country.


He came to see and live the gospel through a different lens (preferential option for the poor). They come first. The good news of the gospel is for the poor first of all. They are its privileged recipients. But more than that: by standing alongside the poor and looking at the world from their perspective. It is the poor that evangelise us and Romero was evangelised by the poor and what they suffered. This conversion resulted in a dynamic new understanding of the relationship between faith and politics.


To recognise Romero as a martyr is to embrace his model of holiness and his proclamation of the Gospel without compromise or apologies. It is not about piety alone. It is not about quietism that separates faith from works. Romero embarked on his own road to Calvary. He continues to walk ahead of the Church, which is the path of Jesus, clearing the way towards a Church which is, in Pope Francis’ words, ‘poor and for the poor’. The inhuman social conditions that the majority of the population of El Salvador was suffering opened the eyes of Romero, like many others in Latin America, he felt that the church had to have an opinion about the world that it existed in, and with this incarnation into reality taking sides with the poor was the only possible solution for Romero if he should be faithful to the teachings of Jesus and of the church. Romero was not meddling into politic but preached the Gospel which had consequences in defending human life - not only the torture and killing by the army but the exploitation on plantations and factories, and the unjust land system which brought a slower but equally certain death through hunger and disease. As a pastor, his closeness to the poor was a fact. He saw in their faces the disfigured face of Christ. In his life and in all his choices the poor came first so he made what we abstractly call a ‘preferential option for the poor’. He himself would say that in turn he was ‘evangelised’ by the poor and transformed by them.’ The ‘preferential option for the poor’ is not just some meaningless rhetoric. He lived it. And so he challenges us. There was not cleavage between faith and practice or between his orthodoxy and his orthopraxis. He believed firmly that we are one global family. He gave this example:


‘A building is burning and everyone is watching it burn with their arms folded. But if one of those watching is told – ‘I saw your mother and your sister in there and they still haven’t come out’ – then the situation changes. If your mother were burning, you would go in even though you would get burnt trying to rescue her. That is what it means to be truly committed.

If we look at poverty from the outside as if we were looking at a fire, that is not to opt for the poor – no matter how well-meaning we are. We should get inside as if it were our own mother and sister who were burning. Indeed it is Christ who is there, hungry, suffering’.


We see in Romero a convergence between evangelisation and work for justice as outlined in Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio in 1967. The Church’s recognition of Romero as a martyr, demonstrated convergence of these two trajectories. It is a recognition that he was killed out of hatred for social justice and thus out of hatred for the faith. Those who are uncomfortable with this and want Romero to be canonised only because of his holy life have misread the Gospel. The Church cannot stand aside from historical processes such as the struggle of the poor for justice, nor can it choose which side to be on. There is no apolitical version of Catholicism. Many in the church have allowed such political struggles to pass them by, concentrating instead on the state of people’s souls and aligning themselves with tyrannical regimes because that served the Church’s interests. And the church’s struggle to lift up the downtrodden was the natural extension of the proclamation of Jesus’ reign and sacrificial death. Here I see a connection with Paul Vl. Both were concerned about reframing the pastoral approach of the Church and that we all affected and all responsible.


Romero was killed in hatred of a faith that defends human rights. He speaks a prophetic word for today. His demand for justice continues to be echoed. He was the enemy of cover-up and ‘spin’ challenging the many ‘Nicodemus Christians’ today who are afraid to speak out publicly about the issues that affect human beings. Romero’s martyrdom reminds us that maintaining the unity of the bishops’ conference is not a fundamental value; and hierarchical face-saving can never trump speaking the truth when people are abused and excluded. His search for peace left a legacy that has touched millions. Though nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize he did not get it but in 2010, the UN named March 25, ‘the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims’ in his honour.


Paul Vl’s canonisation marks a desire, on the part of Pope Francis, to revive a message. It relates to the kind of people Francis wishes to see as bishops. Like Paul VI, he wants pastorally-minded bishops who are more into dialogue rather than rigidity: not necessarily dogmatic theologians, but men deeply in touch with the currents of modern culture, and able to project a friendlier and more open face to the world. Romero once said that being a bishop means picking up dead bodies.  Pope Paul VI (pope 1963 to 1978) is described as a pope of dialogue. He wanted a church open to evolving, and in dialogue with the modern world. Gaudium et Spes: ‘The Council wishes passionately to summon Christians to cooperate…..with all people to secure peace based on justice and love’ (cooperate with all people – notice! not just fellow Catholics or fellow Christians). Vatican II and the 1968 Medellin Conference articulated and reinserted into Catholic social teaching what we now call ‘the preferential option for the poor’.. Paul VI’s 1972 World Peace Day cry, taken from the Prophet Isaiah, had been ‘If you want peace, work for justice’. Romero finally embraced and became his banner. Through all the violence and repression, Romero’s message of peace continues to inspire because it has skin on: Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty. Gustavo Gutiérrez in May 2015 said the Church itself must be poor, not just be for the poor. We see today biggest gap between rich and poor ever witnessed. We need only look at what is happening in the Mediterranean, Calais, Nauru, Indigenous peoples around world. All are seeking admittance to the table.


So what ought remembering Oscar Romero means today? ‘Do this in memory of me’. ‘Remembering’ is very different from nostalgia. Remembering means continuing his work not only by loving the poor but defending them; pursuing justice for the crucified peoples of our world; and taking risks for peace and God’s reign. He warned us: A Church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth – beware – it is not the true Church of Jesus Christ. He said, ‘The church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the gospel if it stopped being .. a defender of the rights of the poor [and] a humanizer of every legitimate struggle to achieve a more just society ... that prepares the way for the true reign of God in history.’ For Romero, ‘when the church hears the cry of the oppressed, it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.’  Do we hear that cry? What happens to our hearts? Do they burn when we see Jesus crying out to in the poor?


Homily by Fr Claude Mostowik msc at The Grail, North Sydney, on October 13, 2018 for the Canonisation of Oscar Romero and Paul Vl on October 14, 2018

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