Saturday, May 19, 2007


Marveling on the theological insight of Pope Benedict's new book, "Jesus of Nazareth," the leading papal biographer George Weigel asks, «When was the last time you heard a sermon in which [the Beatitudes] were described as 'a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure'-- and thus 'a roadmap for the Church, a model of what she herself should be'?» Mystified by the unusual slant given to familiar Biblical stories by the stellar theologian-pope, the author goes on to query, «How many preachers explain [the stories of Jesus’s temptations in the desert] as dramatic variations on the perennial human temptation to utopianism, to a self-sufficiency that 'pushes God off the stage'?» (George Weigel, NEWSWEEK, May 21, 2007 issue, "A Jesus Beyond Politics, Pope Benedict becomes the teacher he always wanted to be.")

Archbishop Oscar Romero made exactly those observations in two consecutive sermons in February 1980, in the final run-up of homilies that would lead to his March 24, 1980 assassination. It is perhaps no wonder then that, an audit of Archbishop Romero's preaching conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger found no fault in Romero's theology and concluded that, «Romero was not a revolutionary bishop, but a man of the Church, of the Gospel, and of the Poor.» (ANSA News Service, March 15, 2005.) Speaking over the Sahara desert during the flight to Brazil to open the V General Synod of the Latin American Bishops' Conference, Pope Benedict remarked that Romero «was certainly a great witness to the faith. He was a man of great Christian virtue, who was committed to peace and against the dictatorship.» The Pope noted that, «He was killed during the moment of consecration,» and that his death was therefore, «a testimony to the faith.» The Pope concluded, «That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt,» and that he was awaiting the final report from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. (See Transcript, )

Weigel notes that in analyzing the Sermon on the Mount, «Benedict XVI unpacks the New Testament with the help of his profound knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.» In his February 17, 1980 Sermon, Romero took his listeners through each of the Beatitudes, leading into one by saying, «Take note of the moment in which Christ teaches this Beatitude so that we can see its reach. Let us not tear it out of the context of the history of Israel.» Romero then goes on to encapsulate the entire history of Israel from Abraham to Moses to the Roman occupation in a whirlwind two-minute capsule summary to hightlight the "context." Weigel continues to explicate the Pope's analysis: «Why is it the meek to whom the Beatitudes promise the inheritance of 'the land'? Because, explains Ratzinger, drawing on the imagery of the Exodus, 'the land was given [to the people of Israel] as a space for obedience, a realm of openness to God that was to be freed from the abomination of idolatry'.» In Feb. 1980, Romero talked about the relationship of the land to God's promises to Israel, and like Joseph Ratzinger, he also spoke in terms of 'idolatry:' «That is why Jesus preached with such enthusiasm, 'Happy are you the poor, because yours is the Kingdom of God! You are the best prepared to understand what is not understood by those who kneel before the false idols and trust in them. You who do not have those idols, you who do not trust because you do not have money or power, you who are disenfranchised of everything, the poorer you are, the more you are the owners of the Kingdom of God!»

Weigel writes that, «amidst some familiar Ratzingerian themes, there is a new chord struck with particular force, it is Benedict XVI’s insistence, repeated several times, that a Christian Church faithful to its Lord cannot be a Church of power ... For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.» Similarly, Romero concluded in his February 17, 1980 sermon: «That is why, brothers and sisters, it is no prestige for the Church to be in good stead with the powerful. This is the prestige of the Church: to feel that the poor feel it as theirs, knowing that the Church lives a dimension on the earth calling everyone, including the rich, to convert and be saved, from the world of the poor, because they are the only ones who are Blessed.»

That point is further emphasized in an analysis of Jesus' temptations in the desert. In his book, Pope Benedict likens Satans' temptations of Jesus to the «perennial human temptation to utopianism.» In his next Sunday sermon, given on February 24, 1980 -- exactly one month before his martyrdom -- Archbishop Romero compared the temptation to turn bread to stones to political solutions that seek facile or immediate solutions of complex problems, «like so many politicians who only wish to have everything taken care of and who demand even what is impossible. These infantile demands are very much like the temptation of the Devil: to want to turn stones to bread and thus get out of hunger.» In a stinging after-touch, Romero tacks on the temptation to resort to artificial contraception as a way to combat world hunger: «to deprive men from coming into being alive» instead of preparing the banquet of life «so that there is enough bread for everyone.» Weigel concludes that Pope Benedict sees in the temptations an invitation to accept «the murderous depredations of those twentieth-century totalitarians who made ultramundane gods out of themselves,» a danger that Romero obviously recognized also.