Monday, May 12, 2008

ÓSCAR ROMERO and ST. PAUL

In anticipation of the Pauline Year jubilee (from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009) to mark the bimillennium celebrations of the birth of the Apostle Paul, Pope Benedict has authorized a special plenary indulgence to those participating in Pauline commemorations. Because of St. Paul's unparalleled status as as Christian writer and spiritual guide, it seems almost pointless to say that Archbishop Romero was influenced by Paul. It is clear that Romero was a great admirer and follower of St. Paul. More than any other Christian writer, St. Paul was the authority that Romero most often cited to confirm his message of the Gospel. Romero called St. Paul "the model of the messengers of the Church" and "a marvelous witness to the Resurrection." Beyond theology and dogma, in St. Paul, Romero found the human story that illuminated Romero's own struggle, and that of his people.

There was -- let us say it -- a correspondence between the Man of Tarsus and the Archbishop of San Salvador. By many interpretations, both men underwent a profound "conversion" that put them on a collision course with earthly power, and on a divine mission to reveal prophetic truth to the followers of Christ. In his modest way, Romero sometimes cast aside the comparisons. "Paul was a bishop like the one that is speaking to you now," Romero preached in an October 1977 sermon pointing to the timeless authority of the Church through its bishops: "naturally, with the enormous difference between his saintliness and my mediocrity." But, at other times, Romero admitted that Paul's greatest strength came from his weakness, as when he called Paul "the valiant Christian who experiences, as a man, human weakness, but who feels within the strength of the faith, the hope that God gives those who trust in Him." (Dec. 1977). Of course, we see that same strength in Romero and, at times, Romero took refuge in the shadow of St. Paul, likening his trips to Rome to bring an accounting to the Pope, the successor of Peter, to St. Paul's trips to Rome to answer to St. Peter himself. Thus, just as St. Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, destined to bring the Gospel of Christ to a special audience, so Romero became the prophet of the social doctrine, bringing the Gospel to a special arena of the Church. Nor was it lost on Romero that he was an apostle to formerly pagan lands: "You too, indians of America, are called to participate in the inheritance of Christ." (Jan. 1980.)

Above all, St. Paul gave Romero an object lesson in conversion and reconciliation -- the lesson he was trying to impart upon a country spiraling downward toward civil war. "He who is today a criminal can be tomorrow an apostle." (September 1979.) Romero also realized that the criminal, the persecutor, can be effective as an apostle in ways that only a rehabilitated sinner can be: "St. Paul is a marvelous witness of the Resurrection because, if there ever was aman who would not have wanted to believe in Jesus or the resurrection, it was Saul the persecutor." (Feb. 1980.) This was the secret to reconciliation, because in Romero's Pauline world, "There is room for everyone -- even for the persecutors who, like Saul, are converted to being true apostles of the Gospel." (July 1977.) This Pauline apostleship was for Romero, founded in community, in harmony, and therefore in justice. Christian fellowship required rich and poor to treat each other alike, seeing beyond the economic castes of this world to the ranks of a celestial country beyond this earth (July 1979.) This is ultimately the strength of St. Paul, who can persevere in jail as well as in freedom, because he places his trust and his faith in a greater ground of being, and he can stare down sickness and suffering and death with serenity and courage. (Oct. 1978.)

At Fr. Alfonso Navarro's funeral, Romero invoked the words of St. Paul, "inviting us to be brave, not to be cowards, to live the novelty of the Christian who has seen amongst the evils of the earth, the beauty of God's truth, which it is very dangerous to announce and to proclaim, and from that truth to denounce the injustices, the upheavals, the abuses, which are so dangerous, and which, if he had not spoken, Alfonso Navarro would still be alive. But he is the testimony of what he took from the Gospel and announced: 'Only the truth will set you free'." (May 1979.)
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