Thursday, October 28, 2010

"It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher."
-- George Whitefield

"A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth – beware! – is not the true church of Jesus Christ."
-- Óscar Romero
To find the American or English equivalent of Óscar Romero, we would have to go back all the way to the "Great Awakening" of the Eighteenth Century. That was the last time a single preacher had so much sway over an entire country like England or the United States. Modern preachers like Billy Graham or Martin Luther King, Jr. are more famous, but their individual, contemporary reach fell short of the influence exerted by George Whitefield (1714-1770), a pre-Revolutionary Era preacher thought to have personally converted as many as ten percent of the total population of the colonies in a single year of his ministry. Whitefield's ability to draw crowds in the tens of thousands made him the most famous man in Colonial America and, even though his message was not outwardly political, his reformation of the American religious landscape is credited with contributing to the spirit of the American Revolution.

We have to reach that far back into history to find a suitable comparison for Óscar Romero, who did not rise to prominence because he was a pope or a cardinal, or even because he was the archbishop of some prominent See, but simply though sheer moral force of will. In fact, Romero's predecessor as Archbishop of San Salvador was in office for 38 years. But, Romero achieved national fame that would rival his predecessor's renown, within one month of being appointed. Like Whitefield, Romero had a knack for seizing on the human drama of the moment, as he did when his first national audience was the funerary mass for his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande, who was assissinated the week after Romero had taken possession of his Cathedral. If you click here, you can hear Raul Julia's dramatization of the opening lines of Romero's sermon, in which he tells the crowd that the man being buried was his great friend, yet he would refrain from dwelling on the personal to offer something even more urgent, more compelling and more important. Then, in a dramatic turn back to the personal, Romero wonders, "Who knows? Perhaps the murderers are listening to these words." But instead of telling them to turn themselves in and what a terrible thing they've done, he says with his characteristically direct style and devastating gentle touch, "we want to tell you, murderous brethren, that we love you, and that we ask for repentance in your hearts."

Two centuries earlier, Rev. Whitefield also had developed a "flare for performance" and "a new form of preaching--more dramatic and visual, appealing to the emotions rather than to the mind." (Gary A KELLNER, The Innovative Awakener: George Whitefield and the Growth of the Evangelical Revival, Enrichment Journal, The General Council of the Assemblies of God, 2010.) Romero would similarly use staging and his preaching style to hold radio audiences in rapt attention. Romero had mastered radio from his years in San Miguel, where it was said, his sermons had been broadcast simultaneously by five different radio stations. (James BROCKMAN, Romero : A Life. New York: Orbis Books, 1999, p. 40.) In his three years in San Salvador, Romero would heighten interest in his sermons by doing such things as cancelling all masses but his own, broadcasting from a different Church in the diocese, and even broadcasting from Rome while traveling to the Vatican. Often, the drama would be lent by external forces, such as when priests or others were killed, and the mass became a national gathering around the victim lying in state before the national and international media.

Like Romero, Whitefield also switched locations. "Whitefield opted for going to where the people were, or to where they would come--the marketplace, open fields, and coal mines." (KELLNER, Supra.) In fact, Whitefield traveled through the colonies, and across the Atlantic between England and America, preaching with an energy that must have seemed startling. (Id.) Apart from the radio, Romero did not have the advantages of webcasts or even of television broadcasts, because El Salvador in the 1970s remained a poor country, where the vast majority of the rural poor could barely afford the transistor radios through which Romero's sermons were broadcast. In addition to taking to the airwaves, Romero also criss-crossed the country, and even when he stayed in San Salvador, his Cathedral masses often were said outside the Cathedral, on a wooden dais erected on the Cathedral steps, because the throngs that turned out could not fit inside.

When Whitefield preached his last sermon in 1770, it was over two hours long. It was said that Whitefield preached "until the candle which he held in his hand burned away and went out in its socket." (George Whitefield profile, web site.) Whitefield's preaching was so engrossing that, to this day, scores of his sermon are preserved, and are available on the web. Whitefield influenced Benjamin Franklin and today he is cited by political interests, like Glenn Beck, who wish to validate their message by claiming to find support in Whitefield. Similarly of course, Romero's last mass, which exceeded two hours, is still cited, and has been cited extensively for political effect. Today, El Salvador's left wing president and San Salvador's right wing mayor both claim -- with widely varying degrees of credibility -- to carry Romero's torch.

The day before he died, George Whitefield is reported to have said, "How willingly would I live to preach Christ! But I die to be with Him!" (Jerry L. Conklin, Book Review, Lewis and Clark Bible Church.) Whitefield would have probably been comforted by Romero's observation: "The Word remains and this is a great comfort to all preachers -- their voice will disappear but their words which are a proclamation of Christ, will remain in the hearts of those who desire to accept them." (12/17/1978 Sermon.)
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