«THE THEME OF THE POOR OF YAHWEH»
Archbishop Oscar Romero’s February 17, 1980 sermon on the Beatitudes, the first of his last seven sermons before his martyrdom, was three sermons in one: The first part of it recapped a powerful exegesis on the political dimension of the Faith, which he had delivered at Leuven University in Belgium, earlier that month. The second part was a full-throated denunciation of social injustice, which included a recitation of his letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, requesting the cancellation of military aid to El Salvador. And the third part—which we will focus on here—was his message to the poor and to the advocates of the poor.
[This is the second part of a series on the final seven homilies of Archbishop Romero started last year. To read the text of this homily in English, click here. For the original text in Spanish, click here. And, to hear the audio of Msgr. Romero delivering the homily, click here.]
Romero began by expounding on Jesus’ message, “Blessed are you who are poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20.) He cited the Latin American Bishop’s post-Conciliar pronouncement at Medellin, Colombia, in which they described poverty as an accusation, a spirit and a commitment. The Gospel itself supported the view that poverty is an accusation, Romero said, when Jesus also says, “woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.” (Luke 6:24.) He explained poverty as a spirit by recounting the historical context and sufferings of Israel as a continually exploited and downtrodden people, and he spoke of poverty as a commitment by highlighting the persecution that the allies and defenders of the poor are exposed to—including, in El Salvador.
Most people who have heard anything about this sermon have probably only heard about Romero’s letter to Pres. Carter—which he read aloud—asking the U.S. to withhold military aid to El Salvador. Romero said that modest aid given that year had already led to a steep spike in repression, which he detailed. He warned against plans for U.S. military advisors to train three Salvadoran battalions. Those battalions would have to be dismantled a decade later, due to their notorious human rights records (See, El Mozote massacre). And he denounced a failed attempt against the Jesuits—whose eventual assassination hastened the end of the war a decade later.
Overlooked by Romero students is the fact that a large part of this sermon, as others, is aimed at the popular organizations of the Left. “One of the most urgent needs of the pastoral ministry of the Archdiocese is a pastoral of accompaniment” of the opposition, he said, “so that they can mature in the faith and from the perspective of the faith live out their political commitment,” and stay “rooted in the eternal resurrection of the Lord and in the redemption of the human person from sin.” Then, turning to the groups directly, he said, “Hopefully you will not look down upon the Church when, from the perspective of faith, She speaks out against your imperfections, your abuses, your strategies, and the limitations of your political groups.”
Romero’s critique of the Left began with the analysis of the Gospel message. “The poverty that Jesus Christ here sanctifies,” he said, “is not simply a material poverty.” But rather, “It is a poverty that awakens consciousness, a poverty that accepts the cross and sacrifice” (See, Romero’s Transfiguration Theology). “Therefore we become holy according to the degree to which ... we hand ourselves over to the Lord and show our openness to God,” he argued. “Jesus’ redemption points out,” he said, “that all earthly liberators are lacking—that is, they are incomplete as long as they do not free sinners from sin.” Then, offering a new take on the Sermon on the Mount, Romero proclaimed, “Blessed are they who struggle to achieve the political liberation of the world and who are also mindful of redemption that saves people from sin and death.” Putting politics in a transcendent context, he said that, “The great liberation is that of Christ and those who incorporate the struggle for the liberation of people into their faith ... are guaranteed an integral, complete and immortal liberation.” But those who “only struggle for temporal realities, for better wages, for lower prices, for a change of government, for a change of structures that tomorrow will be old structures,” he said, they will attain a liberation that is incomplete.
Christians working in political organizations striving to liberate the poor are obligated to live the “spiritual poverty [which] is the theme of the poor of Yahweh,” and requires abiding by godly values. “Thanks to God, there are many people who are doing this,” he said. “[T]hose who are members of popular political organizations,” and “who participate in the Christian community in order to nourish their struggle with faith ... are on the right path.” But, others, he warned, “have lost their faith and, as a consequence, have mutilated that which is primary.” He encouraged those who kept the faith, but he scolded those who strayed: “I want to say that we defend the right of people to organize and we esteem your effort for unity and openness,” he said, “but we repudiate the tactics of certain grassroots groups who appear to act without consulting with their leaders.”
Ab. Romero then listed specific practices of the Left that he decried, such as taking hostages. “What right do you have to deprive another human being of freedom?,” he demanded. “I have witnessed the suffering of many hostages and their families, especially when some of these hostages are ill and need to be cared for.” He lamented the kidnapping of an Argentine citizen and noted the offer of another conational to take his place: “All this would be unnecessary if the protagonists in these actions had human feelings,” he denounced. Then he called for “popular military organizations ... to return to the respectable paths of rationality, of human dignity,” and desist from “abductions, threats and exacting of vengeance.” The Pope, he reminded them, had preached against the use of violence, “even on those whom someone judges blameworthy.”
He also disapproved of the practice of taking over buildings—especially, churches: “In the name of the religious sentiments of my people,” he said, with obvious frustration, “for the good of the poor and of my people, I beg the directors of the organizations that today are occupying church buildings to come by to dialogue with me or with those responsible for the buildings.” As far as churches are concerned, he said, “These buildings are temples of prayer for our people, whose Christian sentiments deserve at least as much consideration as the objectives of those occupying the buildings.” He also noted that the various groups often act at cross purposes with one another, and often thwart the Church’s particular efforts, thus their actions, in addition to demonstrating political immaturity, were also harmful to the cause of the poor.
“I want you to see,” he said, “that my denunciations have only one purpose: we want to be a holy people, we want a government that truly understands people who are poor; we want a political system that acts on behalf of the well being of our people and those who are poor.” He concluded, “In this way we can repeat with Jesus: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’.”
Art: Raúl Alfaro, “San Romero de América,” oil on canvas. Colectiva Abierta exhibition, March 2011 catalog, San Salvador.
Next: Christ vs. Satan