Friday, March 29, 2013

POPE FRANCIS & ÓSCAR ROMERO




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Pope Francis’ harshest critics on the Left look at his supposed silence during the Argentine “Dirty War” (when the Pope was a young cleric in his late 30s) and dismissively conclude that Bergoglio’s humble symbolism today is nice, but that he’s no Óscar Romero.  I disagree.  As a student and follower of Archbishop Romero, I see in Francis a definitive commitment to aligning the Church with the interests of the poor while maintaining an uncompromised fidelity to Catholic teachings on matters of sexual morality, abortion, marriage, contraception and traditional doctrine.  In short, I see a strong resemblance to Romero.
At this early stage of Francis’ papacy, the similarities in the way the two prelates come on the scene are striking—both make strong first impressions that seem to define their ministries.  In a pre-Conclave profile, the NCR’s John Allen described then-cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as “basically conservative on many issues,” and representing a compromise choice: he “appeal[s] to conservatives in the College of Cardinals as a man who had held the line against liberalizing currents among the Jesuits, and to moderates as a symbol of the church's commitment to the developing world.”  Similarly, Romero’s succession as Archbishop of San Salvador was as a compromise choice, promoted by conservative business and government interests, but seen as pious and apolitical within the Church.  As was Bergoglio, Romero was a doctrinal conservative.  Both men had vague question marks surrounding their past: in Francis’ case, critics have questioned whether he was sufficiently vocal about human rights abuses during the Argentine “Dirty War” and, in Romero’s case, some have questioned the adequacy of his reaction to military abuses in his previous diocese.

Both Romero and Francis quickly dispel those questions or render them irrelevant by their first actions upon assuming their ministries—actions that are high on symbolism, but send powerful signals about where their commitments lie.   Both Romero and Francis appear to be transformed: Romero is described as changing from “timid and conventional” to “fearless and outspoken.” Francis is said to go from “stiff and reserved on the public stage” to powerfully charismatic: “it’s almost like he’s a different person. He seems ten years younger! It’s as if he’s received a force that he didn’t have before, something almost supernatural.”  Both lead personal lives that are characterized by austerity, humility, and simplicity.  Archbishop Romero moves out of the Archbishop’s residence and moves into a small shack in a Carmelite-run cancer hospital.  As we know, Pope Francis never even moved into the Papal Apartments, preferring to stay in the Vatican guest house where cardinals stayed during the Conclave.  Both men open their ministries with gestures of modesty, and openness.  Archbishop Romero reportedly opened every conversation with clerics he met when he arrived in San Salvador, with the word: “Ayudeme” (“help me”).  Pope Francis has repeatedly asked the faithful, “Pregate per me” (“pray for me”), including during his first appearance at the loggia of St. Peter’s, when he bowed his head in silence after asking the faithful for their prayers. 
Pope Francis declined to wear the shoulder cape (the mozzetta), or even to wear the red shoes of the papacy, and Archbishop Romero would certainly have approved.  When Albino Luciani was elected John Paul I in 1978, Romero lauded the new Pope’s modesty: “the Pope does not want to have this ceremony called a coronation—this is one of his beautiful characteristics,” Romero reported.  He has broken centuries of tradition so that he can present himself humbly before the world,” he noted approvingly.  There are many tiaras in the Vatican and there are also many sedia gestatoria but the Pope has said: ‘No! I will not use these. I will enter with the people, walking as a pilgrim on this earth and so we will not call this ceremony a coronation ceremony but rather the celebration of the Mass of the Bishop of the World’.” (September 3, 1978 Homily.)  Romero’s words recall Francis’ words during his first Chrism, warning clerics not to become “collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the odor of the sheep.”  (March 28, 2013 Chrismal Mass.)  When Karol Wojtyla ascended the throne of St. Peter as John Paul II later in 1978, Romero applauded the continuing signs of clerical simplicity: “Thanks be to God the modern Popes have renounced the tiara, the long capes and many other pompous customs that created so much vanity and evil among ecclesiastics.” (Nov. 5, 1978 Hom.)

Both Francis and Romero have a flair for the grand gesture, speaking through signs as much as through words.  When the new archbishop, Romero, held a funeral mass for his slain brother in the priesthood, Fr. Rutilio Grande, Romero wanted to show Salvadorans the gravity of losing a priest.  So, he cancelled all masses in the archdiocese, holding a “Single Mass,” in the Cathedral, which was broadcast by radio, where he could preach to the entire archdiocese about what the Church was trying to do and to attempt to unite his flock under his magisterium.   When Francis wanted to preach the world and the Church a lesson about servant leadership and humility, he moved the Holy Thursday Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica to a jail for juveniles, and instead of washing the feet of priests and deacons during the highlight of the ceremony, he washed the feet of twelve inmates in the jail, including Muslims and women.  Let us never forget,” Pope Francis said during his Inaugural Homily, “that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service.”  Romero certainly would have agreed with that: “When we speak of a hierarchical priesthood we are not speaking about a greater power but a power that is characterized by service,” Romero tells us.  (Apr. 12, 1979 Hom.)
Nowhere does Francis’ seem more like Romero at this early stage of his pontificate than in his pronouncements in favor of the poor.  He has said that he chose the name “Francis,” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, because of the beloved saint’s association with the poor and the environment.  How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!,” he declared within days of being elected. (March 16, 2013 Audience with Journalists.)  Romero is best recalled as a champion of the poor, who sought to be the voice of the voiceless: “We are never ashamed to say the Church of the poor,” he declares. (Dec. 24, 1978 Hom.)  At the same time, both men have warned against godless pity, emphasizing the need for a charity that is not merely centered on God, but is, in fact, radically centered on the salvific death and resurrection of Christ.  When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord,” Francis preached to the cardinals who elected him: “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil.”  (March 14, 2003 Papal Mass.)  Romero issues a similar warning: “Those who do not carry the Cross and want to eliminate the Cross will fall into the temptations of the devil.”  Instead, Christians should “Cling to and lovingly embrace the Cross: that is God’s plan,” Romero admonishes (Feb. 24, 1980 Hom.)

Tellingly—and, perhaps, inevitably—both Romero and Francis ruffle some feathers, inviting a furious response in some quarters.  Many of the reactions are personal and petty.  Some traditionalists have accused Pope Francis of personal vanity, saying that he has made these gestures for personal aggrandizement.  Similarly, some clerics accused Romero of defending the poor because it won him praise and flattery from progressives.  Both men have been targeted for vicious campaigns of rumor and innuendo by partisans seeking to misinterpret and sow confusion about the intended message.  Shortly after Francis’ election, “urban myths” appeared regarding alleged disrespect and rudeness by the new Pope toward established rituals and those promoting their practice.  In Romero’s case, there have been attempts to alienate Romero from the Church by exaggerating conflicts with John Paul II.  Indeed, detractors have not stopped at personal critiques, going further to question the orthodoxy of both men.  Romero’s critics went much further than Francis’ detractors have gone so far, but the fact that people are willing to go as far as to question the Pope should shed a lot of light on how Romero has been treated, and put the criticisms in perspective.

Yes, Francis is like Romero.  But not because he is some radical who will destroy the Church’s precious, cherished traditions.  Instead, Pope Francis is like Archbishop Romero because he is seeking to pull back some of the garish trimmings that conceal the full radiant majesty of the Church’s treasure.

See also:

Romero and the Popes (Spanish language index of bilingual posts in English and Spanish)
Romero and Catholicism's Mavericks (Spanish language index of bilingual posts in English and Spanish)
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