During his General Audience of June 19, 2013, Pope Francis reflected on the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ in history (Dogmatic Constitution «Lumen Gentium,» 7). The same message was the subject of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s second pastoral letter, “The Church, the Body of Christ in History,” issued on August 6, 1977. The Church is a living body, says Pope Francis: “The Church is not a charitable, cultural or political association, but a living body, that walks and acts in history.” Romero voices the same sentiment: “The Church's foundation is not to be thought of in a legal or juridical sense.” Instead, “The Church is the flesh in which Christ makes present down the ages his own life and his personal mission.” (This is a Year of Faith examination of the Servant of God Oscar A. Romero’s preaching and theological orientation.)
Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Romero bolster the doctrine of the Church as Christ’s body with scriptural corroboration. Francis points out that Jesus appears to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, prompting his famous conversion, for proof of Jesus’ continuing presence: “This experience of St. Paul tells us how deep the union between we Christians and Christ Himself. When Jesus ascended into heaven he did not leave us orphans, but with the gift of the Holy Spirit, our union with Him has become even more intense.” Romero points to another epiphany—the Transfiguration, which is the national patronal feast for El Salvador—to represent Christ’s accompaniment of his people. Beginning with this pastoral letter, Romero begins a practice of publishing his pastoral letters on the Feast of the Transfiguration. “Today the world's Divine Savior, who is the patron of our local Church,” Romero writes, “illuminates, with the splendor of His Transfiguration … the path through history of our Church and our nation.” (The country name “El Salvador,” meaning “The Savior,” refers to this celebration.)
Archbishop Romero’s second pastoral letter includes numerous phrases that sound downright Bergoglian. For example, Romero writes that, “the tradition that Christ entrusted to his Church is not a museum of souvenirs to be protected.” (Compare Pope Francis May 23, 2013 warning against becoming “a museum-piece Christian,” and his March 28, 2013 admonition to clerics not be become “collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the odor of the sheep.”) Romero also rejects clerical ambition, asking, “What is the reason for the current changes in the Church as she confronts the world and the history of humankind? It is not opportunism,” he responds, “nor is it disloyalty to the Gospel.” (Compare Francis’ repeated critiques of “careerism” in the Church, including his June 6, 2013 condemnation of it as “a leprosy” among clerics: “Rather, your priority should be the loftier good of the Gospel cause.”) Romero says the Church becomes the Body of Christ by using “the means with which Christ himself has endowed her: preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, above all celebrating the Eucharist—which will remind her, in an active, vital way that she continues to be the Body of Christ.” (Compare Francis: “let us remain united to Jesus … nourish ourselves with daily prayer, listening to the Word of God, participation in the Sacraments.”)
According to Romero scholar James R. Brockman, Romero’s message in this pastoral letter is that, because the Church is Christ’s mystical body in history, “The Church must therefore act like Jesus, proclaiming God's kingdom to the poor especially, fulfilling with Jesus Isaiah's prophecy of good news to the poor and liberty to the imprisoned and the oppressed.” Brockman, “Pastoral Teaching of Archbishop Oscar Romero,” SPIRITUALITY TODAY, Summer 1988, Vol.40 No. 2.) Conversely, “It must resist and denounce all that opposes God's reign, all the injustice and callousness built into society, just as Jesus denounced the sins of his contemporaries and their society. And the Church must call to conversion and reform and to service in building God's kingdom.” (Ibid.) “It is the Church's duty in history,” Romero writes, “to lend her voice to Christ so that he may speak, her feet so that he may walk today's world, her hands to build the kingdom, and to enable all its members to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ.” A similar strand is picked up by Pope Francis, who preaches that, “this body has a head, Jesus, who guides, feeds and supports it. This is a point I want to emphasize: if the head is separated from the rest of the body, the whole person cannot survive. So it is in the Church, we must remain bound ever more deeply to Jesus.”
Archbishop Romero also uses the image of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ to explain the development of Catholic social thought in the Second Vatican Council and the Latin American Bishop’s pronouncements during the Medellín Conference. If the Church is the living body of Christ in history, Romero explains, then the Church must be responsive to and interact with history. “The modern Church is conscious of being the people of God in the world, or rather, of being a body of men and women who belong to God, but who live in the world,” he writes: “That is why Vatican II described the Church as the new Israel which while living in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city.” («Lumen Gentium,» #9.) This acknowledgement of history has caused the Church to recognize the significance of social structures of sin, Romero writes. “Throughout the centuries the Church has, quite rightly, denounced sin,” he explains. “Certainly she has denounced personal sins, and she has also denounced the sin that perverts relationships between persons, especially at the family level,” he says. “But she has begun to recall now something that, at the Church's beginning, was fundamental: social sin.” This is “the crystallization, in other words, of individuals' sins into permanent structures that keep sin in being, and make its force to be felt by the majority of the people.”
Like Pope Francis, Archbishop Romero closes his reflections with an appeal to unity. Francis: “St. Paul says that as members of the human body, although different and many, we form one body, as we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.” All the Church’s different parts, must work together, even if they are different: “there is no dull uniformity … [b]ut there is communion and unity: we are all in a relation to each other and we all come together to form one living body, deeply connected to Christ.” Accordingly, the Pontiff counsels us to resist “the temptations of the division, from internal struggles and selfishness, from gossip.” Romero also closes with a strong call to unity. “Let us remember that what divides us is not the Church's actions but the world's sin,” he urges. “When the Church enters into the world of sin to liberate and save it, the sin of the world enters into the Church and divides her,” he analyzes. Both Francis and Romero offer the same solution. Being part of Christ’s body, says Francis, “means remaining united to the Pope and the Bishops who are instruments of unity and communion.” Romero urges a similar communion with the hierarchy: “unity ought to be brought about around the Gospel, through the authoritative word of the divine Pastor,” he writes. “I earnestly want all priests, diocesan and religious, and all other members of religious orders, to unite their efforts around the directives that come from the Archdiocese,” and for the laity to do likewise.
In his second pastoral letter, Archbishop Oscar Romero formulates a conception of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ in history which resonates in the magisterium of Pope Francis.