At his general audience on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, Pope Francis used a metaphor that was favored by the late Archbishop Óscar A. Romero. The Pontiff said that “the Church is like a plant that over the long centuries has grown, has developed, has borne fruit, yet the roots are planted firmly” in Jesus. “From this little plant to our day: this is how the Church is throughout the world,” the Pope added, in what appeared to be a trademark off-the-cuff addendum to his prepared remarks. Like Pope Francis, Archbishop Romero used the metaphor of a tree or plant to talk about the Church’s growth through history, and he also used the imagery of the tree to illustrate the harmony of the Church’s diversity.
Of course, the metaphor of the Church as a tree is ancient. It finds its sources in the Gospel’s Parable of the Mustard Seed (Romero’s July 23, 1978 Sermon) and in the writing of Church Fathers like St. Augustine, who said that the miracles performed by the Apostles were to water the budding arbor of the Church (Romero’s May 27, 1979 sermon). In five allusions throughout his archbishopric, Romero borrowed the ancient metaphor to present his visions of growth and diversity in the Church.
A Growing Tree That Remains Consistent With Its Seed: Similar to the use of Pope Francis, Archbishop Romero used the tree to emphasize the consistency and continuity between the Church today and the seed that was planted by Christ and the Apostles. “Renewal means making the Church consistent with the seed that was planted. A tree, however much it grows, remains consistent with its seed. Therefore, it is important to understand that God’s Word is a seed, and it cannot be altered.” (July 16, 1978 Sermon.)
An Ancient Tree That Births New Offspring: The counterpoint to saying that the Church retains its faithful core is to acknowledge that it springs forth new growth, new offshoots. New pastoral approaches must be brought into harmony with tradition, says Romero: “I want to congratulate the people for their devotion and for knowing how to integrate the tradition of these feast day celebrations—a tradition that has been carried forward for many years—with the new pastoral lines of the Church. That is to say, the Church is like an ancient tree, yet despite the age of its trunk, she gives birth to new offspring and thus provides new hope. This is the life of the Church.” (October 2, 1977 Sermon.) Archbishop Romero goes on to add words that resonate even more with Pope Francis (who warns against “museum piece Christians”): “If we simply respect tradition and do not want to change things, then, we will become like a dead tree, like a museum of ancient artifacts. This, however, would not be the life of a Church that, with centuries of tradition, is bound together by a golden thread: the life of Christ.” (Id.)
A Great Tree Whose Distant Branches Feed From the Same Source: Perhaps Romero’s greatest contribution to the metaphor was in developing its application to describe the Church’s diversity as a worldwide organization. “How beautiful to think about the universality of the Church, her morality, her dogma, and know that wherever anyone professes this faith, these persons are our sisters and brothers though we might never know them here on this earth, but, yes, they are Church, just as we are Church,” he said. “I have often imagined the Church as a large tree with one branch at one extreme and another branch at the other extreme. The branches do not know one another but are receiving sap from the same trunk and they share the same life.” (September 30, 1979 Sermon.) Romero tried to put that philosophy in practice, reaching out to Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way. He publically defended bishops who privately betrayed him, telling the faithful they should not have favorites among the clergy. Although he seldom was able to travel because of the national crisis in his country, he made rare trips to the Dominican Republic to attend a retreat on the Sacred Heart by the Apostleship of Prayer, and to Spain for the beatification of St. Francis Coll Guitart, and to honor his Claretian roots (Romero was schooled by the Claretians during his youth).
A Great Tree On Which No Two Leaves Are Equal: Romero used a variant of the metaphor to describe the broad diversity found within the Church. “Here in this cathedral, so full this morning, and through the transmission of this message by radio, thousands and thousands of people are reflecting on these readings, and no two people have received the same gifts. God is so varied in his creation that no two leaves on a tree are equal. This is equally true when talking about the creation of the infinite in his Church. God has given the Church wonderful gifts so that with all these different gifts we might organize the Kingdom of God.” (May 29, 1977 Sermon.) Romero acknowledged that such variety can pose challenges, but he harkened back to the Church’s traditional formula of gifts and vocations to provide an adequate structure for managing the Church’s diversity—similar to recent comments by Pope Francis who said that the different voices and tones in the Church are like a great symphony. “A sane pluralism is necessary. We do not want everyone to be exactly alike. This would be uniformity and uniformity is quite distinct from unity. Unity embraces pluralism and respects the thoughts of others. Through all these individual ideas, unity is created, and this unity is much richer than any single individual’s thoughts. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, uniting us in one single truth, with one single divine criterion and making us all children of the Church. Some are made bishops, others, priests, some are religious or catechists and others are parents or students or professionals or laborers. Saint Paul says that the same Spirit brings together all these gifts into one unity.” (Id.)
A Great Tree That Sheds Its Withering Leaves: In a final, resigned note, Archbishop Romero acknowledged that some people abandon the Church and he said that they were like withered leaves no longer able to withstand the wind, which fall from a tree. “Yes it is also true that many people have distanced themselves from the Church. Those people separated themselves from the Church who had to be separated—like leaves of the tree that have changed color and are no longer able to withstand the strong winds. They had to be uprooted—perhaps waiting for better times to return and become what we earnestly desire, people who repent of their cowardice and weaknesses and betrayals.” (December 31, 1977 Sermon.) These words recall Pope Benedict’s words that the Church is not out to win converts to increase her own numbers because she is not in it for clout or power but to serve God (September 16, 2010 remarks to reporters).
Archbishop Romero’s use of the metaphor of the Church as a tree helps us to understand the Church—because he uses the metaphor effectively to illustrate important aspects of the Church—but it also helps us to understand Óscar Romero as a man who wished to grow and nurture the Tree of the Church.