Monday, November 25, 2013

From Archbishop Romero’s last pastoral letter to «Evangelii Gaudium»

In his first apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis proclaims his hope that we will “recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that 'delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow,' [a]nd may the world of our time ...receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ.”  Evangelii Gaudium,» 10]. Intended to marshal the energies of the ‘New Evangelization,’ the Pope’s text emphasizes the themes that Pope Francis has made well known in his pontificate: evangelization, mission, and social justice.  That same description fairly summarizes Archbishop Óscar A. Romero’s fourth and final pastoral letter, released on the Feast of the Transfiguration in August 1979.
In “The Church’s Mission amid the National Crisis” [Spanish text | English translation], Archbishop Romero posits that the Church’s mission during the Salvadoran political crisis that led to a civil war, required her to renew and intensify her evangelizing activity.  You might say that Romero called for a New Evangelization.  In the present social and political conditions of this country,” Romero wrote, “the evangelizing of the Salvadoran people cannot simply continue the tradition of preaching and encouraging en masse, or in a moralizing fashion.”  (Compare Pope Francis: “A preaching which [is] moralistic or doctrinaire ... detracts from ... heart-to-heart communication” [«Evangelii Gaudium,» 142.])  Instead, said Romero, the Church’s new evangelization “has to pursue a personalizing education in the faith, one that forms, by means of small groups meeting for reflection, persons who take a critical stance visa-vis the world about them with criteria drawn from the Gospel.”  (Francis: the Church must demonstrate her “concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time.” [«Evangelii Gaudium,» 95.])  In sum, Romero’s letter sounds the principal themes of Pope Francis, using the word “evangelization” 55 times, and “mission” 43 times.
The confluence of criteria is explained by a single, common bond between Romero and Francis: the Second Vatican Council.  It was the Council’s mandate to evangelize anew that Pope Paul VI sought to define, when he said, “Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow.”  Evangelii Nuntiandi,» 80].  Both Romero and Francis draw heavily on Paul’s «Evangelii Nuntiandi.»  Romero cites it more than any other papal document, especially for the proposition that liberation cannot be divorced from transcendence, and Francis has said that «Evangelii Nuntiandi» is “to my mind the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written to this day” (the name of Francis’ new exhortation comes from Paul’s language quoted above, as rendered in Latin).  Both Romero and Francis interpret «Evangelii Nuntiandi» through the prism of the Latin American bishops.  In his fourth pastoral letter, Romero cites to the bishop’s statements at the 1979 Puebla conference a staggering 140 times, and it is well known that Francis’ magna carta is the final document from the 2007 conference at Aparecida. With that knowledge as guide, Romero’s letter reflects a faithful attempt to proclaim the joyful news of the Gospel, in Pope Paul’s words, “even when it is in tears that we must sow.”
Archbishop Romero’s last pastoral letter is memorable for three important contributions in defining the mission of the Church.  Romero was writing about the Salvadoran Church, but the themes can be applied more broadly to the Universal Church:

  • Romero condemns the ‘absolutization’ of certain secular principles that draw people apart by creating artificial social divides.
  • Romero describes and analyzes the different forms of violence that were arising in El Salvador and evaluates them by the standard of the Church’s theory of just war.
  • Romero reminds the faithful that the Church has a fundamental difference of opinion with Marxism about the existence of God, and warns that even casually using Marxist analysis as a reference tool is dangerous, without further authoritative study or guidance from the Church.
According to Romero biographer Fr. James Brockman, Romero used his pastoral letter to teach that the Church “must first of all be itself, be true to its own identity as Church.”  [Brockman, “Pastoral Teaching of Archbishop Oscar Romero,” Spirituality Today, Summer 1988, Vol.40 No. 2.]  The Church, Romero said, “offers only the Gospel, and makes no purely political contribution or one arising from any merely human skill. It preaches the liberating message of the Gospel, God's truth about Christ, about the Church, and about humanity. It denounces sin and error and preaches conversion and the overturning of the idols it finds in society.”  Romero warns about the establishment of “absolutes” on both the right and the left of the political spectrum: “In El Salvador the idols were property and national security on one side and, for some on the other side, the popular organization which for activists could become more important than the people it meant to serve.”  Romero warned against “the absolutization of wealth and private property,” saying that it was “the cause of a great part of our economic, social, and political underdevelopment.”  (Compare Pope Francis: the worsening gap between rich and poor “is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” [«Evangelii Gaudium,» 56.])  Importantly, Romero also includes another absolute in his list of offenders: “the absolutization of an organization,” by which he chides the people’s organizations when they became ideological, sectarian, intransigent or fanatical.
According to Fr. Brockman, Romero also teaches in his fourth pastoral letter that, “The Church advocates profound and urgent social change, but through nonviolent means.”  Romero analyzes the different categories of violence that were arising using straightforward terms, “Structural Violence,” “Arbitrary Violence of the State,” “Violence of the Extreme Right,” and does not hesitate to describe violence from the left as “Terrorist Violence” and “Insurrectional Violence.”  After exhausting the categories, “the archbishop of San Salvador reminded the nation that violence was justifiable only in extreme situations when all other alternatives have been exhausted, citing Catholic just war theory.”  [Filip Mazurczak, “Oscar Romero’s Exaggerating Critics,” First Things, March 7, 2013.]  This is an opportune moment,” Romero implores, “to recall that celebrated phrase of Pope Pius XII on war: ‘Nothing is lost by peace, everything may be lost in war’.”  Finally, Romero warns that pacifism does not mean passivism, and that Christians must remain vigilant about what steps may be required to ensure the establishment of justice.
Romero also understood that many in the popular organizations were swayed by Marxism and he saw the need to opine on the utility of Marxist analysis.  Father Brockman: “Marxist ideas were common coin in the popular organizations, at least at the leadership level, and many people in the Christian communities wondered about the possible uses and dangers of Marxism.”  Archbishop Romero: “Naturally if one understands by Marxism a materialistic, atheistic ideology that is taken to explain the whole of human existence and gives a false interpretation of religion, then it is completely untenable by a Christian.”  This is because, “A Christian's faith must guide his or her whole life, starting from the existence of God, toward a spiritual and eternal transcendence made possible in Christ through the Holy Spirit.”  Fr. Brockman says that “Romero echoed the warning of Paul VI in the apostolic letter «Octogesima Adveniens» against the possible risks of using” Marxism “as a structural analysis of the economic and social order,” pretending to ignore its atheistic propaganda.  He saw a greater danger in using Marxism as a political strategy for the taking of power, because it could lead to conflicts of conscience about means and methods that might be contrary to Christian ethics and could lead to making the organization an absolute, as he had warned before.”
Mission.  Evangelization.  Social justice.  Whether facing a small, third world country slipping into civil war, or the global community facing the challenges of a new millennium, the pastoral touchstones remain constant.  Archbishop Romero is in tune with Pope Francis because both share the vision of the Council.

Previously in this Blog:

Archb. Romero's 1st Pastoral Letter
Archb. Romero's 2nd Pastoral Letter
Archb. Romero's 3rd Pastoral Letter
Romero's 1st Episcopal Letter 
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