Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Why Pope Francis quoted Archbishop Romero

If someone had told the faithful attending the celebration of Our Lady of Fatima in a Marian sanctuary on the hillsides outside San Salvador in May 1977 that the homily they were hearing would one day be quoted by a Pope in Rome, no one would have believed it.  The Church of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero was utterly besieged at the time; the second priest in as a many months had been assassinated, and a “death squad” had just issued an ominous order threatening to kill the Jesuits if they did not leave the country.  (Pope Francis erroneously stated that the quote was from the assassinated priest’s funeral—an understandable mistake.)

In the portion of the homily quoted by Pope Francis at his General Audience, Romero had said:

[N]ot everyone will have the honor of offering, in a physical way, their blood, or handing over their life for the faith. God, however, asks everyone who believes in him to have that spirit of martyrdom. In other words, everyone should be willing to die for their faith even though the Lord does not grant them this honor. If we are so disposed, then when our time comes to give an accounting of our lives, we can say: Lord, I was willing to give my life for you. In fact, you have given your life to God because this offering of one’s life does not only occur when one is killed for the faith. To give one’s life and to have this spirit of martyrdom means that one is faithful to one’s obligations, to prayer, to the honest fulfillment of one’s duties. In the fulfillment of our everyday obligations we are like the mother who with no great emotional display, with the simplicity of motherly martyrdom, gives birth, nourishes, and cares for her children. This is indeed the meaning of giving one’s life.

[More on Romero’s mother]

The quote has gained some prominence in recent years, in part because the postulator of Romero’s canonization cause, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, is the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family.  Archbishop Paglia has inserted the quote in several speeches and presentations.  Last year, the quote was cited by the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and that was taken as a sign that the Church hierarchy admired the sentiment and, perhaps, Romero’s teachings more broadly.  That citation was significant because it was on the cover of the women’s section of the newspaper, and it was the first time that a man was featured on the front page.  The rise in prominence of the quote may also signal recognition of Romero’s stature as a martyr, because it speaks of martyrdom.

As remarkable as Francis quoting Romero may be, it is not without precedent.  This blog has catalogued eleven prior public statements by Popes citing Romero, including: (1) Pope John Paul II’s Angelus on March 26, 1980; (2) the Angelus on March 25, 1981, (3) an allocution at Romero’s grave on March 6, 1983; (4) a homily in San Salvador later that same day; (5) the General Audience of March 16, 1983; (6) a second visit to Romero’s grave on February 8, 1996; (7) the General Audience of February 14, 1996; (8) Pope Benedict XVI’s Angelus of March 25, 2007; (9) a press conference on May 9, 2007; (10) an address to visiting Salvadoran bishops on February 28, 2008 and (11) Pope Francis’ press conference on August 18, 2014.

What is new in Pope Francis quoting Romero is the context.  John Paul’s comments were oriented at steering Romero’s flock, the Salvadoran people, to a peaceful resolution of their conflict.  Pope Benedict cited Romero to put his memory in the right context, not as a revolutionary but as a pastor of the Church.  Pope Francis, for the first time, is able to point to Romero simply as a universal spiritual guide: here is a saint, here is what he said.  It is notable that Francis’ remarks are the first time Romero’s words are quoted by a pope.

Most of all, the mass-goers at the Fatima celebration in San Salvador in May 1977 would have had trouble believing that the sermon they heard would one day be quoted by the Pope because their archbishop was accused of unorthodox preaching.  Romero’s sermons, speeches, writings and other expressions received a “nihil obstat” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Benedict.  But the biggest “seal of approval” likely came today.

Fatima Church in San Salvador where Romero spoke.

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