Saturday, February 14, 2015

Blessed Romero: a “new lens” to read the gospel

The following is a theological reflection by Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD, of The Martyrs Project,* in an exclusive for Super Martyrio.
(*Please read to the end of this post, then play The Project's video “Romero.”)

In the course of this last week, beginning with the promulgation of the papal decree that Archbishop Oscar Romero was indeed a martyr, having been killed owing to a “hatred of the faith” (odium fidei), I have tried to take some time to reflect on what that might actually mean in terms of the Church and its relationship with society as a whole.  It is clear in the documentation compiled by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the “Positio”, that Mons. Romero was killed by those who were antagonistic towards the Church and its teachings as a whole.  What would become a full blown civil war in El Salvador was already in its early stages. Violence was rampant. People were already taking sides in the struggle between the political left and the political right in the cities and in the countryside. The right in El Salvador sought the maintenance of the status quo in the imposition of “order”, while the left sought a measure of social and economic justice in order to bridge the enormous gap between wealth and poverty in the country.  Added to this already volatile mixture was the policy of the US government and its stated policy of opposing what was seen in Washington as a “communist takeover” of Central America.  In the midst of this turmoil was the Church.
With parishes in both urban and rural areas, initially there were probably as many opinions regarding the political and economic situation in El Salvador as there were priests, religious and bishops.  Many, if not entirely comfortable with the status quo, were at least willing to cooperate with the ruling faction and wait for a gradual and evolutionary change in the country.  Others, often in intellectual enclaves such as UCA (the Jesuit-run university in San Salvador), had begun to embrace certain tenets of liberation theology and the concept of God’s preferential option towards the poor.  Still others were pragmatists, in the best sense of the word, doing what they could at any given moment for their parishioners and others under their pastoral care.  Nevertheless, in those years previous to Mons. Romero’s killing in 1980, the situation had become increasingly polarized.  As some elements within the El Salvadoran military became more repressive toward the population as a whole—and the Church in particular, even to the extent of coining the phrase, “Be a patriot, kill a priest”—many in the Church began to advocate for swifter changes in society and the economic structure.
It was within this context that Mons. Romero assumed his position as Archbishop of San Salvador.  Much has been written about Romero as a man, a priest and a bishop.  Much has been written about the death of his friend Rutilio Grande, SJ, and the change that took place in Romero’s conduct and public pronouncements. Now, however, following the decree of Pope Francis, declaring Mons. Romero a martyr owing to a “hatred of the faith”, we must, I believe, view him through yet another lens, one that may have an impact upon our understanding of the Gospel itself.
Speaking of Romero’s death, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the Postulator of Romero’s beatification, stated,
Like other priests in Latin America in those years, he was the victim of an oligarchic system formed by people who professed themselves Catholic and saw in him an enemy of Western social order and of what already Pius XI, in «Quadragesimo Anno» terms 'economic dictatorship'.
Clearly, Mons. Romero spoke out concerning economic injustice, as much as he spoke out about those who had been killed or those who had disappeared, both in pastoral and public pronouncements.  Additionally, Romero spoke out against the repression promulgated by the military and the killing of civilians, perhaps most famously in his final homily the day before he was killed. 
To some, in the past, before this last week, Romero’s words might have been considered controversial, perhaps even theologically suspect. They did not seem to fit into the “normal” homiletic exercises expected of the head pastor of a troubled archdiocese. Some, indeed, might have wondered why he was addressing his remarks to the whole of Salvadoran society instead of keeping such remarks within the confines of the Church. He was clearly, in some sense, breaking new ground. One might say that in addition to being “the voice of the voiceless”, he became the awakened conscience of the nation. While we might find similarities in figures such as Thomas Becket in the England of Henry II or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Hitler’s Germany, Romero stands as a unique figure in our time, one not easily categorized nor one easily claimed by any particular faction, either within the Church or society.  Yet, I believe, that Romero was convinced that he was not only speaking to the people of El Salvador, but that he was also speaking on behalf of the people of El Salvador—the whole people of El Salvador.  Owing to this, his words have a universal meaning, a meaning that transcends his death and still speaks to us today.  They speak to us in comfort and they speak in conviction. They speak to us concerning our spiritual lives and they speak to us of those injustices which we see in our own society today that still cry out to be addressed by people of faith. Owing to this, we face the same questions about Romero that the pontifical commissions had to address. They are questions of faith and of justice.
Now, however, we are told by those who compiled the “Positio” that, in all essentials, Mons. Romero was faithful to what the Church proclaims in her teaching.  This is remarkable.  I believe that this means that we have to look at the life and death of Oscar Romero, Rutilio Grande, the Maryknoll Sisters, the Jesuits at UCA and indeed the Gospel itself, through a “new lens”.  When we look through that new lens what we will see that what was affirmed and, indeed, what was set in stone this last week, is that justice is at the heart and core of the Gospel we are called to proclaim. As we grasp that new vision, we will join with martyrs, literally as witnesses, to that Gospel for which Romero and so many others have died. It is reported that before his death, Romero said that if he was killed, he would rise again in the people of El Salvador.  As much as I honor and revere Monseñor Romero, I believe, if indeed he said this, that he was wrong. He has now risen in people of faith far beyond the confines of one nation. Truly his blood was a seed of freedom, not only for El Salvador, but for all of us who look to his example.


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