Monday, June 15, 2015

The “Laudato Sí” of Blessed Romero



In his recent letter congratulating El Salvador for the beatification of its martyred Archbishop Mons. Oscar A. Romero, Pope Francis referred to the natural beauty of El Salvador, which he described as “this beautiful Central American country, bathed by the Pacific Ocean.” The appearance of a solar halo at the ceremony seemed to accentuate the natural beauty of a beatification which took a volcano for its backdrop. In the theology of creation, the covenant between God and Noah after the flood was represented by a halo or rainbow. “The covenant of the rainbow,” preached Blessed Romero on March 11, 1979, “is a covenant in which God gives humanity all of that which has now, as a result of the flood, purified of sin. Therefore, this covenant demands that people respect nature.”

To his social denunciation, Blessed Romero added an environmental note: “the air and water are being polluted, as is everything we touch and live with. We go on corrupting the nature that we need. We do not realize that we have a commitment to God to take care of nature.” Archbishop Romero fleshed out his ecological warnings with detailed admonitions: “To cut down a tree, to waste water when there is such a great lack of it, to let buses poison our atmosphere with those noxious fumes from their exhausts, to burn garbage haphazardlyall of this concerns our covenant with God.”

Blessed Romero, like St. Francis of Assisi and the pope who has taken his name, also raised a song of praise to God for the wonders of creation in the small tropical paradise of his homeland: “What beautiful coffee groves, what fine wheat, sugar cane and cotton fields, what farms, what lands God has given us! Nature is so beautiful!,” Romero exclaimed in his homily on December 11, 1977.

And he said on December 25 of that year that “in the beauty of things, in their order, their greatness, the beauty of all creation, we feel God’s footprint, his word, his echo.” The grandeur of nature is the humility of humanity when it points out our place before the greatness of God:

When one looks at creation, when one sees the maintenance of nature—so balanced and wonderful—and even when one feels the shaking of earthquakes or the flames of conflagrations or the power of hurricanes—creation’s beauty and the majesty of the phenomena that humans can only admire but not control, like the very storm that Peter experienced on the Lake of Gennesaret: how tiny human beings appear before these manifestations of God’s creation, of the Creator’s omnipotence. They are witnesses of God—lasting witnesses. Whenever we open our eyes or our ears to catch the murmuring of creation, there God is speaking to us.

(Homily, August 13, 1978.) However, Romero does not dwell in an inconsequential state of awe. He immediately recognizes that the beauty of nature is mortgaged as it were by the reality of social sin. For example, in the aforementioned homily of December 11, 1977 he goes on to say, after praising creation “But we see it groan under oppression, under wickedness, under injustice, under abuse, and the Church experiences its pain. Nature looks for a liberation that will not be mere material well-being but God’s act of power. God will free nature from sinful human hands, and along with the redeemed it will sing a hymn of joy to God the Liberator.”

Recognizing the shadows that obscure an earthly paradise, Romero does not let his chant become a funeral march, full of dread, but a hymn of hope, preferring to sing to the land illuminated by the Word of God: “It seems to me that never before has the nation been more beautiful than today when she is bathed in the light of the sun of the Transfigured One—for as a result of the Transfiguration the face of Christ becomes like the sun,” he preached the August 6, 1978, on the Patronal Feast of the Transfiguration. “The sin of humanity submitted nature to slavery, selfishness and passions but in Christ we find the hope of restoration. Indeed, the … hope of our restoration enables us to see as never before the marvels of our volcanoes, lakes, rivers, plains and seas,” he added, because “in Christ all men and women, to whom inanimate nature is intimately bound and united, desire and await salvation.”

Thirty years before Pope Benedict XVI denounced ecological inequality and the existence of “environmental refugees” in his messages for the XL and XLIII World Days of Peace, Blessed Romero criticized the precarious conditions in which the poor must live, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to environmental calamities, sometimes citing statistics relating to access to water and energy. After storms left numerous victims in El Salvador, Archbishop Romero railed in his homily of September 9, 1979: “Brothers and sisters, all these people are victims not only of the weather but also sadly of the situation which reflects our poor way of living.” Citing descriptions of the miserable housing conditions, Blessed Romero charged that “A house like this is not worthy of the name of a house. Yet this is how thousands upon thousands live.” He charged that the situation of violated the policy of non-exclusion dictated by the gospel.

At other times, Blessed Romero admonished against the lack of justice in the distribution of land and the need for land reform. He proclaimed that “the land is closely tied to God’s blessings and promises” and warned in his homily on March 16, 1980 that “There will be no true reconciliation between our people and God as long as there is no just distribution, as long as the goods of the earth in El Salvador do not benefit and bring happiness to all Salvadorans.” At other times, as on June 4, 1978, he advocated for access to water for the poor: “We see in many places of San Salvador, not only in the areas of our campesinos, that people spend much time and exert great effort in looking for water and carrying this precious liquid to their homes in jars and barrels.”

As he did with respect to his other denunciations, Blessed Romero highlighted the theological sources for his environmental preaching. Speaking of water, he observed on February 26, 1978 that “The water that our thirsty mouths drink with such longing has a unique language,” and he pointed to our “desire to find that water that springs forth into eternal life”. Just as environmental commitments lead us to deepen our fidelity to God, so our relationship with God demands we care for creation. On March 11, 1979, Blessed Romero appealed: “My dear sisters and brothers in El Salvador, let us not continue to kill and make worse the things of created nature but let us give a religious meaning to our relationship with the cosmos. Our commitment to God demands our collaboration.”

Gazing upon the beauty of nature and the splendor of the Salvadoran landscape,” said Cardinal Amato during the beatification homily, “Romero used to say that the heaven started here on Earth.”  The “Laudato Sí” of Blessed Romero included praise for the wonders of creation as evidence of the greatness of God the Creator, of our obligation to be stewards of the earth, and as a vision of shining hope for our salvation.

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