Monday, January 18, 2016

The audacious ecumenism of Bl. Romero


Blessed Romero and Rev. William Wipfler on March 23, 1980.
#BlessedRomero #MartyrOfMercy
Christian unity “happens when we walk together,” Pope Francis said during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity last year.  Unity grows along the way; it never stands still.”  The Rev. William Wipfler had the opportunity to walk together with the Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero while Wipfler, an Anglican priest, served as the Director of the Human Rights Office of the National Council of Churches from 1977-1988.  On March 23, 1980, Rev. Wipfler found that his path of solidarity with and accompaniment of Romero led to a moment of intense Christian fellowship—and Communion—on the eve of Romero’s assassination.

A historic collaboration

Rev. Wipfler befriended Romero by correspondence shortly after Romero was named Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977.  After Romero’s appointment was announced, Rev. Wipfler heard from one of his sources in El Salvador who was distraught that the conservative Romero might set back the church’s human rights work, which had enjoyed the support of the outgoing prelate.  But soon, Rev. Wipfler’s source sent him a dramatic reevaluation of Romero, writing that Romero’s reaction to the assassination of Fr. Rutilio Grande held out promise that Romero would take up Grande’s defense of the poor.

Wipfler snapped into action, writing Romero a letter expressing his condolences for the death of Fr. Grande, who was Romero’s friend, and offering the support of the National Council of Churches for Romero’s work.  Within a month, Wipfler received a hand-written thank you note from Romero, in which he expressed his gratitude for Wipfler’s letter, and invited him to visit Romero the next time Wipfler was in El Salvador.  As luck would have it, by this time, Wipfler had already purchased airline tickets for his next visit, a working trip to El Salvador that was part of his ongoing duties with the National Council of Churches, which had not been planned with the intention of seeing Romero.  But now Rev. Wipfler added Romero to the agenda.

First steps

Romero received Wipfler in the archdiocesan offices in the San José de la Montaña seminary in San Salvador.  It was a cordial, working meeting, during which Romero introduced Wipfler to some of his advisers.  Wipfler was impressed that Romero “was putting together a reasonably exciting group of people.”  For his own part, Romero said that the Church cannot live apart from issues of human rights and he expressed satisfaction that the National Council of Churches had a point-person for human rights.  He referred favorably to the testimony Wipfler had given before the U.S. Congress on human rights in Latin America the year before, revealing his awareness of the political process involved.  The meeting was formal—“stiffer than later meetings,” which were held in Romero’s living quarters at the Divine Providence Hospital.  Rev. Wipfler says it makes him wistful to see the hospital now because it reminds him of his friend.

Now that the initial contact had been made, a relationship had been established and a channel of communications was soon set up, involving Dr. Jorge Lara Braud, an assistant secretary general of the National Council of Churches who would develop a close friendship with the archbishop.  Wipfler also established direct contact with Romero’s human rights advisers, such as the young lawyer Roberto Cuellar, who worked in Romero’s Socorro Jurídico (Legal Aid Office), who became a “close friend” of Wipfler’s despite the fact that their phone calls were sometimes very brief affairs, during which they would be forced to speak in code (for fear of the calls being intercepted).

Over the next few years, Wipfler communicated with Romero often.  The communications were occasionally in-person meetings.  As Director of the Human Rights Office of the NCC, Wipfler traveled often to Central America.  He made it a point to work in a stopover in San Salvador during these trips, to confer with Romero.  When they could not meet in person, they passed each other notes through couriers—people who were traveling to El Salvador or passing through in travels elsewhere. They did not dare use the regular mail to send each other letters.  Human rights messages were very sensitive,” says Wipfler, noting concerns that authorities would intercept such letters.

A transformational ecumenism

Through his contacts with non-Catholic Christians, Romero seems to have evolved in his view of ecumenism.  The shift is apparent when one compares his statements about ecumenism in the few years he was archbishop.  Speaking in 1977, Romero addressed non-Catholic Christians as “separated sisters and brothers.”  Rev. Tomás López, a Lutheran pastor who visited Romero over the years, noted that Romero would use this strict doctrinal formula to describe Protestants in the early years, but later relaxed the language and simply said “sisters and brothers.”  In 1977, Romero said, “My dear separated sisters and brothers, this is where you are mistaken. I have great admiration for you,” he continued.  You have come to me and expressed your solidarity with me. But I believe you do not share our mission which we, as pastors, carry on.”  (October 23, 1977 Sermon.) He complained that while all Christians proclaimed the same gospel, “we would like to make an effort to come together around the only mission that Jesus gave us—one flock and one shepherd”—a prescription that must have received a very cool reception in non-Catholic camps.

Later, Romero acknowledged that Catholics and Protestants were not going to convince each other to abandon tenets of their own faith traditions, or adopt the other’s.  This faithfulness to our doctrine should not prevent us from cooperation with one another in those things that unite us,” he said.  For example, today it is most useful for Christians to work together in the area of human dignity, in the promotion of peace and justice, in the social application of the gospel, and inspiring the arts and literature with Christian values.”  (January 22, 1978 Sermon).  Human rights was precisely the area in which Romero and Rev. Wipfler, and others, had forged a solid partnership.  Romero was beginning to see that such collaborations could lend important support to his eminently Catholic mission as archbishop.  While we share many similarities, we can still come to understand our differences and soon they begin to disappear and very soon, with no restraints, the dream of Jesus can become a reality: ‘Father, may they be one’, one flock under one Shepherd who is Christ the Lord,” he said (taking care to specify that Jesus is the shepherd to whom all should submit).

In the end, Romero blazed an impactful ecumenical path.  First, Romero’s interfaith contacts gave added credence to his denunciations and enabled him to discredit his Salvadoran critics who argued that Romero was siding with the rebels. This was especially true because most of Romero’s ecumenical backers were from the U.S. and Western Europe.  Second, Romero’s ecumenical partners provided him access to resources far more vast than any that were at his disposal.  A press release put out by the National Council of Churches in New York would make a greater splash than one printed in Romero’s rag-tag office in San Salvador.  Third, and finally, Romero’s partnerships represented solidarity, blanketing him with international prestige that forced his enemies to consider the global backlash of doing him any harm.

The last encounter

Protecting Romero was one of the reasons Rev. Wipfler traveled to El Salvador on Friday, March 21, 1980 with a delegation of interfaith leaders representing 34 protestant and orthodox churches, and individual representatives from the Catholic Church and the Quakers.  On the plane down to El Salvador, Rev. Wipfler discussed the Nuremberg Trials with Thomas Quigley, one of the delegation members, a policy advisor to the Office of Justice and Peace of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference, who sat next to him.  The whole issue of guilt of the military is a very serious problem,” he explains.  The archbishop sent a representative to greet the delegation upon arrival and give them an initial debriefing on the situation on the ground. 

On Saturday March 22, the group met with the Legal Aid Office and other Romero advisers the first part of the day, and then with Romero himself.  Romero was warm and welcoming, and expressed his appreciation for the broad composition of the group.  He then proceeded to paint for them in stark terms the downward spiral into “barbarity” that his country was in.  He described the torture of political prisoners, cutting off their fingertips, pouring acid on their faces, discarding their nude bodies on the street after they had been tortured and killed, and other troubling indicators of a society whose moral fiber was being shredded.  Romero asked the Catholic priest in the group to concelebrate Mass with him the next day, and invited the others to attend.
Abp. Romero preaching in the Basilica.

The last sermon

On the fateful Sunday of March 23rd, the group arrived at the Basilica early for the 8 o’clock mass.  The church was already full.  The pews had been taken out, so most of the congregation was on their feet.  It was standing room only, Man,” Wipfler muses.  There were some seats for the elderly and for VIPs like the ecumenical delegation, who needed to be near the altar because a few of them had been asked to take the readings for the Mass.  There were “a couple of thousand people in the church,” Wipfler recalls. More people were gathering on the street outside, where workers were setting up loudspeakers so the spillover crowd could hear Romero’s sermon, the main attraction of a Sunday in El Salvador in those days.

Romero acknowledged his special guests as soon as he began his homily. “My dear brothers and sisters,” he said, “Our brothers and sisters, members of an Ecumenical Mission, are visiting our country during these days, and are present with us this morning, sharing in this celebration of God’s Word and the Eucharist.”  He continued, “They are here to gather information about our situation, especially the abuse of human rights.”  Then he introduced Wipfler and the other delegation members by name, to the crowd’s strong applause.  In their person and Christian way of thinking, we feel the solidarity of North America,” Romero said.

Then Romero began his sermon, using his by now usual homiletic formula.  He began by discussing the scripture readings for the day.  It was a “marvelous presentation about the [Biblical] exodus and the return” and also El Salvador’s exodus, Wipfler recalls.  Then Romero discussed events in the life of the church and in national life—the portion Wipfler calls “the catalog.”  It was a litany “of human rights violations, and then some conclusion that was a moral demand or an ethical requirement or a statement” recommending an explicit Christian response.  It was a “marvelous use of the Biblical readings for the day that were then applied to the contemporary situation,” Wipfler observes.  I mean I think any preacher would want to have that ability to be able to say, you know, here is scripture 2,000 years old and it talks to this moment.”

Romero had the congregation “hanging on every word.”  Discussing the national situation, “he gave it to both sides,” Wipfler recounts, noting that he did not spare the rebels from criticism, denouncing an incident in which “the rebels had brutalized a policeman.”  But the conclusion packed a punch.  After recounting the catalog of barbarity for that week, featuring extrajudicial killings by the army, Romero said that if soldiers were ordered to kill innocent civilians, they should disobey such orders because “No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God.”  To further countermand such directives, Romero issued his own: “In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!

The basilica erupted into sustained applause, which lasted nearly half a minute—the longest ovation Romero had received during his sermon, which was interrupted by applause twenty-one times by Wipfler’s estimate.  Sitting a few feet from Romero in the front pew, Wipfler turned to Tom Quigley sitting next to him and muttered nervously, “This is not going to go over well with the right wing.  They are going to be furious.”  Romero concluded by clarifying that the liberation that he preached was “just as we have studied it today in the Holy Bible,” one which “looks before all to God, and from God alone derives its hope and its force.”  He then led the congregation in the Apostles’ Creed to conclude the Liturgy of the Word, and proceeded to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, reciting the Eucharistic Prayers and consecrating the gifts.

From solidarity to Communion

Romero had been on his feet about an hour and forty five minutes preaching his sermon, but his work was not done.  When the time came for Communion, probably close to 11 a.m., Romero would have to make one more exertion.  I was startled by the fact that Archbishop Romero was the only one that gave Communion, unlike other situations where there is a large congregation and Communion is distributed by several priests at the altar rail,” says Wipfler.  He gave Communion to absolutely everyone in the congregation; it took more than a half an hour.”  It seems that Romero understood that people were coming to see him, some of them traveling long distances to the capital to be there.  I think a lot of them would have felt cheated if it would have been by anybody else,” says Wipfler.

Not being a Catholic, Wipfler understood that he was not eligible to receive Communion under the norms of the Church, so he used this time to kneel in prayer, with his eyes closed while Romero distributed the Eucharist.  Then, he heard Romero’s voice.  Would you like to receive Communion, Father?” he asked.  Romero was walking around the church to distribute Communion at various spots and had come to Wipfler.  I said, ‘Yes’.  And he gave me Communion.  I was very moved. It was an incredible gesture,” Wipfler reflects.  Later that week, Fr. Juan Macho Merino told Wipfler that he had been the last person to receive Communion from Romero’s hands because Romero was killed before finishing his sermon at the Mass he celebrated the next day.  Wipfler believed that to be true until our interview, when he heard for the first time that this was unlikely because Romero had celebrated a little-known Mass later that Sunday in a parish visit, during which he would have also distributed Communion for the same reasons he did so personally at the basilica.

Final Thoughts

I told Rev. Wipfler that even though he may not have been the last man to receive the Eucharist from Blessed Romero’s hand, it was no less remarkable as an ecumenical gesture.  The question of administering Communion to non-Catholics, known as “intercommunion” is a sensitive one.  Pope Benedict stirred up controversy when he gave communion to Br. Roger Schultz of the Taizé Community—a Calvinist—during the funeral of John Paul II (apparently an oversight).  More recently, Pope Francis created a furor when he said that while “I would never dare to give permission to do this,” a Lutheran contemplating the propriety of intercommunion should “Talk to the Lord and go forward.”

In an encyclical on the Eucharist, John Paul states that “While it is never legitimate to concelebrate in the absence of full communion, the same is not true with respect to the administration of the Eucharist under special circumstances,” left to the discretion of each local bishop.  The special circumstances include situations where there is a danger of present death or “other grave necessity,” and Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, recently commented that Anglicans can be included where such circumstances are met “because they believe in the Eucharist.”

In the case of Romero’s administering Communion to Rev. Wipfler, the special circumstances may have included the grave danger that Romero and those around them were in.  A few weeks before, a suitcase with 72 sticks of dynamite that would have destroyed the entire basilica was found under the pulpit where Romero had preached.  Romero himself was, in fact, killed the next day.  Romero’s gesture therefore may speak to us about the desperate hour Romero and Wipfler were living through.  Undoubtedly, Romero’s gesture must also be seen as an extension of gratitude and solidarity.  Like Pope Benedict who granted Communion to Br. Roger out of personal consideration after the Calvinist friar was unwittingly pushed in his wheelchair before the Pontiff, something more than decorum may have compelled Romero to offer Communion to Wipfler, a fellow Christian who had come from afar to share the perils of living out the Christian faith with Romero.

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