JUBILEE YEAR for the CENTENNIAL of BLESSED ROMERO, 2016 — 2017
Why is Archbishop Oscar Romero not mentioned in the new apostolic exhortation «Gaudete et Exsultate» by Pope Francis? After all, the theme of the document is “the call to holiness in today's world”, and Blessed Romero will be made a saint later this year, as an urgent example of the call to holiness in today's world, and a large part of the text seems to be directly relatable to his figure. The other important saints raised to the altars by Pope Francis are named in the document—John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Paul VI, the “Gaucho Priest” of Argentina—they are all accounted for. The great absentee is Romero, who could very well be the most prominent saint of the pontificate. But, why?
After considering all the reasons, the only answer that makes sense is that Romero is not mentioned in the document because Romero is the interpretive key to reading it. This is similar to how Jesus is the interpretive key to reading the Jewish scriptures: “You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life.” [John 5, 39-40.] Jesus is not in the Old Testament texts because He unlocks them; like a companion piece that helps to understand another document, like a decrypting device that comes separate from the message to be deciphered, like a password that does not appear in the material to which it gives access. Romero does not appear in «Gaudete et Exsultate», but we cannot understand the document in the same way without him: If we imagine ourselves in some point in time in the future, after Romero’s canonization, we would not be able to talk about his holiness and this exhortation on holiness, without relating the two, especially because they happened in the same year.
The exhortation itself highlights the link between itself and the canonization process when it states: “The processes of beatification and canonization recognize the signs of heroic virtue, the sacrifice of one’s life in martyrdom, and certain cases where a life is constantly offered for others, even until death.” [G.E., 5.] This year, although several canonization onizations are in process, two have captured the imagination of the faithful—Romero and Paul VI. In the case of Pope Montini, his prominence was to be expected, owing to his having been universal pastor, known and beloved the world over. For the same reason, it is natural he is cited—four times—in the document.The exhortation also gives great emphasis to the themes of martyrdom and persecution, relevant to Romero. In fact, the very title of the document is derived from the words of Jesus Christ to victims of persecution: “'Rejoice and be glad,' ["Gaudete et Exsultate"] Jesus tells those persecuted or humiliated for his sake.” [G.E., 1; Mt 5:12.]
Archbishop Romero rejoiced and was glad in the face of persecution. “Blessed is Alfonso Navarro!” Romero exclaimed at a mass for the anniversary’s of the murder of one of his priests, “Blessed is Father Grande! Blessed are those who have been persecuted and died for the Kingdom of God! Blessed too are those who have been massacred in hatred of the faith, for they have been made blessed by criminal and bloody hands! God has given them the most precious pearl that could be given to our commuynity! With respect, admiration, and gratitude, with the love of a brother I take up the life and the example of Father Alfonso this morning and I tell him: this pearl is the glory of our community, the beautiful crown of our Diocese. This pearl is the light that invites us to give witness to holiness, truth, and unity.” [May 11, 1978 Homily.] In his exhortation, Francis quotes John Paul, who spoke of martyrdom as “a heritage which speaks more powerfully than all the causes of division” among Christians. [G.E., 9.] The quoted remarks were from a commemoration presided over by the Polish Pope which honored the Salvadoran martyr (among others).
But «Gaudete et Exsultate» does not limit itself to discussing the shedding of blood for the faith—Francis wants us to understand that there may be less drastic situations that impact all of us. “Persecutions are not a reality of the past, for today too we experience them, whether by the shedding of blood, as is the case with so many contemporary martyrs, or by more subtle means, by slander and lies,” he writes. [G.E., 94.] One cannot read that phrase without having in mind that Francis said that Archbishop Romero was subjected to both forms. “Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom did not occur precisely at the moment of his death,” he told a delegation of Salvadoran pilgrims in 2015; “it was a martyrdom of witness, of previous suffering, of previous persecution, until his death. But also afterwards because, after he died ... he was defamed, slandered, soiled, that is, his martyrdom continued even by his brothers in the priesthood and in the episcopate.”
Just as we can be victimized by such “slander and lies,” it is important not to fall into the sin of making accusations that respond to “ideologies striking at the heart of the Gospel,” warns the Pontiff. “The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” he writes. [G.E., 101.] Previously, the Pope had issued a similar warning: “when someone denounces various mundane ways, he is regarded with a strange look”. On that occasion, he remarked, “I recall in my own country many, many men and women, fine consecrated people, not ideologues, but who would say: ... ‘he’s a communist, throw him out!’. And they would cast them out; they would persecute them. Just think of Blessed Romero”.
Romero had to defend himself against such accusations, insisting that, “even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the other epithets they put on us, we know that we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes which have turned everything upside down — the Beatitudes proclaim that the poor are blessed and those who thirst for justice are blessed and those who suffer are blessed.” [Hom. May 11 1978.]
Francis points to these same Beatitudes as keys to holiness in his exhortation. It is necessary, says the Pope, to hunger and thirst for justice: “Your identification with Christ and his will involves a commitment to build with him that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace.” [G.E., 25.] In the decree of beatification, Francis describes Romero precisely in those terms: “Heroic witness of the Kingdom of God—Kingdom of justice, brotherhood and peace.” Additionally, Francis urges that hunger and thirst for justice correspond to the “preferential option” of the Church: “Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” [G.E., 79; Is 1,17.]
Francis also calls us to a holiness that embraces poverty and rejects materiality, since “Wealth ensures nothing. Indeed, once we think we are rich, we can become so self-satisfied that we leave no room for God’s word[.]” [G.E., 68.] Here’s Romero: “Thus Jesus says with great emotion: Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. You are the ones most able to understand what is not understood by those who are on their knees before and trust in false idols. You who do not have those idols, you who do not put your trust in them because you have no money or power, you who are destitute of everything, know that the poorer you are, the more you possess God’s kingdom[.]” [February 17, 1980 Homily.]
The Finally, Francis reaches a conclusion that could be the Romeroesque synthesis of «Gaudete et Exsultate», when he states: “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.” [G.E., 101.] Romero sums it up even more succinctly: “it is not God’s will for some to have everything and others to have nothing.” [September 10, 1978 Homily].
There are many other parallels between «Gaudete et Exsultate» and Archbishop Romero. For the moment, it is enough to point to one final example. In his call to holiness, Pope Francis tells us that we all have the opportunity to be saints:
Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.
How beautiful will be the day when all the baptized understand that their work and their job is priestly work. Just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench, and each metalworker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand — each one of these people is performing a priestly office! How many cabdrivers, (and I know they are listening to this message in their cabs) — you are a priest at the wheel, my friend, if you work with honesty, consecrating that taxi of yours to God and bearing a message of peace and love to the passengers who ride in your cab.
[November 20, 1977 Homily.]
«Gaudete et Exsultate» is the word of encouragement that Christ left to the persecuted like Archbishop Romero, and the exhortation of the same name enshrines the call to holiness that Romero lived out. Francis does not omit Romero to avoid controversy, because several controversial passages of the exhortation show he is not afraid of disagreements. Nor does he refrain to protect Romero: the record is replete with multiple instances in which Francis has referred to Romero to illustrate these very points. Finally, it was not an oversight, because the citations in the text are extensive, including examples as varied as María Gabriela Sagheddu, Charles de Foucauld, Paul Miki, Andrew Kim Taegon, Francis Xavier Nguyên van Thuân and the Latin American martyrs Roque Gonzalez and Alfonso Rodriguez.
Instead, the silence on Romero seems more like a purposeful evasion that calls our attention to the excluded subject.