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The Church: called to repentance; called to prophecy
In a widely used “Romero liturgy” published by the Claretians, Óscar Romero’s entire preaching is succinctly—and, accurately—summed up as: “The Church: Called to repentance; called to prophecy.” This title also aptly describes Archbishop Romero’s March 9, 1980 sermon. (This is a series on Romero’s seven final sermons: Read the English text of the Homily here, and the original Spanish text here.) This sermon contained a pure distillation of Romero’s call to repentance and prophecy, with the high drama of Romero’s most powerful sermons. Joined at the altar by the coffins of two assassinated human rights workers, Romero accepted a Peace Prize from Swedish Action for Ecumenism at an overflowing Basilica of the Sacred Heart while his Metropolitan Cathedral continued to be occupied by popular organizations. His sermon was disseminated throughout the country by hand-held cassette tape recorders and CB broadcasts, because the Church’s radio station had been taken out by a bomb intended to silence the archbishop, but international relay stations were broadcasting it live to the rest of the Continent.
Archbishop Romero sets the stage first by recapping the Gospel of St. Luke, from which the readings for Lent 1980 were taken: The “Gospel of Mercy” recounts Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, which represents the place of God’s promises. It is a journey that would pass through “the path of suffering, the path of Calvary, the path of humiliation and the Cross,” but would culminate in “the path of triumph and victory and resurrection.” It was on this path, Romero preaches, that Jesus is asked in that Sunday’s readings whether some Jews who had died were going to Heaven. And Jesus replied, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5.) If—as the Claretians have pointed out—“repentance” sums up Romero’s message, it was because Romero believed “repentance” summed up Christ’s call to action. “Repentance,” Romero preached, “is actually the synthesis of the whole Gospel ... Repentance is the foundation of the Kingdom of God.” The call to repentance, he points out, is a pervasive New Testament theme: “John the Baptist began his ministry with the call to repentance and Jesus did the same and also commanded His disciples to preach to the end of time that the Kingdom of God has arrived, repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Jesus’ Luke 13:5 warning, Romero preaches, is more urgent than ever before: “My sisters and brothers, if this [admonition] of Jesus were ever valid, then it is certainly now, at this time in El Salvador, when everywhere life is endangered: Repent!” This, Romero preached, is the “unmistakable” message of Lent. “How many polarizations, how many ideologies, how many selfish interests, how many mistaken paths of human beings,” he lamented, “and today I want the words of Jesus Christ to resound over all these realities: Repent! for if you do not repent, you will all perish.” The key to the reconciliation that this polarized society needed was for sinners to repent and do penance, Romero railed from the altar: “If we do not do penance then our baptism is useless. If we do not do penance then it does not matter that we are members of the People of God. If we do not turn our hearts toward God and repent of our faults we cannot think that we will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Romero’s emphasis can be measured by the frequency of particular words in his preaching. (Timothy SHORTELL, Radicalization of Religious Discourse in El Salvador: The Case of Oscar A. Romero, SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION, Vol. 62, No. 1, March 22, 2001.) In this sermon, Romero uses the words “repent” or “repentance” a resounding twenty-seven (27) times, and he uses the word “penance” another seven (7) times. By contrast, he only says “liberation” four (4) times. Clearly, Romero’s preaching has revved up to a new level of intensity in this Lenten sermon in which he has begun to perceive that “the Calvary and the Cross” are just around the corner. Later that same day, he was scheduled to say the funeral Mass for Mario Zamora, an opposition leader who had been assassinated. After the service, a bundle of dynamite was found near the pulpit from which Romero had spoken. Even though the explosives did not go off, if they had, they were calculated to have been sufficient to take out the entire city block that the Basilica was built on.
Archbishop Romero’s call to prophesy implicated his ability to relate the day’s news with the Scriptural readings. (COLORADO, Obscure archbishop, living in his people, still causes mighty to tremble, NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER, April 15, 2005.) In the Scripture, Jesus had said, “repent or you, too, will perish,” after he had been asked whether some Galileans killed during a religious rite and a group of Zealots killed at the tower of Siloam, would go to Heaven. About the “pious Galileans,” Romero preached, “Without a doubt their death was the result of repressive action, death that came as the result of religious persecution.” He recalled that Pontius Pilate had a reputation as “a man who carried out acts of violent repression, a man who sent soldiers into the midst of the multitude in the Temple to kill them.” He wryly remarked, “This man would certainly find a place here in El Salvador.” As for the Siloam dead he said, “It is most probable that these individuals were members of a political movement, the Zealots, and they died during a struggle.” In fact, the two types of victims—religious figures and political insurgents—matched exactly the profile of the victims that the persecution in El Salvador was producing and, therefore, Romero made the Gospel appear as a very precise mirror of everyday reality. What made Romero’s preaching “prophetic” was not, as is sometimes supposed, just that he delved into questions that affected the political life of his country, as the prophets of old intervened in the life of Israel. Romero went a step further, by drawing precise analyses between the circumstances of El Salvador and the narratives of the Bible, which made the Scripture and national life appear as alternate sides of the same coin for his pastoral analysis. (Id.)
Romero also commented in this sermon on two reforms that had been proposed by the military-civilian junta governing El Salvador to avert war, agrarian reform and bank reform. In tandem with the hair raising litany of hundreds of recent political killings, Romero pleads that the repression has to stop, if any reform is going to be effective. A couple of times, Romero apologizes for having to wade into political issues: “the pastor has to speak of politics not because he is a politician but because from the perspective of God’s dynamism politics is under God’s dominion.” He also reminds the Left that this subordination requires them to maintain a healthy respect for “God’s dominion” of the field, reminding them that God required Moses to remove his sandals before approaching the Burning Bush, and therefore insisting that the Church’s call to repentance must be heeded by all sectors of society, including (and, perhaps, even, especially) by its would-be liberators.
The Church, Archbishop Romero preached, puts forward the Plan of God, which offers New Covenant reconciliation: “Through the history of the Church the history of Israel becomes the history of the people of El Salvador. The history of El Salvador is also the vehicle of the plan of God to the degree that the people of El Salvador take ownership” of it. El Salvador, he said, was living through “a dark night of repression and violence” which was evident in the very Basilica. “The Word of God,” he went on, “enables us to experience the dawn of a new day if we become reconciled and repent.”
NEXT: The Promised Land (Spanish)
Post Script: In his Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011 General Audience discourse, Pope Benedict XVI repeated some of the themes—and used some of the exact phrases—that Archbishop Romero used in his March 9, 1980 sermon on repentance. Like Romero, the Pope emphasized the Gospel’s emphasis on Jesus’ journey: “It means accompanying Jesus as he travels to Jerusalem, the place where the mystery of his passion, death and resurrection is to be fulfilled,” said the Pontiff. Lent, he added, is a time for “penance [and] to intensify our commitment to conversion.”