“A DIALOGUE ABOUT CRITERIA:” JOHN PAUL II
Archbishop Romero and the Popes (cont’d)
They were two laborers in the vineyards of the Lord; one born in a sleepy corner of one of the tiniest countries in the New World and, the other, born three years later in an emerging Central European Old World town. Yet God had a plan to bring them together, when history catapulted both to the world stage at the end of the 1970s when Karol Wojtyla of Wadowice, Poland, emerged as the Blessed John Paul II (pontificate: 1978-2005) and Oscar Romero as Archbishop of San Salvador. This is a series on Romero’s fidelity to the popes and their social teachings.
YouTube video: John Paul at Ab. Romero's grave (1996)The Salvadoran martyr and the Polish pope were the “two ships”—of Longfellow’s poem—“that greet each other with flashing lights and then sail off into the night.” Much has already been written about the historic encounter when John Paul emerged from a Church oppressed by the totalitarian Left and encountered Romero, persecuted by the oligarchic Right, and compared notes. Or, as Archbishop Romero characterized their tête à tête: they “dialogued about criteria,” like St. Peter and St. Paul (February 10, 1980 Homily.) The first time John Paul met Archbishop Romero, he had been Pope for six months, and the information he had been given was heavily biased toward a negative assessment, reflecting the views of Romero’s government critics. The two met a second time less than a year later, leaving Romero feeling that the Pope had heard him out. John Paul would soon become convinced that Romero had been a true servant of the Church and, later, a martyr.
Despite having received the backing of Pope Paul VI (“You are in charge!”), Romero knew that his enemies were bombarding the Vatican with a damning view of his spiritual leadership of the San Salvador Church. Romero moved quickly to reach out to the new Pope—an outsider—sending a six page letter less than a month after the Pope was installed. Despite his “ ‘conservative’ inclinations,” Romero wrote John Paul, “I believed it my duty to take a positive stand in defense of my Church and ... at the side of my oppressed and abused people.” (James BROCKMAN, Romero: A Life. New York: Orbis Books, 1989, p. 145). He also laid out before John Paul the doctrinal bases for his pastoral line. “In all of my actions,” he wrote, “I have prayed for much light from the Holy Spirit so as not to depart from the Gospel or the guidelines of Vatican Council II or the authorized documents of Medellin.” (BROCKMAN, Ibid.)
In 1979, Romero traveled to Rome to attend a beatification ceremony and greeted John Paul at the Pope’s weekly general audience. “When I told him my name and my responsibility here in El Salvador,” Romero recounted, “he told me that he hoped to speak with me in private.” (May 13, 1979 Hom.) A few days later, “the Holy Father showed me his goodness by receiving me in a private audience,” Romero said. (Ibid.) At their face to face meeting, John Paul gave the embattled Romero “his words of consolation and comfort,” telling him, “ ‘I understand that the situation in which you have to carry out your ministry is very difficult, very difficult’.” (Ibid.) John Paul heard Romero out. “A gesture of his has remained engraved in my heart,” Romero said: “the attention with which Pope John Paul II listens: When he had finished his sentences and I began to speak, he ... leaned closer to me to listen to my words, to understand what I was saying.” (Ibid.) He also gave the archbishop candid advice: “ ‘Be prudent! Be careful! But also have the courage to denounce those serious situations! You must also do this’.” (Ibid.)
Still cognizant of the one sided reports John Paul was getting through official sources, Romero handed the Pope four reports of foreign commissions investigating El Salvador, including one by the Organization of American States which confirmed the persecution of the Salvadoran Church, as well as letters of solidarity in support of Romero, and additional memos by Romero, which John Paul accepted. (BROCKMAN, Supra., 166-167.) Romero returned to El Salvador feeling validated by John Paul, and would cite his encouragement to defend his pastoral line: “just like John Paul II told me: ‘boldness and prudence’.” (July 20, 1979 Hom.) In fact, Romero cited John Paul repeatedly to demonstrate the validity of his actions: facing criticisms that he was too involved in politics, Romero was happy to highlight “The Pope’s travels to six countries, his participation in the Conference of Latin American Bishops, his visit to the United Nations, his messages to government leaders in which he spoke on behalf of those persons who are dispossessed, as well as about peace and human rights.” (December 23, 1979 Hom.) On doctrinal matters, Romero declared his complete adherence to John Paul’s pastoral line. (See, e.g., April 22, 1979, March 9, 1980 homilies).
Pope John Paul and Archbishop Romero met again in January 1980, less than a year after their first encounter. Romero refuted the charge by some that the tone of the meeting was hostile: “He did not scold me as some have said but rather it was a dialogue about criteria,” he said, “like when Paul went up to Jerusalem to speak with Peter about the content of his preaching.” (February 1980 Hom., Supra.) The Pope encouraged Romero: “ ‘Continue to defend social justice and promote love for those who are poor’.” (Ibid.) But he warned him to be careful about possible ideological entanglements. Romero assured the Pope that he was mindful of the need for balance and Romero felt that John Paul approved of everything he said. (BROCKMAN, Supra., 225.) At the end of the meeting, John Paul embraced Romero and told him that he prayed every day for El Salvador. “I felt here God’s confirmation and his force for my poor ministry,” Romero wrote. (Ibid.)
That March, Archbishop Romero declared, “My sisters and brothers, the greatest glory of a pastor is to live in communion with the Pope.” (March 2, 1980 Hom.) “For me,” he added, “this communion with the Pope, is the secret of the truth and gives efficacy to my preaching.” That same month, of course, he would be martyred. In the years following, John Paul recalled Romero on countless occasions, including the first anniversary of the assassination, in which John Paul invoked Romero in St. Peter’s Square; and at the memorial for 20th century martyrs in the Colosseum, when the Parkinson’s stricken Pontiff hand-wrote Romero’s name on a draft list of those to be honored. But John Paul’s most enduring tribute may be his 1983 war time visit to El Salvador, and the unscheduled detour to Romero’s grave in the shuttered Cathedral, in which he called Romero a “zealous pastor, whom love of God and service of brethren drove to surrender his life in a violent manner, while he celebrated the Sacrament of forgiveness and reconciliation.” (Remarks at San Salvador Cathedral, March 6, 1983—in Spanish.)
YouTube video: John Paul in El Salvador (1983—in Spanish)The theologian Jon Sobrino has written, “Karol Wojtyla’s photograph ... praying at the tomb of Archbishop Romero and the words with which he referred to him … ha[ve] been instrumental as a condition sine qua non to start and continue the [Romero beatification] process.” (Sobrino, El proceso de canonización de Monseñor Romero [Romero’s canonization process], ECA magazine, March 2000, pp. 243-254—in Spanish.)
NEXT: Benedict XVI
PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES:
Leo XIII (1878-1903) (Spanish)
St. Pius X (1903-1914)
Benedict XV (1914-1922) (Italian)
Pius XI (1929-1939) (Spanish)
Pius XII (1939-1958)
John XXIII (1958-1963) (Spanish)
Paul VI (1963-1978)
John Paul I (1978) (Italian)
Romero's fidelity to John Paul
No hostile reception
John Paul's remarks about Romero