Monday, July 08, 2013


Taking in Pope Francis’ first encyclical, the cognoscenti of the Church in the New World might be reminded of another prominent Latin American clergyman’s opening pastoral letter—that of El Salvador’s Oscar A. Romero. At first glance, Francis’ «LUMEN FIDEI» and Romero’s “The Church of the Paschal Mystery” (1977) may seem two very different documents presented in very different contexts, but upon closer examination the two works share a lot of fundamentals.  (This is a Year of Faith examination of the Servant of God Oscar A. Romero’s preaching and theological orientation.)

At heart, both are introductory epistles  that seek to justify and promote the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Both reach out to a modern world that seems to be increasingly slipping out of reach, and offer an urgent call to “dialogue” with the faith. Even structurally, the two documents bear striking similarities. Both are divided into four chapters focusing on: (1) the exigent circumstances that precipitated the need for each letter; (2) the Scriptural foundations of the letter; (3) the nature of the Church; and (4) the situation of the world which warrants the Church's intervention. Both documents conclude with a Marian prayer. And while Romero’s letter was decidedly written by two hands and not four, even in this respect there are some parallels. Romero wrote his pastoral letter entirely by himself, working feverishly on it even during his first trip to Rome as Archbishop, revising his draft during a layover at New York's JFK Airport. However, at the beginning of the document Romero acknowledges his indebtedness to his predecessor and Romero derives the key theological ideas of the document from the Argentine churchman Eduardo Pironio.

The core of Romero’s message is summed up in his citation from the Latin American Bishops’ 1968 synod at Medellin and its dream for a Church that is “truly poor, missionary and paschal.” Those words say much about Romero’s theological bent and why Pope Francis is eager to promote Romero’s canonization cause. The words recall three recent papal pronouncements: (1) Francis’ vision of “a poor church for the poor;” (2) Francis’ view that “Mission is key to ministry,” because, “A Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms;” and (3) Pope Benedict’s dissertation on the “essential ideas” of the Council--“above all, the Paschal Mystery as the centre of what it is to be Christian,” taking as our starting point, “our encounter with the Risen one, and from that encounter with the Risen one [going] out into the world.” The Latin American contingent at the Council, Benedict recalled, “well aware of the extreme poverty of its people, on a Catholic continent,” was eager to pursue “the responsibility of the faith for the situation of these people” and the interrelated concepts of the “responsibility for the future of this world and eschatological hope” as dimensions of the interplay between faith and the modern world. This is the Church Romero comes from, and Francis appears to come from the same place and drink from the same wellhead.

Romero opens his letter boldly declaring that the circumstances that have brought him to head the San Salvador Archdiocese constitute a providential opportunity to implement and test the teachings of the Council. “Were I to search for an appropriate adjective to describe this moment of apostolic succession in the Archdiocese,” he writes, “I should have no hesitation in calling it paschal.” The San Salvador Archdiocese, Romero writes, is living through what Cardinal Pironio had called when he led the Pope’s 1974 Holy Week spiritual exercises, “the Hour of Jesus:” “It is a time” Romero quotes Pironio to say, “of the cross and of hope, of possibilities and of risks, of responsibility and of commitment.” Romero adds in his own words, “It is, above all, a time for prayer and contemplation so as to interpret, according to the heart of God, the signs of our times. They will help us to know,” he writes, “how to offer the service that we, as Church, owe to the just aspirations of our brothers and sisters.”  The hour Romero referred to was indeed a trial by fire: he had been called as a conservative alternative to lead an archdiocese plagued by growing social unrest and church-state conflict aggravated by the assassination of a priest within weeks of Romero’s ascension.

Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, recently appointed by Pope Francis to head the Pope’s coordinating commission to reform the curia and govern the global Church, also comes from the same Latin American milieu and he met Romero while he was a young priest in his native Honduras. In this pastoral letter, “Romero writes that the Church is born of Easter, lives off Easter, and exists to proclaim and make present today the grace of Easter,” says Rodríguez Maradiaga. “Focusing the Church on Easter is a brilliant move,” the Cardinal argues, noting that the Gospels are written from a similar perspective. “To say Easter,” says the Cardinal, “is to say unfailing hope, because it is based on Jesus’ victory over sin and death, over Satan and his reign of evil.” In his letter, Romero confirms that, “When I described this moment in the life of our Archdiocese as a paschal hour, I was thinking of the superabundant power of faith, hope, and love that the risen Christ ... has called forth in different sectors of our local Church.” He adds: “even in sectors and persons who do not belong to, nor yet share in, our paschal faith.” (Compare Pope Francis in «LUMEN FIDEI:» “Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith.”)

In a key passage of his letter, Romero declares that, “The Church does not exist for herself. Her raison d’etre is the same as that of Jesus: service to God to save the world.” (Again, Pope Francis in his encyclical: “Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope.”) Challenging both non-believers to engage with the Church, and those in the Church to engage with the world, Romero once more cites Card. Pironio, who had diagnosed the problem to be that “We Christians have not thoroughly assimilated ourselves to Jesus Christ,” concluding that “We divorce faith from life;” for example, “we content ourselves with preaching the faith or celebrating it liturgically, but we do not put love and justice into practice.” (Compare Pope Benedict: “In Latin America, and also elsewhere, among many Catholics a certain schizophrenia exists between individual and public morals: personally, in the private sphere, they are Catholics and believers but in public life they follow other trends that do not correspond with the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society” and Pope Francis’ admonition against “rigid Christians”, who pay attention to formalities, just as the scribes and Pharisees did, but who may represent “today's Pelagians who believe in the firmness of faith and are convinced that salvation is the way I do things,” even though they practice a faith without any joy.)

Romero extends an outstretched hand to all: “I represent a Church that wants always to converse with all men and women, so that she may pass on to them the truth and the grace with which God has entrusted to her, in order that she may guide the world in conformity to his divine plan.”

And he concludes with a prayer to the Blessed Virgin. “Let us appeal to the Queen of Peace, the heavenly patroness of our people, to intercede” on our behalf, he writes. “May the Mother of the Risen One defend our Church, the sacrament of Easter. Like Mary, may the Church live out this happy balance of the Easter of Jesus, which ought to characterize the true salvation of men and women in Christ—namely, to feel oneself already glorified in heaven as the image and first flowering of the future life, and at the same time to be, here on earth, the light for God's pilgrim people as a sign of sure hope and solace until the day of the Lord comes.”

See also:

Archb. Romero's 2nd Pastoral Letter
Romero's 1st Episcopal Letter
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