Sunday, June 29, 2014

Romero in the Age of Francis

Francis addresses Brazilian slum with giant Romero painting overhead;
Francis blesses likeness of Romero presented by the faithful;
Romero banners at Francis' «Angelus» event at the Vatican.
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Let’s be frank: Pope Francis is the best thing to happen for Óscar Romero.  But let’s also be clear: the reason why Francis is so good for the memory of the slain Salvadoran archbishop (1917-1980) is not that Francis has advanced Romero’s beatification cause (though he has) or that Francis has validated Romero by taking social stances reminiscent of Romero (though he has also done that).  The greatest thing Francis has done for Romero is to attract the contempt of the right, showing the world that being painted as a Marxist for espousing the social gospel is badge of honor, not a cause of shame.

Beatification “unblocked”

Romero supporters have much to be thankful for in Francis’ pontificate so far.  Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s views about Romero were known in the inner circles before he was even Pope.  In May 2007, Cardinal Bergoglio told a Salvadoran cleric, “If I had been pope, the very first thing I would have done is order the beatification of Archbishop Romero.”  According to reports, the Argentine had come in second behind Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave.  But on March 13, 2013, the Argentine became Pope Francis, and on April 20 he let it be known that he had “unblocked” the Romero beatification.

During his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Card. Bergoglio attended several ceremonies paying tribute to Archbishop Romero in events organized by the Sant Egidio community of Argentina, in the framework of the ecumenical commemoration of twentieth century martyrs. For example, in the 2005 commemoration of Romero and others, held at the Buenos Aires Cathedral, Card. Bergoglio railed against the “greatest evil that can happen to the Church of the Lord: spiritual vulgarity—when we enter into accommodations with the schemes of this world.” When Card. Bergoglio led a delegation of Argentine bishops to Rome in 2009, they visited the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, which pays tribute to twentieth century martyrs, including Archbishop Romero.

In the year that he has been Pope, Francis has continually discussed Romero and his beatification with a long line of visitors.  For example, in the days around his inauguration, Francis received several guests who took up Romero with the new pope, including the Anglican archbishop of York John Sentamu, who handed Pope Francis a "Romero Cross" like the one Sentamu wears.  In those first months, Francis met twice with the Argentine Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, and they discussed Romero and the desirability of a positive result in his canonization process.  That specific topic—Romero and his canonization process—took center stage in several high profile meetings, including with Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes, with his successor Salvador Sánchez Cerén, and with the President of the Central American Parliament who Francis assured that the canonization is “on the right path.”

When Pope Francis received a high ranking delegation of Salvadoran bishops last month, and the topic of discussion was, again, Archbishop Romero, there were widespread rumors that a beatification announcement was imminent.  Although that ultimately turned out to be premature speculation, it showed how high the expectations for Romero have risen under this pontificate, where a year before Francis’ election, the prospect of Romero’s sainthood was being sized up by Vatican-watchers as a “lost cause.”

‘A poor Church, for the poor’

The elevation of the first Latin American to the See of Peter represented a tectonic shift for the Church—and for the Romero cause.  As explained by Italian Cardinals Achille Silvestrini and Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, Romero symbolizes “the Church that Pope Bergoglio wants to project to the geographical and existential peripheries” in this Pontificate and there is “an identity of thinking” between Archbishop Romero and the new Pope, who announced he would like to see the Catholic Church be “a poor Church for the poor.”

The Argentine Pontiff has said that he chose the name “Francis,” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, because of the beloved saint’s association with the poor and the environment.  How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!,” he declared within days of being elected. For his part, Romero is best recalled as a champion of the poor, who sought to be the voice of the voiceless: “We are never ashamed to say the Church of the poor,” he insisted.

Because Francis hails from Latin America, says Honduran Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, a close advisor to the Pope, he knows how the other half lives.  For us, poverty is concrete people, concrete faces of people — people who suffer, people who are living in slums, people who are in prison, people who are deported, people who are in refugee camps,” says the prelate.  Cardinal Rodríguez, an avowed Romero admirer, says that it was “the constant seeking of the will of God that led him to face bravely the structural sin that was crushing the little ones of his dear country.”  According to the Honduran cardinal, “Francis analyzes the economy from the point of view of the poor which is in line with Jesus’s perspective.”  Moreover, says Rodríguez, “Francis recognizes in those unjust structures an illness of the system as such.”  An illness which the Pontiff—like Archbishop Romero—consistently denounces.

‘If the world hate you, it hated Me before it hated you…’

Perhaps the greatest validation Pope Francis has brought to Archbishop Romero is to put the slanders against the Salvadoran martyr in context in the way that the Pontiff has become a lightning rod for ideologues.  For years, the greatest stumbling block in Romero’s path to beatification was the perception that he was Marxist-tainted or affiliated with the “socialist” current of Liberation Theology.  Francis has largely obliterated that stain by showing that ideological critics will bristle even at fair criticism of capitalism (they had similarly attacked Paul VI), and are not too shy to attack even the Pope.

The American conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh dismissed Pope Francis’ criticism of capitalism as “pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”  Limbaugh accused Francis, among other things of using Marxist terms like “unfettered capitalism” to describe the world economy.  Unfettered capitalism?  That doesn’t exist anywhere.  Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States.”  Even a Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government scholar criticized Francis for supposedly “promoting envy” of the rich while discouraging entrepreneurship and innovation. “Encouraging people to measure themselves against others only leads to grief,” wrote Lant Pritchett. “Resenting the success of others is a sin in itself.”  Similarly, Loyola Marymount (a Catholic institution) professor David Byrne admitted that he “cringed” at the echoes of Liberation Theology in the Pope’s exhortation «Evangelii Gaudium».

Of course, rightwing extremists had branded Romero (whose middle name was Arnulfo—after St. Arnulf of Soissons, upon whose feast day he was born) “Marxnulfo” and accused him of everything from stirring up class hatred to actively leading a Communist rebellion (seriously).  The smears have nothing to do with truth or honest analysis, and everything to do with the sting when denunciation strikes a chord:

If the world hate you, know that it hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own, but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19.)

In light of these words of Jesus, the revulsion from certain quarters inspired by Romero and the Pope are no cause for shame, but rather they are confirmations of authenticity and badges of courage.  By attracting the same venom and contempt as the abused Salvadoran, Pope Francis is helping the Catholic world to understand Romero.
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