JUBILEE YEAR for the CENTENNIAL of BLESSED ROMERO, 2016 — 2017
|Mother Teresa visits Archbishop Romero’s living quarters in July 1988.|
When Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Archbishop Oscar A. Romero of El Salvador, who had been nominated that same year for the award, sent a congratulatory telegram , which lets us know that the archbishop recognized that both were working toward the same purpose:
Mother Teresa of Kolkata, India. I am happy that the Nobel Prize has been awarded to you for your preferential option for the poor and that this option is seen as an effective path to achieve peace. Those who graciously desired this honor for me are equally satisfied for having encouraged this cause. I give you my blessing. The Archbishop of San Salvador. (October 21, 1979 Homily.)
The soon-to-be Saint Teresa and Blessed Romero are proof of the famous saying of Dom Hélder Câmara: “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.” Mother Teresa gave food to the poor and will be called a saint; Romero denounced why there are poor, and “he was defamed, slandered, soiled ... even by his brothers in the priesthood and in the episcopate” (Pope Francis, October 30, 2015 Address).
Actually, Romero and Teresa are two sides of the same coin. Both understand, “the beautiful but difficult truth”—as Archbishop Romero would say—“that the Christian faith does not cut us off from the world but immerses us in it.” (Address to accept honorary doctorate from the University of Leuven, February 2, 1980.) It is necessary, he says, to go out of the temple, the sanctuary, to the city, the “polis”. This is the same option for the poor Teresa made in 1948 when she left the cloister of the convent to take to the streets of Kolkata to help the elderly, the dying, and the lepers. Sharing their misery, she tells how she was tempted to return to the shelter and comfort of her convent, but she had the intuition that, “Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the Cross.”
Both Archbishop Romero and Mother Teresa had to immerse themselves in, and soak in the irreligious realities of a world without God. Archbishop Romero had the task of gathering the bodies of peasant massacres, while Mother Teresa took up her work in a temple of the goddess Kali in which she tried to give a dignified death, with rites according to the devotions of each person benefited, be they Hindu or Muslim, in India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and elsewhere in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, where her missions carried her. During her total immersion in this harsh reality of deprivation, removed from the tabernacle and the altar, Mother Teresa suffered feelings of a spiritual void, to the point of doubting the very existence of God.
However, the purpose and motivation for this passage through austerity was precisely to seek God and, despite the accusations against Archbishop Romero that he had betrayed his religious mission and the feelings of spiritual alienation experienced by Mother Teresa, both found Jesus. “It is within this world devoid of a human face”—Archbishop Romero tells us—that he comes face to face with the “current sacrament of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh.” (Leuven.) And Mother Teresa echoes the sentiment when she says, “today there is so much suffering - and I feel that the passion of Christ is being relived all over again.” (Nobel Prize Speech, December 11, 1979.) “He makes himself the hungry one - the naked one - the homeless one - the sick one - the one in prison - the lonely one - the unwanted one … Hungry for our love, and this is the hunger of our poor people.” (Id.)
Both valued the poor in a way that differs from the outmoded and paternalistic ways of understanding them. Both Archbishop Romero and Mother Teresa see the poor not only as beneficiaries of our generosity (read: pity) or as subjects upon whom to practice our charity (read: guilty conscience), but people who have something to offer, and whose intrinsic value can make us the beneficiaries. The poor help us understand our Christianity: “by putting ourselves alongside the poor and trying to bring life to them, we shall come to know the eternal truth of the gospel,” said Bishop Romero. (Leuven, supra) Mother Teresa agrees: “They can teach us so many beautiful things,” she says, recalling how the poor in one of her aid centers confirmed an aspect of her mission: “The other day one of them came to thank and said: You people who have vowed chastity you are the best people to teach us family planning. Because it is nothing more than self-control out of love for each other.” This issue that had been debated among experts, sociologists and theologians, was also one of competence for a poor person, “And these are people who maybe have nothing to eat, maybe they have not a home where to live, but they are great people. The poor are very wonderful people.” (Teresa, Nobel Speech, supra.)
Some have criticized the approach of Mother Teresa to help in specific cases but not seek to change the systems that generate inequality and injustice. According to this view, “the rich and powerful loved her” because she did not demand anything from them and that this explains her Nobel Prize and her canonization, while theologians who denounce the rich are “purged or suppressed.” (Sara Flounders, Workers World, September 25, 1997.) But Archbishop Romero defends her position, arguing that it is better to have converted hearts than to have reformed structures: “the Church’s concern is not only that there be a fairer distribution of wealth, but that this sharing become a reality as people take on an attitude of wanting to share not only their possessions but also their lives with those who are disadvantaged in our society.” (Feb. 24, 1980 Hom.)
Meanwhile, Mother Teresa recognized the need to do justice when she denounced, “When a poor person dies of hunger it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.”
The Saint and the Blessed are surely congratulating themselves today in heaven for having given testimony to the full spectrum of Christian love for the poor.