Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Romero: disobey false absolutes


After a tumultuous process following his martyrdom, Oscar Romero is finally due to be beatified on 23rd May in San Salvador, where he served as archbishop and where he was assassinated by a member of a death squad on 24th March 1980. Instead of writing about his life,1 I would like to share some of his own words with you, from his pastoral letters, homilies and diaries.

Starting from his pastoral letters, there is a strong sense of the social dimension of Christianity, which grows from and is interconnected with individual choices:
“Throughout the centuries the Church has, quite rightly, denounced sin. Certainly she has denounced personal sins, and she has also denounced the sin that perverts relationships between persons, especially at the family level. But she has begun to recall now something that, at the Church’s beginning, was fundamental: social sin - the crystalization, in other words, of individuals’ sins into permanent structures that keep sin in being, and make its force to be felt by the majority of the people.” (2nd pastoral letter, 1977)
In the same pastoral letter, Romero’s response to the “crystalization” of personal sin into “structures of sin” is a call to an authentic, present-day, up-to-date Christianity that understands tradition like Vatican II does - as being alive:
“To remain anchored in a non-evolving traditionalism, whether out of ignorance or selfishness, is to close one’s eyes to what is meant by authentic Christian tradition. For the tradition that Christ entrusted to his Church is not a museum of souvenirs to be protected. It is true that tradition comes out of the past, and that it ought to be loved and faithfully preserved. But it has always a view to the future. It is a tradition that makes the Church new, up to date, effective in every historical epoch. It is a tradition that nourishes the Church’s hope and faith so that she may go on preaching, so that she may invite all men and women to the new heaven and new earth that God has promised (Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17).”
Next, Romero moves on to emphasizing the non-legal, non-rule-based nature of faith and instead presents a model of participation in the person of Christ, as St. Paul did:
“The Church’s foundation is not to be thought of in a legal or juridical sense, as if Christ gathered some persons together, entrusted them with a teaching, gave them a kind of constitution, but then himself remained apart from them. It is not like that. The Church’s origin is something much more profound. Christ founded the Church so that he himself could go on being present in the history of humanity precisely through the group of Christians who make up his Church. The Church is the flesh in which Christ makes present down the ages his own life and his personal mission.”
This is an idea that he returned to in a meditation later that year, which also foreshadows Pope Benedict XVI’s introduction to the 2012-13 Year of Faith:
“How I would like to engrave this great idea
on each one’s heart:
Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed,
of laws to be obeyed,
of prohibitions.

That makes it very distasteful.
Christianity is a person,
one who loved us so much,
one who calls for our love.
Christianity is Christ.” (November 6, 1977)
Romero continues in his second pastoral letter with making the link between the Church’s authenticity and her being the Body of Christ:
“That is how changes in the Church are to be understood. They are needed if the Church is to be faithful to her divine mission of being the Body of Christ in history. The Church can be Church only so long as she goes on being the Body of Christ. Her mission will be authentic only so long as it is the mission of Jesus in the new situations, the new circumstances, of history. The criterion that will guide the Church will be neither the approval of, nor the fear of, men and women, no matter how powerful or threatening they may be. It is the Church’s duty in history to lend her voice to Christ so that he may speak, her feet so that he may walk today’s world, her hands to build the kingdom, and to enable all its members to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ (Colossians 1:24).”
And again it is a theme he picks up in a mediation around a year later, which is also an examination of conscience:
“Christ became a man of his people and of his time:
He lived as a Jew,
he worked as a laborer of Nazareth,
and since then he continues to become incarnate in everyone.

If many have distanced themselves from the church,
it is precisely because the church
has somewhat estranged itself from humanity.
But a church that can feel as its own all that is human
and wants to incarnate
the pain,

the hope,

the affliction
of all who suffer and feel joy,
such a church will be Christ loved and awaited,
Christ present.
And that depends on us.” (December 3, 1978)
What does a Church that has not become estranged from humanity and that lends “her feet so that he may walk today’s world” look like? Romero here points to the Matthean questions and updates them to his own time and place:
“There is one rule
by which to judge if God is near us
or is far away –
the rule that God’s word is giving us today:
everyone concerned for the hungry,
the naked,
the poor,
for those who have vanished in police custody,
for the tortured,
for prisoners,
for all flesh that suffers,
has God close at hand.” (February 5, 1978)
Returning to his second pastoral letter, Romero also underlines the non-negotiability of Jesus’ command - even in the face of aggression directed against the Church - to love one another has He has loved us and for that “another” to include our enemies:
“The Church has never incited to hatred or revenge, not even at those saddest of moments when priests have been murdered and faithful Christians have been killed or have disappeared. The Church has continued to preach Jesus’ command love one another (John 15:12). This is a command that the Church cannot renounce, nor has she renounced it, not even in recent months. On the contrary, she has recalled that other command, pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).”
Such conduct is anything but plain sailing though and is both a thorn in the side of those who seek wealth and power for themselves and a pretext for accusations being leveled against the Church (still from Romero’s second pastoral letter):
“The Church is not dedicated to any particular ideology as such. She must be prepared to speak out against turning any ideology into an absolute. As several of the Latin American hierarchies have said time and again in recent years, worldly interests try to make the Church’s position seem Marxist when it is in fact insisting on fundamental human rights and when it is placing the whole weight of its institutional and prophetic authority at the service of the dispossessed and weak.”
What struck me in the above was also Romero’s denunciation of the absolutization of ideologies, where it is not hard to see examples of this happening also today, and I was glad to see him return to this point and expand on it in his fourth (and final) pastoral letter as the Archbishop of San Salvador. There, his point of departure is an acclamation of transcendence, which he - interestingly - links to critical thinking and which he puts in opposition against the absolutization of human (limited) values:
“As well as offending God, every absolutization disorients, and ultimately destroys, human beings. It is the vocation of human beings to raise themselves to the dignity of the children of God and to participate in God’s divine life. This transcendence of human beings is not an escape from problems here on earth, still less is it an opium that distracts them from their obligations in history. On the contrary, by virtue of this transcendent destiny people have the capacity to always remain critical vis-a-vis the events of history. It gives them a powerful inspiration to reach out to ever higher goals. Social forces should hearken to the saving voice of Christ and of true Christians, cease their questioning, and open themselves to the values of the one and only Absolute. When a human value is turned into an absolute and endowed, whether in theory or in practice, with a divine character, human beings are deprived of their highest calling and inspiration. The spirit of the people is pushed in the direction of a real idolatry, which will only deform and repress it.”
Next, he applies the analysis of absolutization to two contexts, the first of which is wealth:
“The absolutization of wealth holds out to persons the ideal of having more and to that extent reduces interest in being more, whereas the latter should be the ideal for true progress, both for the people as such and for every individual. The absolute desire of having more encourages the selfishness that destroys communal bonds among the children of God. It does so because the idolatry of riches prevents the majority from sharing the goods that the Creator has made for all, and in the all-possessing minority it produces an exaggerated pleasure in these goods.”
Second, he looks at national security with the same optics - a topic of acute relevance also in today’s world:
“By virtue of [the absolutization of national security], the individual is placed at the total service of the state. His or her political participation is suppressed, and this leads to an unequal participation in the results of development. Peoples are put into the hands of military elites, and are subjected to policies that oppress and repress all who oppose them, in the name of what is alleged to be total war. The armed forces are put in charge of social and economic structures under the pretext of the interests of national security. Everyone not at one with the state is declared a national enemy, and the requirements of national security are used to justify assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment, acts of terrorism, kidnappings, acts of torture ... [all] indicate a complete lack of respect for the dignity of the human person (Puebla #1262).”
It is not hard to see from all of the above why Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of Oscar Romero’s cause for beatification, characterized him by saying: “Romero is truly a martyr of the Church of Vatican II, a Church, as Pope John used to say, who is mother of all, but in particular of the poor.” Everything I have read by him was steeped in the Gospel and in its reading today through the eyes of Vatican II. It is also for this reason that Paglia referred to Romero as the “proto-martyr” of contemporary martyrs.

No account of a martyr’s thought would be complete without including the words pertaining to his own martyrdom, which is a culmination of a life of imitating Christ. Here, Romero was acutely aware of the risk to his own life, which can be readily seen from an interview he gave just days before being shot at long range while celebrating mass:
“You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” 
In spite of the severe threats to his life, even on the day before his death, Romero spoke out against the “structures of sin” that he had been fighting for many years, addressing a group of soldiers:
“Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination … In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression!”

1 For a brief biography of Archbishop Romero, see the one provided by the UN on the website about the “International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims,” dedicated to him and held on the anniversary of his martyrdom, the 24th March.