Text: Romero and the Social Gospel: the challenge for us today

Fr Juan Hernández Pico SJ

Fr Juan Hernández Pico SJ

Fr Juan Hernández Pico SJ, gave the following lecture at St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, yesterday at a memorial service held before the March for the Alternative.
Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador is no stranger to the United Kingdom. Some years ago Romero’s statue was placed above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey among other twentieth century martyrs. In the words of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga’s poem “Saint Romero of the Americas”: referring to the colonnades in St Peter’s Square in Rome, “the people have already placed you in the glory of Bernini”.

Speaking of “the glory of Bernini”. When Romero was granted an honorary doctorate at Louvain in Belgium, a month and a half before he was to be murdered, he tried to find the best words for his own form of pastoral action, and he said: “The glory of God is life for the poor.” With such a famous patristic phrase he was actually rewording a quotation from Ireneus which says: “The glory of God is life for man”. In other words, he was pointing to the option for the poor, which the Bishops of Latin America, had embraced at Puebla
Poverty continues to be the same scandal in this world as it was more than thirty years ago during Romero’s time as Archbishop. If anything, poverty has even worsened because globalisation has paradoxically added further social exclusion over and above poverty. Exclusion polarises the world between people who count and people who don’t count, people with hope for development living in so-called “emerging” countries and those other hopeless people who live nowhere, so to speak.

In February 1977 there began in El Salvador what we can call the Romero phenomenon, an impressive religious phenomenon with political consequences where the archbishop, whose appointment had been so eagerly anticipated by the few wealthy people of El Salvador, was converted – most unexpectedly - from being a model of spotless rectitude to one of prophetic courage. Where did that conversion start? Actually, it was in the little rural town of Aguilares during a long night of contemplation, touching and watching over the body and blood of his murdered friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, who was the parish priest there.

Some time later the other priests in Aguilares were kidnapped, imprisoned and exiled. The army occupied the town and committed sacrilege by violating the tabernacle, throwing away the hosts and trampling on them. No priest was allowed into Aguilares for two months and the army committed many crimes against parish catechists and peasant organizers of the region. Eventually the archbishop was notified by the government that he could appoint a priest again to the parish. Romero himself drove to Aguilares together with many priests and religious women. During the Mass he spoke words that demonstrated the prophetic character of his episcopacy: “It has fallen to me to go around picking up dead bodies and everything else that this persecution of the Church brings with it. Today it has been my lot to come over to pick up a destroyed tabernacle in this desecrated parish and, most important of all, to comfort these people who have been so outrageously humiliated. Hence…I bring to you the word that Christ has commanded me to tell you: a Word of solidarity, a Word of courage and guidance and, finally, a Word of conversion.”  

Romero was convinced that “even bishops and the Pope, and all Christians” were in need of conversion. “May we all live with that tension that Christ left in the world, conversion.” Two months later he said: “I need to become converted all over again… It is the Church that has to convert to what God wants in this period of history in El Salvador… I know that I have gone down badly with many people, but I know that I have gone well with all those who are sincerely in search of the Church’s conversion… We all are in need of conversion and I am the first, even though I am preaching to you now.” No wonder that when he started to be opposed by the press, the government and most of all by the wealthy few of El Salvador, he answered back by appealing to his own congregation who knew very well that Romero’s language “wanted to sow hope, and boldly denounce injustices of land and abuses of power, not with hate, but rather with love and calling for conversion.”

Referring to people murdered by the security forces in August 1977 he forges one of his most famous and momentous sentences: “I want to be near the grief of [their families] and  to be the voice of those who are voiceless: to cry out against such abuses of human rights, that justice be done.”   

Coming to the end of that year, he gives a lesson from his own experience to the people in his Cathedral: “Brothers and sisters: do you want a test to prove whether you are a true Christian? Here is your touchstone: who gets on well with you? Who criticizes you? Who rejects you? Who flatters you? Remember what Christ said one day: I haven’t come to bring peace but division; and there will be division even within your own families.”

A month later he made very clear his own criterion for discernment in matters of dealing with the State authorities, something like his own version of giving either to Caesar or to God: “I do not confront anybody, I am just trying to serve the people, and whoever is in conflict with the people will also be in conflict with me”.

Romero then gave a succinct definition of his own role as a preacher. “I study the Word of God that we are going to read on the coming Sunday; I look around me, at my people and shine the light of the Word upon them, and then I come up with a synthesis to be able to convey it and to enable this people to become the light of the world – so that they don’t allow themselves to be guided by the norms and the idols of this world. But naturally these worldly idols and idolatries feel that the Word I preach is an obstacle and would rather like for it to be destroyed, silenced, killed.

Of course he knew very well that to be a prophet, to be faithful to the prophetic mission that he considered a duty of the people of God, carried with it a high cost. It was the cost of freedom. On that same day he preached the following: “This is costing our Church a lot, brothers and sisters. This freedom from the idol of Money, from the idol of power, and to appear before the world the way Paul did, audaciously free. To thank those who give freely to us but without accepting any condition whatsoever.”

At the end of 1978, when threats of death were already starting to reach him, the archbishop responded with some of his most memorable words. First by being prophetic: “Dear Brothers and Sisters, I wish my words had the prophets’ eloquence to shake up those who are on their knees before the gods of this earth! Those who wish that gold, money and properties, power and politics would be their gods for ever. All that is going to end!” And second, by starting to become aware of the probability of his own violent death: “The Word stays and this is the great consolation for the preacher: my voice may disappear, but my Word, which is Christ, will stay in the hearts of those who have taken it in.”

At the beginning of 1979, the country’s President offered him official protection. Romero answered in his homily: “I want to tell the President… that much more than protection for my personal security I would wish this week, for security and tranquillity for the one hundred and eight families and their missing relatives, and for all who are suffering. I don’t have any interest in my personal wellbeing or in security for my own life while my people endure the weight of an economic, social and political system, which brings ever wider social differences. What I would wish from the Supreme Government would be an effort to guarantee the real peace that we all desire, but that cannot be achieved with repression and abuse, and only with social justice, which is the most urgent need of all.”

On the 13th of May, returning from a visit to Rome, he told his congregation this: “In travelling to such a different world I have felt very proud of my archdiocese, because everywhere there is talk about us and people are eager to learn about our Church’s experience:” And a week later, he said with great sincerity: “There is no right to be sad… A Christian must always move his own heart to the fullness of joy. Just experience this, brothers and sisters, the way I have tried to experience it in the bitterest of times, when slander and persecution are most intense; become united to Christ the friend, and feel a sweetness which all earthly happiness cannot give.”

On the first of July 1979 he told his congregation: “Murders from one side and the other, this death dance of political retribution is the most horrific indicator of the injustice of our system, which seeks camouflage in repression” And further: “I would rather be silenced for telling the truth and defending justice than keep on speaking under the manipulation of repression…..It is not that I believe myself to be a prophet. It is rather that you and I, we are a prophetic people; every baptized person has received a share in the prophetic mission of Christ… I feel that the people are a prophet to me… My function is just to arouse in the people their prophetic sense. The prophet’s success lies not in converting people… but in convincing a stubborn and unfaithful people to acknowledge that a prophet has talked to them in the name of God.”

Romero had heard that some people on the political left were saying that he was the “opium of the people”. He answered back: “Never, never! I am saying that precisely these encouragements to transcendence are there to awaken even more involvement in the historical, the social, the economic, and the political. And I am saying that God has not only made heaven for human beings after death, but that he has made this earth as well for each and every human being. This is by no means opium!”

The month of October seemed to open up new prospects. The President was overthrown. A ruling council of civilians and military people took power…or so it appeared. Romero asked everyone to look with new eyes towards this hopeful horizon. Some far-left organizations and clandestine political parties tried to discredited Romero for being hopeful about this new scenario. Unfortunately massacres of activists, peasants and people of the slums of San Salvador, and even of university students kept on happening. It became all too clear that the Junta had no real power over the military and the security police. Civil war was in the air.

In an open letter to President Jimmy Carter, Romero tried to dissuade the United States government from continuing to provide military aid, but his plea fell on deaf ears.

In the middle of December Romero had made it very clear that he wanted to keep his freedom and independence from both the state and from the popular organizations, even if he acknowledged that he had an obligation to them. He stated very firmly that he was going to continue defending the people’s right to organize and supporting every just claim of their organizations. On the 6th of January 1980, once the ruling government council had failed, he addressed the wealthy families of El Salvador: “I am simply the pastor, the brother, the friend of these people, who knows their suffering and hunger and I raise my voice to tell you”.  With a metaphor that he had borrowed from Brazilian Cardinal Lorscheider he told the wealthy: “You must learn to take off your gold rings so that your fingers aren’t cut off.”

As his violent end was approaching, Romero’s voice was becoming ever more courageous and sincere, ever freer. Thanks to his Diary we know that threats to his life were piling up and that there were moments when he felt fear and anguish encircling him. No wonder. He was no greater than his own guide and master Jesus of Nazareth, who, the night when he was going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies, suffered anguish and even sweated blood. But just like Jesus, Romero overcame the fear and became ever more audacious in defence of the poor of El Salvador.

 “As a pastor and as a Salvadoran citizen I am deeply grieved when I see how our people are being massacred just because they go out into the streets to demand justice and liberty. I am sure that it won’t be in vain.” And he went on: “This people’s cry for liberation is a clamour that goes up to God that neither events nor anyone else can stop.”

A week before his murder he told his audience “Those who believe my preaching to be political and provoking violence - as if I were the cause of all the evils in the Republic - they forget that the word of the Church is not inventing these evils but is just shedding light upon them. Light illuminates what already exists, but does not create it.”

On the eve of his murder he said “I try to preach the Gospel properly before our people. Therefore I ask Christ all week long, while I am picking up the cries of our people and the suffering caused by so much crime and the ignominy of so much violence, for Him to give me the appropriate word to console, to denounce, to call to repentance. Even if I know that my Words are just a cry in the wilderness, I know that the Church is trying very hard to fulfil her mission.”

It was his concluding remarks at that same Sunday Mass that probably turned the plans for his murder into reality since for the powers-that-be his voice was no longer tolerable. Romero told his congregation: “No soldier is bound to obey an order against God’s law. Nobody has to obey an immoral law. The time has come for you to come to your senses and obey your own conscience rather than a sinful command. Therefore in the name of God and in the name of this suffering people.., I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression.”

The army and the wealthy elite were outraged at his words. The next evening, while Romero was celebrating Mass, he was shot dead.

But what about Romero’s challenge for us today? This challenge is different for us, Central American Christians, as compared to you, Christians here in the United Kingdom. We live in a society that has not yet become secularised. Certainly we live under a Constitution that declares the State to be lay. But the culture among us is still religious. Here, you live in a very secular society and culture. It is good that the Churches in Britain seek together to find a common meaning of God and Jesus Christ in secular society.    
But no matter whether we live in a religious or in a secular culture we live in the same civilization. We, like you, have become globalized. And globalization is the work of money, the work of wealth as opposed to human labour. Both President Obama and the European Economic Commissioner talked of this world-wide crisis of globalization as “a crisis of greed”. And this shocking reality unites us and presents us with the same challenge. In the words of the Gospel “we cannot serve two masters, because we’ll love the one and hate the other or will support one and despise the other. We cannot serve God and Money” or, using the Aramaic word, “you cannot serve God and Mammon” (Mt 6, 24).

This is the challenge: to dislodge the gods of Power and Money, that is to say of the power invested in Money. Tell me sincerely from the bottom of your hearts: can there be meaningful solidarity from the wealthy countries to the poorer countries without tackling that power invested in Money? Must the poorest sectors across our world today pay the bill for the profligacy and grotesque excesses of bankers and speculators who have played the world’s markets as if they were a global casino? In the last analysis to fight for a civilization where human labour is the jewel in the crown as opposed to finance is precisely to search for the justice of the kingdom of God (Mt 6, 33). This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ Beatitudes. And what is the image that wealth has for the majority of Christians? Would it not be personal consumption? Don’t we live in a consumerist society? Wouldn’t Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrected Christ, wouldn’t He tell us today: happy are those of you who don’t put consumption at the top of your human agenda because you are thereby building the kingdom of this earth - and so the kingdom of God will come to you? And wouldn’t He tell us: woe to you who have fallen prey to the race towards ever greater consumption because you contribute to the kingdom of the power of Money?

This is the challenge that the life and work of Archbishop Romero present us with. Yes, Saint Romero of America, Saint Romero over the Door of Westminster Abbey. If we work conscientiously for a more austere society, we will certainly frustrate the magicians of globalization, the servants of the power of Money, to the extent we are seen as utopians and so outsiders, outcasts for the best reasons -and not only for our unfashionable faith.

This is the way nowadays of being despised by the world. But the world, this world so loved by God, this physical cosmos which is in such danger around us in our small planet, and the poor of this world, our sisters and brothers, will in their own way recognize our human solidarity, and most certainly they are in need of it. And since The Son of God’s became flesh and pitched his tent among us, all that is human is Christian and Divine. Let us help each other, then, to be up to this challenge today in the way that Romero was.

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