San Romero and Papa Francisco: living the Gospel in a time of global pandemic

Scott Wright is Director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington, USA. He worked in Central America for many years and in the past, has worked in refugee camps and with displaced peoples for eight years in the 1980s through Caritas and the Archdiocese of San Salvador. In his latest reflection, Scott looks to the witness of Salvadoran Archbishop, and now Saint, Oscar Romero, as a guide for our Lenten journey today in the midst of a global pandemic, recalling as well, the witness of Pope Francis and the life of the one from whom he took his name, St. Francis.

“Easter is itself now the cry of victory. No one can quench that life that Christ has resurrected. Neither death nor all the banners of death & hatred raised against Him & against His church can prevail. He is the victorious one! Just as He will thrive in an unending Easter, so we must accompany Him in a Lent & a Holy Week of cross, sacrifice & martyrdom. As He said, ‘Blessed are they who are not scandalised by His cross.'”

Oscar Romero, March 23, 1980

The coronavirus has brought us together – and divided us – as a human family as no other event in recent time. Some of us may still remember stories from our parents or grandparents of the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 that killed 50-100 million people worldwide, or the Great Depression that followed it in 1929. Once again, and for the past year, we face a future in which the entire planet is impacted by this pandemic, and the poor and unemployed, the homeless and inmates in prison, seniors in nursing homes as well as persons with underlying health conditions are the most vulnerable.

While we look forward to Easter as “a cry of victory,” we must also accompany Christ in the “crosses,” and the “sacrifices” that the poor, and perhaps our neighbours and loved ones, endure and will continue to endure on a massive scale in the very near future. In the wake of this global pandemic, nations are also closing their borders to migrants and refugees fleeing wars and political violence, as well as fleeing from hunger and climate disasters.

To the question: “What would Oscar Romero say or do today?” we venture a response: “What Pope Francis is doing and saying today.” Granted, no disciple is greater than his master, but it does make for an intriguing reflection, on the one hand, to understand Pope Francis in light of the saint he canonised; and on the other hand, to understand San Romero in light of Papa Francisco. To do this, we take a page from one of Romero’s last public addresses which he delivered at Louvain, and we name four conversions to which we are invited to embody as we continue our Christian journey.

  1. Radical Incarnation in the World of the Poor

Far from distancing us from our faith, these harsh realities have moved us to incarnate ourselves in the world of the poor. In this world we have found the real faces of the poor of which Puebla speaks. There we found peasants without land or steady work, without water or electricity in their poor dwellings, without medical assistance when the women gave birth, and without schools when the children begin to grow. There we found workers with no labour rights, workers at the mercy of the economy’s cold calculations. There we found mothers and wives of the “disappeared” and political prisoners. There we met the people who live in hovels where misery exceeds the imagination, a permanent insult of the nearby mansions. – Oscar Romero, February 2, 1980, “The Political Dimension of Christian Love”

Where would we find Oscar Romero today?

Certainly, he would be present at the US – Mexico border, perhaps opening a diocesan property as a refuge for migrant families as the current bishop of El Paso has done. He might be seen visiting migrant families separated from their children or conversing with frontline COVID workers defending their rights. He might be heard on Sunday mornings, reading aloud messages from African American parents and families whose loved ones were murdered by police, or Asian American families grieving their loves ones murdered by gun violence inspired by racism, misogyny, and hate.

San Romero would likely be found where Pope Francis is found today: washing the feet of men and women who are prisoners, receiving Muslim refugees in Lampedusa, travelling to places in conflict in Colombia, the Central African Republic, or Iraq; or silently walking the streets of Rome, alone beneath the rain, and up to the altar set up in the plaza of St. Peter’s Square during the beginning of Holy Week last year.

The very same places we imagine Saint Francis would be found today: kissing the wounds of the poor, crossing enemy lines to dialogue, praising God in creation. San Romero would be found where Christ said he would be found, among the poor, the least, the excluded, the persecuted (Mt 25).

But it is good to remember that the parable of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) is addressed, not only to individual persons, but to nations. If the judgment were only upon persons, we could breathe a sigh of relief, because there are magnificent examples of accompaniment and solidarity among our peoples, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, as well as among people of good will, helping the migrants and refugee families. But the parable is addressed to “the nations”: “For I was a stranger… and you welcomed me.” It is up to us in every nation to decide how we will be judged. As St. John of the Cross reminds us, “In the evening of our lives, we will be judged by love.”

How far must we go? Are there limits to what we can and are called to do? As individual Christians? As nations? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, himself a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

  1. Proclaiming a Radical Message of Gospel Hope

The hope which we preach to the poor is intended to return to them their dignity and to animate them to be the authors of their own destiny. In a word, the Church has not only turned to the poor, but has made the poor the privileged object of her mission. As Puebla has said: “God takes on their defence and loves them.” – Oscar Romero, February 2, 1980, “The Political Dimension of Christian Love”

Nothing is as important to the Church as human life, especially the lives of the poor and the oppressed. Jesus said that whatever is done to the poor is done to Him. This bloodshed, these deaths, are beyond all politics. They touch the very heart of God. – Oscar Romero, March 16, 1980

What Gospel message would Oscar Romero proclaim today?

Surely a message of human dignity, which is violated in so many ways. Defending human life wherever it is threatened, at the US – Mexico border, protecting vulnerable communities threatened by COVID, denouncing violence against women, Muslims and Jews, immigrants, and people of color.

San Romero would proclaim what Pope Francis proclaims today: Calling us to be missionary disciples, to care for and protect creation, to see in every person different from us a sister or brother, while at the same time denouncing a global economy based on waste, fossil fuels, extractive industries and excessive consumption, or borders and nations that exclude the poor and persecuted, or gated communities that live by a globalisation of indifference.

How do we proclaim such a message of hope? In the way St. Francis famously told us: “Proclaim the Gospel, use words if necessary.” Or to paraphrase what he said: “Bear witness to the Gospel with your very life, always ready to give a reason for your hope.”

San Romero also spoke of the need to illuminate the troubled times he lived in with the light of the Gospel, squarely facing both the hopes and fears of the people facing an uncertain future: “No one,” he said, “should take it amiss that we illuminate our social, political and economic realities by the light of the divine Word … This is how the Gospel must be preached.” There is, in his words, “a political dimension” to the Gospel, a political dimension to Christian love.

Human dignity and the common good are inseparable, and both are values that inform and judge our politics. We are not often used to addressing the great political, social and economic issues of our time with religious language, such as sin and salvation.

But Archbishop Romero did so, speaking to a national audience by way of radio stations that carried his Sunday homilies into the poorest rural and urban homes of El Salvador and throughout Latin America. Granted, he was preaching the Gospel in a church, but it was a Gospel that illuminated and judged the political projects of his day: “We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.”

  1. Radical Hospitality and Solidarity in Defence of the Poor

A Church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a Gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a Word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a Word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed – what Gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in … The Gospel is courageous, it’s the Good News of him who came to take away the world’s sins. – Oscar Romero, April 16, 1978

How would Oscar Romero defend the poor today?

Surely by responding to the deep divisions in our society and world that the pandemic has revealed: the systemic racism and poverty evident in who gets COVID, who gets a vaccine, who has health care, who lives in a clean environment, who can go to a good school, who does not need to be afraid of the police? But also, who is welcomed at the border into our nation of immigrants? Such a response would look at the structural causes of violence and promote grassroots organizations and social movements for transformation as Romero did in his third pastoral letter, lending critical support to the nonviolent democratic aspirations of all peoples to be free.

San Romero did and would do today as Pope Francis did and continues to do, inviting social movements of every kind to dialogue and placing his confidence in the power of Gospel nonviolence as a way to engage in politics and transform societies into places of welcome and human flourishing, of abundance and care for creation. To live as St. Francis did, where the poor, God’s creation, and those who are different and excluded are embraced and made whole.

We can provide quality health care for all, if we have the political will to do so, prioritising the lives of the poor and our children over the profits of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. We can rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of our country, including access to clean water, and provide jobs to many who are or continue to be unemployed, if we have the will to do so. This is not partisan politics, but rather the politics of human dignity and the common good.

We can end global warming, if we have the political will to do so, rejoining the Paris Agreement and prioritising the lives of the poor and future generations over the profits of the fossil fuel industry. And we can end the threat of nuclear war and trillions of dollars of military expenditures if we have the political will to divest from military expenditures and consider nonviolent and just alternatives to war. These are not naive proposals, but realistic responses to global existential threats to our planet and to future generations – such as climate change and nuclear war, forced displacement and global famine.

  1. Radical Surrender to God and Sharing the Same Fate as the Poor

Every country lives its own “Exodus”; today El Salvador is living its own Exodus. Today we are passing to our liberation through a desert strewn with bodies and where anguish and pain are devastating us. Many suffer the temptation of those who walked with Moses and wanted to turn back and did not work together. It is the same old story. God, however, wants to save the people by making a new history … History will not fail; God sustains it. – Oscar Romero, March 23, 1980

Who is Oscar Romero for us today? Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

Even in the midst of a cruel twelve-year civil war that eventually took the lives of 75,000 people, and forcibly displaced over a million people, Archbishop Romero communicated a radical sense of hope, rooted in his conviction that, “the hand of God is at work in the historical journey of the people.” That is why he keeps repeating that those who are working for justice, “should never lose sight of this transcendent dimension.” God is at work in history. God sustains history. We are not alone. God will not abandon us. But we must also do our part.

In this Season of Lent, when we journey with the human family during this difficult time of global pandemic, Pope Francis invites us to take heart from those whom the Church has proclaimed as saints and martyrs, and concretely, from the wisdom and the witness of Oscar Romero whom he canonised as a prophet-martyr and saint on October 14, 2018. Why was Romero assassinated? In the words of a Salvadoran Campesino, “because he spoke the truth and he defended the poor.” Wherever we find ourselves today, whatever our station in life, we are called to do the same.

In this time of global pandemic, may we call on Saint Oscar Romero, Pope Francis and Saint Francis to make our own the Gospel courage they embody and their radical hope in a God of life who is always at our side, calling us to a radical love beyond our fears.

On Saturday 27th March at 12.30, there will be a Romero Mass in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark. Archbishop John Wilson will preside and preach on the theme, ‘Unchanging Truth in Changing Times’. The Mass will be broadcast on the Romero Trust website.


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