Romero’s beatification marks watershed in journey towards Church of the Poor

The beatification of Oscar Romero on the eve of Pentecost is a watershed event for the Universal Church, though it has largely slipped under the radar in the media, perhaps because it took place in far-flung El Salvador.

May 28, 2015

By Anil Netto
The beatification of Oscar Romero on the eve of Pentecost is a watershed event for the Universal Church, though it has largely slipped under the radar in the media, perhaps because it took place in far-flung El Salvador.

That his beatification occurred on the eve of Pentecost, which marks the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Church, is no coincidence. Romero’s last step to sainthood is inspired by the Spirit, which seems to be calling us to become a Church of the Poor, in line with the Gospel vision.

Witnessed by over a quarter of a million people, his beatification in El Salvador marks a major milestone along a journey of several trajectories propelling forward from different points in time.

The first trajectory is the one that was set in motion two millenia ago when Jesus proclaimed the reign of the kingdom and inverted the existing order. Jesus proclaimed the Good News to the Poor, outlined in the Beatitudes, the charter of his teachings. This was the authentic gospel which reached the ears of, mainly, the peasant and fishing communities in Galilee.

Down the ages, especially after the Church was co-opted by the Roman Empire and other worldly rulers, the emphasis on the poor was diluted. In its place came the trappings of power, triumphalism, pomp, splendour and the papal court, which the present Bishop of Rome has described as the “leprosy of the papacy.”

That brings us to the second trajectory, with the arrival of Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226), the saint of the poor. St Francis shunned the power, wealth and influence of his family, the merchants, the military and the clerical aristocrats and, instead, lived the Gospel among the poor. His visit, with eleven of his followers, to Pope Innocent III provided a study in contrasts between two different visions of the Church: the pomp and splendour of the papal court and the poverty of Francis’ humble delegation.

The powerful Pope Innocent had a dream about a poor man propping up the Church on his bent back. That dream was fulfilled eight centuries later, when a bishop from Latin America assumed the name Francis and said he wanted to see a Poor Church.

The third trajectory was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which provided a shift towards the preferential option for the poor. (Romero's beatification takes place 50 years after the close of Vatican II.) The Vatican II theme in favour of the poor was taken up by the Bishops’ conferences in Medellin, Columbia (1968) and Puebla, Mexico (1979), and the term “preferential option for the poor” was crystallised.

The Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Guetirrez, who wrote the book The Theology of Liberation in 1971, was barred from attending the Puebla Conference. But in 2014, he was present for a launch of a book by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Two of the chapters of Muller’s book Poor for the Poor: The Mission of the Church were written by Guetirrez with the foreword by the Bishop of Rome, Francis. The book itself is reportedly focused on explaining and defending liberation theology and Müller himself “has wholeheartedly backed liberation theology, saying it ‘is based on a theology of the word and is not a human ideology’” (National Catholic Reporter, Feb 28, 2014). And on May 12 this year, Guetirrez was the main speaker at a press conference for the general assembly of Caritas Internationalis.

The last trajectory — we are now at 35 years since the assassination of Romero. Romero’s conversion to the cause of the poor came when his good friend, Jesuit priest Rutilo Grande, was murdered by a death squad of about half a dozen members, following orders “received directly from the director of the National Guard.” El Salvador at the time was ruled by a US-backed military regime while the economy was controlled by wealthy oligarchs.

Grande had worked among the peasants and the poor — and paid the price with his own life. It was his friend Grande’s death that proved to be the turning point for Romero who made a decisive choice to stand with the poor. Fittingly, the Vatican has reportedly put Grande on the path to beatification.

Romero, when warned that the military were targeting him, once famously said he would rise up in the Salvadorean people if he was killed. But even he underestimated the impact his death would have — it was not limited to El Salvador. Soon after his death, he was popularly acclaimed the Saint of the Americas. In a sense, the Church is playing catch-up with the people with the beatification of Romero. One-by-one, US-backed military regimes were toppled and many Latin American nations are now pursuing more independent people-centred economic policies.

But the Church also has its own internal battle to convince Christians that the path towards a “poor church” is the way to go. This struggle received a boost when the Spirit inspired the cardinals at the conclave in the Vatican to opt for a Latin American — from the periphery —to become the Bishop of Rome, someone who well understood the pain and suffering of the poor in the slums.

Although democracy has returned to El Salvador, the inequality remains. Today, the challenge to overcome glaring inequality is no longer confined to national economies. Inequality is now a global phenomenon, with billionaires and powerful corporations in control of much of the world’s wealth and income.

Today, I woke up to find a Whatsapp message of an environmental activist, Jopi Teguh Lasmana Peranginangin, killed in Indonesia for his research into oil palm plantations. Those doing such work against powerful interests in many parts of the world face enormous risks.

Someone else sent me a message that it is not unjust and exploitative systems that are responsible for the suffering of the poor but the Devil. He pointed out that Francis himself has warned Christians about the danger posed by the Evil One.

But the Evil One, or however you may want to describe him or it, does not act alone. Evil influences the hearts of a group of people to allow unjust systems to proliferate and grow. Evil allows greed to take control of desires and motivations of people to pursue unjust policies and structures that effectively entrench or widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

It was evil acting in the hearts of people that motivated the gunman who fired the bullet that pierced Romero’s heart while he was saying Mass at the altar of a hospice chapel. But evil is no match for the Spirit that plants the Gospel seeds of justice and peace in the hearts of the people and emboldens them to build the kingdom that Jesus heralded two millenia ago.

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