Archbishop Romero, Pray for us
In honor of All Saints and All Souls Days, we've asked readers and contributors to share some thoughts on the people who inspire them in in their faith. Michael J. Sanem gets us started with his thoughts on how Archbishop Romero is a true sign of how church leadership serves the least among us.
By Michael J. Sanem
I teach a class on social concerns of the Gospel at a Catholic high school in Kansas City, Missouri. Currently I am teaching my students about why the principles of Catholic Social Teaching are important, and a key part of this is demonstrating how and why the popes and bishops of Catholic Church have moral authority, hence the need for us to pay attention to the principles articulated in their documents and encyclicals.
Given the current criminal charges pending against our local bishop, this is an especially trying task. How can I explain to teenagers how somebody with moral authority has not only failed to protect children but also promises a “vigorous defense” against charges that he all but admitted to? A defense that I assume will be funded through diocesan resources? The dissonance of teaching and daily worship coupled with the culture of silence this scandal has generated is lately leaving me drained, despairing, and frustrated.
Last Sunday as I left mass, I caught sight of a woodcut of Archbishop Oscar Romero, his jaw set in determination as he peered sternly from behind his thick-framed glasses. It reminded me of another picture I had seen of him, one hanging in the Chapel of Divine Providence in San Salvador, where he was assassinated over 30 years ago. He looked especially prophetic in that place, where, as the inscription under the cross indicates, “[He] offered his life to God for his people.”
When I visited El Salvador, it became undeniably apparent that Romero was a good bishop not simply because of his preaching, piety, or politics, but mainly because of his deep love for Christ made manifest in his love for his people, a love that would lead him to confront the forces of darkness and death that terrorized them. He spoke out not because of some grand plan for reform, but because he personally visited the families of those who had disappeared, helped to bury the bodies of the tortured, and lived his call as an Apostle of Christ in solidarity with his people, vehemently correcting those who victimized the vulnerable and standing courageously with the victims of oppression.
Near the Chapel in San Salvador stands a small house that has become a museum to his life and death. I remember looking in trepidation at the garments he wore when he was assassinated, the bullet hole still visible beneath the rust-colored bloodstains. Nearby, graphic pictures of his final moments, taken by a newspaper reporter who happened to be in the congregation that day, document the brutal reality of martyrdom: His face writhes, blood pours from his mouth and his nose, pain emanates from his eyes and is mirrored in the desperation written on the faces of those around him.
In Romero the bishop, I am reminded that in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ there is no room for empty piety, no room for preaching without practice, no room for a righteousness that doesn’t directly challenge us to examine our own complacency and our indifference to the suffering of others. I am reminded that there is a difference between authentic accountability motivated by sincere love for one’s people and the empty posturing of administrative failure.
Romero reminds me that all of us, not just bishops, are charged with the Gospel call to stand up for the least among us and to confront the structures of silence and oppression that plague our world, our church, and sometimes even our local diocese.
From a wounded diocese, the most sincere prayer I can make today is this: Archbishop Oscar Romero, pray for us.
Michael J. Sanem teaches theology at a Catholic high school in Kansas City, Missouri. He was a Bernardin Scholar at Chicago Theological Union. His blog is Wherethereisdespair.blogspot.com.
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