October 23, 2018

Paul VI and Oscar Romero: Leaders and Imitators in the Faith

By Arthur E. Zannoni (10.21.18)

When David Haas asked me to share a reflection at a recent prayer celebration of the Cretin-Derham Hall Taize’ Prayer Community (in St. Paul) on two newly canonized saints– Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI — I did not know where to start. So I began with prayer. Then I read a couple of books and a goodly number of articles about each one of these men and was duly overwhelmed. Then because I am trained as a biblical scholar I decided to turn to the Bible for inspiration. (You know the Bible never lets you down). I went to the Epistle to the Hebrews chapter 13 verse 7 wherein we read, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

Note the text in Hebrews does not say to imitate the leader, but to consider and imitate their way of life and their faith.

The Epistle to the Hebrews challenges us to “remember your leaders.” The first thing that we need to remember is that both men (Paul and Oscar) had extremely complex personalities which manifested their humanness.  They were not perfect. This is what makes them real for all of us.  Paul VI was indecisive about parts of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. As a matter of fact, his predecessor St. Pope John XXIII described him as a “Hamlet” like character. Just as the prince, Hamlet, endlessly hesitated to avenge his father’s death, so Paul VI was wavering and indecisive and at times ambiguous. For me, this makes him very real, for we are all at times indecisive. Not to worry even a new saint was.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was clinically and professionally diagnosed as having –obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCD). He also met regularly with a psychotherapist. This aspect of his life makes him all the more real for me, and for all of us. Both of these new saints were unabashedly human.

How did Pope Paul VI speak the word of God to us?

I think Pope Paul VI, who I discovered never had an appointment as a parish priest, spoke the word of God to all of us by continuing the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). After the death of St Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul was faced with whether or not to continue the Council, he did. As a matter of fact, he did this six days after he was elected pope. It was because of him that we have had over sixty years of renewal in the Catholic Church.  Pope Paul not only continued the Council, but he spearheaded the implementation of the council.  So I think one of the ways we can ” consider the outcome of his life” and imitate his faith (as the Epistle to the Hebrews challenges us) is by continuing our commitment to the reform and renewal started by the Second Vatican Council.

Another teaching of the Council that Pope Paul VI was adamant about was the “Universal Call to Holiness.” Namely, that everyone who is a baptized committed Christian is called to be holy. Here is what Pope Paul VI said about that: “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank are called to be holy, by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.”  So we too are challenged by this new saint to be a holy people. We are God’s holy people, let us live that way.

Another way we can imitate St Pope Paul VI’s faith is to follow his commitment to peace. Pope Paul was a great champion of global peace. When he spoke in French before the United Nations in October 1965 he told those assembled and the world: “No More war, never again war. Peace, it is peace that must guide the destinies of people and all humankind.” We too are called to be peacemakers,” Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). Pope Paul took this beatitude quite seriously. He felt that being a peacemaker was the way he could be called a child or beloved of God.  The same is true of all of us—we are to be peacemakers.

Here are a few other quotes of Pope Paul VI about peace:

“If you want peace, work for justice.”

“Peace is not merely the absence of war. Nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies. Nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called “an enterprise of justice” (Is. 32:7). Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine founder, and actualized by men as they thirst after ever greater justice.”

Pope Paul traveled a great deal around the world. He has been dubbed the “Pilgrim Pope.”  He was the first Pope to visit six continents. He was the first modern pope to visit the Holy Land. Like his namesake, St. Paul the Apostle he was a missionary. Pope Paul VI was never happier than when he was on the road proclaiming the Gospel. We are likewise challenged to be missionaries proclaiming the Gospel and following in the footsteps of Pope Paul VI, as evangelizers.

Pope Paul VI dialogued with schismatic, Protestants, Anglicans, Jews, Muslims, atheists and people who were indifferent to religion. He always emphasized what we held in common with these other religions.

Our new Saint knew that life is a real struggle. Here is what he said: “All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.”  It is good for us to know as we struggle that even saints struggle with life.

Personally, as a biblical scholar, I was deeply moved when Pope Paul VI, who read and prayed the psalms daily, sent a copy of Psalm 8 to the moon on board the Apollo 11 voyage to the moon, and that copy is still up there. Verses 3 and 4 of the Psalm are quite appropriate. It reads, “When I look to the heavens the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have established. What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4). Thanks to Paul VI we can truly say that at least one of the psalms is so great that it is literally, out of this world.

St. Pope Paul VI described himself as a humble servant for a suffering humanity and demanded significant changes from the rich in North America and Europe in favor of the poor in the third world. This is found in the teachings of his encyclical Progressio Populorum. It enthrones the preferential option for the poor and it influenced Archbishop Oscar Romero, who Pope Paul not only appointed but also supported the Archbishop’s ministry and advocacy with the poor in El Salvador. Both of our new saints both believed in and worked for the preferential option for the poor. We are challenged to do likewise.

Saint Archbishop Oscar Romero was appointed the Archbishop of San Salvador by Pope Paul VI and served from 1977 through 1980 when he was assassinated while celebrating Mass.  He was declared a martyr by Pope Francis. I would add that he not only died for the faith but for the poor. He was a martyr for both the church’s magisterium especially as articulated in Vatican II and the poor.

In his early life, Romero was a traditional priest and bishop.  But seeing first-hand the horrific poverty and repression of rural farm workers – this led him to change. This began in 1974 when he was appointed bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de Maria. There he drew close to the itinerant farm workers and their families and catechists who were abused, targeted, and often killed by the military. What he saw there led him to a major shift in outlook. This shift came in part form sitting on the ground for impromptu Bible study among El Salvador’s Campesinos. He heard wisdom from the poor who interpreted scripture through the lenses of poverty and hope for liberation. I think we too are challenged to return to the study of Sacred Scripture as the archbishop was in his daily life. We need to befriend the poor and see how they approach the Holy Bible.

Romero was a strong public voice for the many voiceless and anonymous poor of El Salvador and Latin America. Here is what he said:When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.”

  • When he preached in the Cathedral on Sunday mornings, I have learned that the streets were empty and all the radios were on full volume, to hear the truth and sanity in an insanely violent and corrupt world. He often said:When we speak for the poor, please note that we do not take sides with one social class. What we do is invite all social classes, rich and poor, without distinction, saying to everyone let us take seriously the cause of the poor as though it were our own. In another homily he challenged his congregation: “The ones who have a voice must speak for those who are voiceless.”

More wisdom from Romero” “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world.”

Here is a man who suffered with and for those who suffered. Oscar Romero’s loving heart shines through in his homilies. He thought of himself as a shepherd and patterned his life on Jesus the good Shepherd. He said of himself: ” The Shepherd must be where the suffering is.”

Romero felt his soul was being made sore by violence, he said: “My soul is sore when I learn how our people are tortured, when I learn how the rights of those created in the image of God are violated.”

Romero challenged everyone: “Aspire not to have more, but to be more.”

When he encountered the dead bodies of the Campesinos and those mourning their death, he said: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried. I think Oscar is challenging us to have less and be more and to view the world through our own tears.”

As an Archbishop he always wore the eyeglasses of faith. he said: “Each time we look upon the poor, on the farm workers who harvest the coffee, the sugarcane, or the cotton… remember, there is the face of Christ.” he went on to say: “There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being, abuses God’s image.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero was a messenger of hope… listen to these hope-filled words of his:

“Each one of you has to be God’s microphone. Each one of you has to be a messenger, a prophet. The church will always exist as long as there is someone who has been baptized…Where is your baptism? You are baptized in your professions, in the fields of workers, in the market. Wherever there is someone who has been baptized, that is where the church is. There is a prophet there. Let us not hide the talent that God gave us on the day of our baptism and let us truly live the beauty and responsibility of being a prophetic people.”

Like St. Pope Paul VI, Romero was a champion of peace. Here is what he said about peace:

“Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.” “Peace is the product of Justice and love.”

Archbishop Romero left us a standard by which to measure a person’s self-worth:

“If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent, or more human qualities. Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted onto Christ’s life, his cross and resurrection. That is a person’s measure.” he went on to soberly say: “…we can only do as much as God makes us able to do; we are only as intelligent as God would have us be.”

On separating people into classes here is what Romero said:

“There are not two categories of people. There are not some who were born to have everything and leave others with nothing and a majority that has nothing and can’t enjoy the happiness that God has created for all. God wants a Christian society, one in which we share the good things that God has given for all of us.” 

Romero believed that to be a Christian meant we are all called to be subversives. Here is a powerful quote of his: “Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down.”

Oscar Romero was a realist: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

Romero did not fear death, he once reflected, ” I do not believe in death without the resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.”

In his homily on March 23, 1980, the day before he was murdered, Romero addressed the Salvadoran military directly:

  • “Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers and sister peasants and when you are faced with an order to kill given by a man, the law of God must prevail. The law 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.”

The next day, following his homily, a US government supported hit squad shot Romero through the heart as he stood at the altar celebrating the Eucharist.

Interestingly, President Barak Obama visited the grave of Archbishop Oscar Romero when the president was in El Salvador.

Both of these newly canonized saints were vilified– put down — during their lives. Romero endured constant vilification—put-downs— in the media and subversion by four of the country’ bishops aligned with the Salvadoran government and the countries’ wealthy élites.  Cautious Pope Paul VI suffered his own martyrdom of vilification— put-downs— from both progressives and traditionalist for insisting that church unity was more important than winners and losers after the council. He was vilified for writing the Encyclical Humanae Vitae.  We too need to expect vilification —to be put down— just as these two saints did when we attempt to truthfully and faithfully live out our baptismal promises. The crosses carried by Paul VI and Oscar Romero are our crosses as well.

We are not called so much to pray to the saints, as we are called and challenged to act and live like them in our own lives. These two new saints, who have been and continue to be part of the communion of all the faithful, are calling and challenging us to continue the renewal in the church, to be holy people, to have a preferential option for the poor, to be purveyors of the Gospel, to be champions of peace, to consider being martyred knowing full well we will be put down for this as they were.

All you holy men and women saints of God, pray for us.

Copyright © 2018 Arthur E. Zannoni / The Emmaus Center for Music Prayer and Ministry.  Printed with permission.  All rights reserved.

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