St. Óscar Romero, the Church Leader We Need

Assassination of the ArchbishopCambridge, MA. In Rome today, Pope Francis canonized seven new saints. Most well known was Pope Paul VI (1897-1978), who steered Vatican Council II through to its successful conclusion, and oversaw the tumultuous first years of the Council’s implementation (a task still not completed). Most powerful and poignant was the long-awaited canonization of Archbishop Óscar Romero (1917-1980) of El Salvador. It is the Archbishop who has attracted the most attention, given the riveting story of his personal conversion story, how he went from being merely a competent and careful archbishop, from doing his job and maintaining his Church, to being a prophetic witness on behalf of the poor and oppressed of El Salvador. Astonishing all, he became a man willing to risk his life, even unto a violent death, and so it was: shot while saying Mass, on March 24, 1980. His last homily, delivered moments before his death, was republished recently in America, the Jesuit weekly.

Today (October 14), at the canonization but at every Catholic Mass, we also heard the powerful Gospel text assigned for this 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 10: 17-30:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it isto enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

This Gospel has been used, and sensibly so, to explore the mystery of the vocation to religious life, when young men and women leave everything, or try to, in order to follow Jesus—giving up everything, and receiving in return the hundredfold. And so it is, can be. But we now realize more clearly than before (at least more clearly than I did 50 years go) that like every Gospel scene, this is a challenge to everyone who hears the reading: if we are good, and try to be good, we will always be tempted to reach a point where we say, "enough": “I have done all that can be expected of me.” “I am an exemplary believer.” “I can do more good by being cautious, turning a blind eye on some evils in order to protect the Church as it battles others.” But Jesus loves people who have done all they need to have done—and so he asks for more: don’t stop where you are; leave behind even your righteousness, and come, follow me.

But today there is still more to say, given this Gospel on this Sunday of canonizations. Like many other priests and like Pope Francis too, I preached on Mark, and I found I had to focus directly on Romero, a holy embodiment of what Jesus said and Mark passed down to us.

Romero was, after all, the quintessential good, righteous man who, as a cleric and bishop, had  many possessions. As Archbishop, he held the most important position of leadership in his archdiocese and thus in the whole of El Salvador. He worked hard, had many duties. By careful stewardship and diplomacy, he could be expected to protect the Church, foster its good works, and survive, if not in peace, at least in detente with the government and the army. Who could ask more of an archbishop? No one would have expected him to become a radical witness to the Gospel.

But like the wealthy man in today’s Gospel, the Archbishop heard the radical, demanding, unreasonable call of Jesus: Leave it all! Come, be as I am! Unlike that man, Romero put aside advice and warnings, prudence, and common sense, and actually did give it all up to follow Jesus in deed and not just in word. He spoke out ever more boldly in the name of Jesus, for that kingdom of God, for every person suffering poverty, violence, and fear. And so he died, in church, right there between the pulpit and the altar. His blood purified his church.

We hear all of this in 2018, after the abuses and the cover-ups, the Pennsylvania report and the McCarrick scandal. We cannot but see Romero also as a sign and sacrament desperately needed today, when too many priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes have been under a cloud, precisely for holding back, settling for what is prudent, protecting ourselves and the reputation of the Church, while people suffered and suffer, appallingly even at the hands of the Church itself. Yes, we all need to hear and be challenged by this Gospel and the example of Romero — but particularly, urgently, everyone in power in the Church: hierarchs called to be holy in the way Jesus was. We need to follow his example and give up the burdens of self-protection and caution. We need to let go of the heavy weight of power, prestige and possession that ironically ties our hands and makes us unable to act. We need to learn again what it means to be a saint, standing with the women and men who are oppressed, abused, excluded, silenced in society and inside the Church too. We too need to be purified, and we can help purify our Church by the honesty of our words and the daring of our witness.

St. Óscar Romero, pray for us.