Sports, Solidarity, and #BlackLivesMatter

gdfgEarlier this week, ESPN hosted its annual award show, the ESPYS.  This year’s show—usually a lighthearted celebration of sports’ greatest athletes and accomplishments from over the previous year—got off to a poignant and powerful start.  Four of the NBA’s top stars, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, Dwyane Wade (who recently joined the Chicago Bulls after 13 years playing for the Miami Heat), the NY Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, and LA Clippers’ Chris Paul, joined together in a call to action in the face of escalating racial tensions and heartbreaking violence, including the tragic shootings that killed 49 and wounded dozens of others at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile by police officers, and the sniper attack in Dallas that gunned down five police officers and wounded seven others.  In this three-and-a-half minute moving speech, these world-class athletes told their peers and fans that we need to join together to “educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence and, most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”

In making this claim, these four men communicated their desire to pick up the mantle of other activist-athletes like Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe – and especially the recently deceased Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most courageous activist among all those in the pantheon of sports heroes. Anthony and Paul are less known for their social views, although Carmelo did share some mighty words on this summer’s violence just last week.  Wade and James made headlines for their demonstrations after the deaths of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin a few years ago, but James was criticized for his silence in the wake of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.  Read More


From the Francis Moment to the Francis Movement: Mercy is the Way Forward

Now that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for President and Hillary Clinton has math firmly on her side to win the Democratic nomination, the next six months of politics is going to be contentious if not outright ugly.  Not just because we’re heading into an election that no one wants, but quite simply because Trump and Clinton are the two leading candidates Americans describe as potentially “terrible” presidents: 44% of Americans think Trump would be terrible (as opposed to 10% who’d argue he’d be “great”) while 30% in the US say Clinton would be terrible (compared with 11% contending she’d be “great”).  By the evening of November 8th (or in the early hours of November 9th), a large portion of our country will be disgusted with the election results.

This is beyond the typical political polarization we keep hearing about, including the latest figures from the Pew Research Center.  A few examples: 61% of Republicans think defense spending should be increased, compared with only 20% of Democrats; 74% of Republicans are seriously concerned about the threats posed to national security by refugees from Syrian and the Middle East, while only 40% of Democrats concur; when it comes to global warming, only 26% of Republicans worry about the impact to the US,  a fraction of the 77% of Democrats; on the issue of increasing foreign aid, only 32% of Republicans offer their support, compared to 62% of Democrats.

To be sure, ideological differences are to be expected between rival political parties.  But as illustrated by these striking images, a divided Congress can bring politics to a standstill.  And I don’t just mean the Republican stonewalling of President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.  As Trent Lott and Tom Daschle have argued, the lack of compromise, chemistry, leadership, and shared vision can bring our political system to a crisis point.  The anger of the American populace has been palpable in this election cycle and certainly some of the appeal to candidates like Trump is the old “throw the bums out” angst.  As philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, underneath this anger lurks fear and helplessness, and if this continues to go unaddressed, there’s potential to unleash a “dangerous rage in a way that might do great damage to the American people in the long run.”

So what is to be done?  If so many Americans consider our political system to be so dysfunctional and find the presidential nominees so repugnant, what is the way forward? Read More


Is The ‘Francis Effect’ Overcoming American Indifference to Climate Change?

Last week, Yale University released a study, The Francis Effect: How Pope Francis Changed the Conversation About Global Warming. The report aims to measure the impact of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, released in June. The media buzz surrounding this document produced more than 3,000 news stories, and parishes organized hundreds of reflection and discussion sessions. In this way, Pope Francis has been relying on others to respond to his “urgent appeal” to address ecological degradation, the impact this has had on the lives and livelihoods of our brothers and sisters, and enter into “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (#14).

Interestingly enough, however, even with all the attention given to this document, Yale’s study found that only 28% of Americans – and 36% of U.S. Catholics – heard “a lot” or “some” media coverage on Pope Francis’ views on the environment. Only a quarter of American Catholics said they were aware that Pope Francis had released Laudato Si’ and only 10% reported hearing “some” or “a lot” about Francis’ environmental encyclical at Mass.

Still, Yale’s report finds that more Americans – and even more Catholics – have heard more frequent media coverage about global warming since Laudato Si’ was released and are more likely to discuss this issue with friends or family. The study found that 6% more Americans and 13% more Catholics grew certain that global warming is real and 12% more Americans and 20% more Catholics acknowledge that the world’s poor will be harmed by climate change. Even though there is a wider sense that this is a moral issue (6% more Americans, 8% more U.S. Catholics) and a religious issue (4% more Americans, 7% more U.S. Catholics), this hasn’t translated into broader support for policy changes, aside from the reduction of greenhouse gasses on a national level. Only 2% more Americans support funding research into renewable energy sources, and there was actually a 3% decline for restricting CO2 emissions on coal-fired power plants. Read More


Alan Kurdi, Martyr

Civil war has ravaged Syria for more than 4 years. In that time, almost a quarter million people have been killed (in documented deaths alone), at least 7.6 million civilians have been displaced from their homes and remain in Syria, and nearly 4 million refugees have left their country in search of peace and security. Estimates are that at least half of the refugees are children.

For much of these last four years, the international community has hardly taken notice of the conflict or chaos, to say nothing of working toward consensus on what ought to be done for the growing number of people forced to flee for their lives because of this inaction. Although the U.N. made an appeal for $8.4 billion in aid to address this crisis at the end of 2014, there was not enough political will to fund even half this amount. Read More


Guns in America: Ideology or Idolatry?

Guns take a life every 16 minutes in the United States—92 lives every day. In a compelling op-ed for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that the time has come to address gun violence in response to a public health crisis.

Gun rights activists will quickly retort that guns ensure greater safety and that placing restrictions on gun ownership will only result in fewer innocent civilians being able to defend themselves. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found this to be the overwhelming reason Americans own guns (60% of respondents said personal safety or protection, compared to 36% for hunting and 5% because of the Second Amendment, for example). Even though it is widely claimed that guns keep millions of Americans safe and prevent crime (as touted by the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and conservative politicians), the facts don’t actually substantiate this belief (which you can read about here or here or here, for example). Read More


The Environmental Encyclical is Out – Now What?

Last week, Pope Francis released his first major teaching letter, Laudato si’ (“Praise Be,” invoking the opening lines of St. Francis of Assisi’s canticle, “Brother Sun and Sister Moon”). An encyclical years in the making, it weaves together science and theology, ecology and economics to urge not only Catholics and other Christians, but all members of the human family to take better care of our common home, planet earth.

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Some have scoffed at the science – there are even those who claim Pope Francis and his advisors have been duped by a political agenda masquerading as science. Others have questioned the theological veracity of these claims or the weight of this teaching. These responses are mere distractions, especially when taking into account the data itself on climate change as well as the long tradition stressing care for our world—going all the way back to the accounts of creation in Scripture, like Genesis 9:9-10, which make humans covenant partners not only with God but also the rest of creation—thus the principle of Catholic social teaching which stresses the God-given duty to be good stewards of creation (highlighted throughout the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for example). In fact, the better question might be: what’s all the fuss about?, since it’s been 25 years since John Paul II claimed:

“Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone … When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue. Even men and women without any particular religious conviction, but with an acute sense of their responsibilities for the common good, recognize their obligation to contribute to the restoration of a healthy environment. All the more should men and women who believe in God the Creator, and who are thus convinced that there is a well-defined unity and order in the world, feel called to address the problem. Christians, in particular, realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith.” (emphasis added)

Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush is not necessarily wrong when he admitted that he doesn’t “get economic policy from [his] bishops or [his] cardinal or [his] pope.” The Church isn’t in the business of writing policy (as Cardinal Wuerl explained on Fox). But its theological and moral teachings ought to be sources of wisdom used to strengthen and otherwise improve practices and policies, which is why it is problematic when Bush continued, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

The very point of politics is to take proper care of the polis, the shared community of citizens. That isn’t a theological claim; that’s the basic point of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (who argued that inquiry into the good, or virtue, must necessarily extend into the public or shared realm of human affairs for that good/virtue to be shared; Cicero made a similar claim in The Republic; the word “republic” literally stems from the Latin “res publica” – the shared thing). The whole point of governance is to create order, stability, security, and opportunities for development for the members of its community. Pope Francis is qualifying this in saying that our political and economic systems are subsystems within a larger context: the integral ecological order of all creation. If we think our subsystem is the only system that matters, we will wreak havoc on not just ourselves, but the whole created order. Francis is asserting that what is missing is equity between human ecology and the larger natural ecology, and, that instead of opportunities for development for some members of the human community, we need new political and economic systems that will provide more equitable opportunities for integral (all-inclusive, interdependent) development for all members of the created order. Francis isn’t critiquing progress; in the spirit of environmental philosopher John Muir, he is insisting, “Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” Which is precisely where this essential component of Christian faith (see the quote from Pope John Paul II above) to take responsibility for creation can and should be relevant and meaningful for economics and politics. The current system isn’t working, and Pope Francis is offering a much-needed critique to change the status quo. As Laudato si’ claims:

“It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected … Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented” (#54).

Those who make this encyclical about taking sides in the obstreperous debates about the root causes or impending effects of climate change or the merits of one political party versus another miss the point. Pope Francis is following his predecessors’ emphasis on the essential link between Christian faith and responsibility as creatures to other parts of creation.   This is an inclusive call to all to recognize the integrity of all creation (a key focus of the encyclical, since the word “all” appears more than 400 times in the document) so that we might embrace our interdependence with all creation and act in such a way that does justice to each part of the whole created order revealing itself as a sacrament of the divine: “As Christians, we are also called to ‘accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale’” (#9).

In my eyes, this is a beautiful and brilliant piece of writing. It speaks so eloquently about a tradition of philosophy and theology that cares deeply about the common good (or in this case, “our common home”). It is a call to conscience (#105), to ecological conversion (#5), and moral growth (#127). There have been numerous reflections on this document rich in insight and meaning (see for example, those listed here or here). I applaud those who are echoing Pope Francis’ call to build consensus across religious, political, economic, and social differences (#164), improved appreciation and understanding of the goodness of creation (#215), and increased awareness of the temptations, threats, and other dangers which obfuscate our duties to our common home and eclipse human dignity (#56).

And yet, the encyclical has only been out a week and already it has fallen out of the current news cycle. Sure, some churches will organize reading groups around the document, some teachers will add it to their syllabi, and it may get more attention in a few months at the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris. But aside from this, what good will Laudato si’ produce if all those who read it or read about it don’t do something? In other words, with this encyclical, Pope Francis has given us both a gift and a task; the question is, how are we going to respond to each of these?

Aside from Kerry Weber’s reflection on 7 ways to live like Pope Francis, I haven’t seen many articles that try to translate this document into our everyday lived reality (some notable exceptions would include: Chris Pramuk’s connection between the encyclical and the tragic shooting in Charleston and Tim O’Malley’s work to unpack implications for liturgy). I’m not the only one to make this observation, of course, as encyclicals are notoriously difficult in translating from principles to practices. It would violate the virtue of prudence and the sanctity of conscience for the pope to tell every reader what to do next. And yet, the critical “next step” is one of action. As such, Pope Francis concludes the document with a strong call to action throughout Chapters 5 and 6. But in speaking about the need for leadership, dialogue, and shared moral norms, there is a stark disconnect between individuals reading the document and those responsible for the kind of regulatory policies and laws that can create effective change.

So what are we to do?

Some might join other Christians working to make more explicit the link between being committed to social justice and environmental action. The Catholic Climate Covenant and Catholic Relief Service are two excellent places to start, although there are countless others, both religious (like the Quakers) and secular (like the Sierra Club). Some might petition their institutions to divest from fossil fuels (as Stanford University decided to do last year), a movement some say might pick up steam following this encyclical (although this particular issue is not addressed therein). There may even be some individuals who decide to eat less meat or go vegetarian, citing the fact that the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gasses than all methods of transportation combined (to say nothing of the water and other natural resources in short supply required to raise livestock – which amounts to something like 920 gallons of water for an 8 oz. steak).

I hope readers of the encyclical will contact their elected officials and make it clear that the environment is an important political and economic matter. (Incidentally, I recently learned two pieces of advice for such communication: first, don’t use the phrase “climate change” since it’s too politically controversial; second, it’s important for politicians to see and hear that the environment isn’t just a concern of crunchy-granola, Birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers—which is the actual phrase that was used, not my generalization). Certainly Laudato si’ provides a firm foundation for such conversations. I hope readers will think more carefully about their carbon footprint (which you can calculate here – and given Pope Francis’ explicit link between care for the earth and the poorest of the poor, this should not be in opposition to confronting our slavery footprint). Maybe this document will help more of us be more intentional about the purchases we make and our power as consumers (the Better World Shopping Guide is one helpful tool; Everyday Justice is another).

Indeed, the “ecological conversion” urged in Laudato si’ is sorely needed in this country more than any other: Americans have the largest impact on the environment and rank last in sustainable behavior or guilt about our impact on the world around us.

But what does an “ecological conversion” require? It has to mean more than following National Geographic on Instagram or watching Greenpeace International videos on YouTube. Even with all the time we spend behind a screen, the answer cannot be found on Facebook or Twitter.

One of my favorite parts of Laudato si’ is actually a quote from a 2005 homily by Pope Benedict XVI, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” If everyone on the planet consumed at the rate of Americans, we would need at least 4 Earths to provide for everyone. It’s one thing to call for a more moderate pace of consumption of energy, resources, and products (and a more temperate production of waste). But Laudato si’ is going even deeper. It’s asking us to think about why we consume so much. What is underneath that desire to purchase, possess, and use?

In his book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William Cavanaugh turns this question all the way back to Augustine. Augustine’s insight in Confessions is that to be human is to be fundamentally restless, which, in Augustine’s view is a good thing because it keeps us from being satisfied by anything except that which can ultimately fill us: God (who is our ultimate end, or telos). Being human means being hardwired for God, who is our deepest desire underneath the multitudinous, often fleeting desires we might be responding to more impulsively. Yet Augustine also recognizes the ways in which desire is a social production: our desires are shaped by the world around us and those with whom we interact. In the face of these desires, freedom isn’t capriciously following our desires; it’s being mindful about cultivating true desires. As Cavanaugh writes, “This is not just a matter of wanting too much; it is a matter of wanting without any idea why we want what we want … To desire with no telos, no connection to the objective end of desire, is to desire nothing and to become nothing” (14). Without any specific aim in mind, in other words, the search is literally endless. It is an aimless wandering in the desert, not just in the sense of being alienated and meaningless, but in laying waste to the world around us as we try to fill the void within.

The internal deserts referenced by Pope Benedict XVI are not by accident or by defect in being human. They are—just as Augustine recognized so long ago—socially constructed. We live in a world bombarding us with images and messages that try to make us believe that our value is tied to having and doing; that we can be loved only by marking ourselves with the right symbols, logos, brands, and trademarks. Advertisements feed on our insecurity and push us to conform to standards that can be racist, sexist, and homophobic (and have little to no regard for our impact on the world around us). This insecurity fuels our incessant consumption, which can lead either to a desire for dominance or a spiral downward spurred by fear that we are not, in fact, good or lovable, all of which contravenes the accounts of creation we find in Genesis: all of creation is very good as it is (Gen. 1:36; importantly, the text does not say creation is useful; the value is not tied to some instrumental function toward another end other than itself).

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In Laudato si’, Pope Francis makes a personal appeal to his reader, asking that we might grow in an “awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light.” He continues:

Then too, there is the recognition that God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore. We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that “not one of them is forgotten before God” (Lk 12:6). How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm? I ask all Christians to recognize and to live fully this dimension of their [ecological] conversion. May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us. In this way, we will help nurture that sublime fraternity with all creation which Saint Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied” (#221).

He also asks his reader to pray, giving thanks to God before and after meals, since this “moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need” (#227).

Pope Francis is calling for Christians to take up a “sacramental vision,” to see with eyes that recognize the whole world and all members of creation as good, as sacred, and revealing the divine (#9). Prayer is a practice to help us see the world as God does and try to love as God loves (Jn 13:34) and might foster a “sacramental imagination” capable of creating new possibilities for communication and collaboration among the world’s 7 billion people in service of this fragile, intricate, interdependent created order. It could produce wonder, awe, and appreciation strong enough to subvert the “globalization of indifference” that Pope Francis has previously lamented (or the “globalization of superficiality” as others have called it) and lead to the recalibration of desires toward a telos of right-relationship and integral development. It might generate the moral imagination and will to demand the construction of political and economic practices, policies, and laws to promote the common good, and thus preserve our common home—the home, which the opening lines of this encyclical remind us, “is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (#1).

Such a beautiful gift and task. How will you respond?


Oscar Romero: More Than a Saint

I still remember the first time I watched the movie “Romero.” It opened my eyes to the realities of people living in conditions I could hardly imagine, growing up in the Midwest. I was moved by Romero’s compassion for his fellow Salvadorans, inspired by his faith, and awed by his courage in speaking out against the government and its violent, repressive regime.

The film paints Romero as a conservative priest and bishop who mostly sides with the religious and political elites until his friend, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, is murdered by paramilitary soldiers—along with two of the three passengers in his car—in broad daylight. Raul Julia’s Romero undergoes a conversion at this moment, defining his three years as Archbishop of San Salvador with a bold vision for preaching the Gospel, denouncing injustice, and maintaining a firm perseverance, willing to accept the cost, even if it means death.

This version of Romero makes for a compelling plot-twist and gives hope to those of us who may more readily identify with the pre-conversion Romero characterized more by piety, kindness, and conformity to the status quo than by the powerful words and heroic actions that precipitate Romero’s murder in March 1980. Yet this version stands in stark relief to the man revealed by his own words and the testimony of those who knew him.

It wasn’t until graduate school in theology that I had the chance to read his reflections and homilies, pastoral letters and radio addresses. There I discovered a richer, fuller version of Romero who long had a heart for the poor. I discovered that Óscar had learned the trade of his father, becoming a skilled carpenter. He studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, trained with and by Jesuits, and was ordained a priest in Rome in the middle of World War II. He was profoundly affected by Vatican II and felt a special devotion to Pope Paul VI. He took seriously the call to “read the signs of the times” and was sensitive to the needs of his people, including starting an Alcoholics Anonymous group in his parish in San Miguel, where he served for 20 years. In 1974 he was appointed Bishop of Santiago de Maria, a poor, rural part of southeastern El Salvador. These experiences enlarged his heart and he was remembered fondly by people who felt deeply loved by him. Indeed, “Monseñor Romero,” as he is often called in El Salvador, is a term almost more of affection than respect.

I came to an even deeper understanding of Óscar Romero this month, spending 12 days in El Salvador, listening to stories from those who knew him, visiting the places where he lived and died, reading his words, and contemplating his pictures. Here, Romero came alive.

An exhibit at the Museo de la Palabra y Imagen displays Romero’s personal photographs, which he gave to a woman who saved them for 30 years until they were made public in 2010. I saw Romero the tourist, wearing a suit and tie and standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Reclining on the verdant banks of a river in Mexico. Posing in front of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Watching the sun rise over Rome from atop St. Peter’s Basilica.

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I came to know Romero the person. A son to his parents, Santos and Guadalupe. A brother to 7 siblings. A man with a deep devotion to Jesus Christ and a desire to grow in holiness and serve the people of God in a world marked by violence, poverty, and the consolidation of resources, wealth, and power into the hands of a few. A priest who ministered to men in San Miguel prison, delighted in children, and learned from women’s experiences and welcomed their role in the Church.

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It is fitting, then, to recall that his bishop’s mitre read, “Sentir con la Iglesia” (Feel with the Church). Romero’s heart was truly with the whole church. He loved and served the Body of Christ with everything he had to give, and his position as Archbishop made it possible to widen the scope of his concern, commitment, and impact.

After Rutilio Grande was murdered in March 1977, Romero lauded his friend’s work to organize the poor in Aguilares, called for the justice denied to poor Salvadorans, and denounced the government’s institutional use of violence against its own people. To demonstrate the sincerity of these words, Romero cancelled all Masses in the country for the next week, except for a single Mass in the cathedral in San Salvador. As the pace of state-sponsored arrests, torture, disappearances, murders and massacres rose, Romero continued to denounce the use of violence. In the face of critics who called for him to keep out politics, Romero argued in a 1978 pastoral letter,

It is the role of the church to gather into itself all that is human in the people’s cause and struggle, above all in the cause of the poor. The church identifies with the poor when they demand their legitimate rights. In our country the right they are demanding is hardly more than the right to survive, to escape from misery. This solidarity with just aims is not restricted to particular organizations. Whether they call themselves Christians or not, whether they are protected by the government, legally or in practice, or whether they are independent of it and opposed to it, the church is interested in only one thing: if the aim of the struggle is just, the church will support it with all the power of the gospel. In the same way it will denounce, with bold impartiality, all injustice in any organization, wherever it is found.

Earlier in 1978, the day after Easter, Romero opened the seminary in San Salvador for victims of violence, turning it into a shelter and sanctuary for hundreds of hungry, displaced, and depleted people. He delayed construction on the new cathedral in San Salvador, explaining that the funds would better serve the church if it went to feeding, housing, and educating the people.

That same year, Romero moved from his tiny bedroom adjoining the sacristy in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital to a home built for him by the Carmelite Sisters who served the cancer patients treated in the hospital. The sisters shrewdly had the patients present this humble 3-room house to Romero on his 61st birthday (a prudent decision on the sisters’ part because they knew that if it hadn’t been presented to him by the people, he would have politely declined the gift). One of my favorite pictures of Romero still hangs on the wall in his house: a picture of the archbishop sitting on the ground, enjoying a picnic lunch with a handful of men and women on the side of the road. I saw that picture and did a double-take: an archbishop sitting on the grass, eating and drinking with his people. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a scene like that, and yet it sounds exactly like the kind of priest and bishop Pope Francis has been calling for, shepherds in the midst of their flock, who “smell like sheep.” In this way, Romero didn’t just “feel with the church” in a hypothetical sense; he ate and drank with the people, talked and listened with them. In sharing life together, he fostered more than understanding and empathy; he cultivated solidarity in faith, hope, and love. He was building the kind of church that Vatican II insists the church is called to be: “land to be cultivated” in which each member is called to participate in the mutually-reinforcing work of communion and mission.   Romero firmly believed in the universal call to holiness and was committed to helping lay Salvadorans live out that call, even while their government trained soldiers and ordered death squads to intimidate, torture, maim, rape, and kill its own people.

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Looking back on the life of Romero through the lens of history, it is easy to take his assassination for granted, especially taking into account the murder of the four U.S. churchwomen (Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Maura Clark) in December 1980 and the six Jesuit priests (Ignacio Ellacuria, Juan Ramon Moreno, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Amando Lopez, Segundo Montes, and Ignacio Martin-Baro – as well as their housekeeper, Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina Ramos) in November 1989. This was an era when the Salvadoran government acted with complete impunity (there was no official recognition of the state’s role in Romero’s death until after the left-wing FMLN ended the right-wing ARENA party’s 20-year-rule in 2009), propped up by $6 billion in aid by the U.S. government between 1980-1992 (in addition to training soldiers and paramilitaries at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia).

In a context so rife with state-sponsored violence, it is no surprise that Romero anticipated he would be killed. As death threats piled up, he relieved his chauffeur of his duties and drove his Toyota Corona himself. But underneath this vague threat of death and behind the scenes of the bold homilies and radio addresses, Romero feared death, something he confided to friends and the Carmelite Sisters who helped care for him. In fact, one night Romero woke up the sisters and insisted on leaving his home because he could hear the soldiers stomping on his roof, plotting an attack. In the morning, the concerned sisters sent the gardener up a ladder to look for evidence, and then showed Romero the culprits: the avocados that had fallen from the tree in the front yard.

Living with this fear, Romero’s faith remained undaunted. Two weeks before Easter in 1980, he unleashed his boldest homily

“I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

This homily served as his own death sentence. The very next evening, while celebrating a memorial mass for a friend who had passed away the previous year, Romero stood near the altar in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital, just a stone’s throw from his home. He read from the Gospel of John: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (12:23-26). He offered a brief homily about the need to give our lives for others as Jesus Christ did. He began to prepare the gifts for consecration, and as he did, he was shot in the aorta and died in minutes. Earlier this week, I stood in Romero’s home and heard the recording of this mass, hearing his steady voice interrupted by the gunshot blast and screams of those in attendance.   I stood behind the altar in the chapel, placing myself where Romero offered himself for his people. I gazed down the short aisle of the chapel, knowing the front doors of the church were open that night, so Romero had been staring right at his assassin while he trained his aim on the archbishop from an idling car right outside the chapel doors. I cannot fathom the faith and courage it took to stand there and give his life for others just as Jesus Christ did.

It took no time for the Salvadoran people to recognize Romero as a martyr and saint. 250,000 people showed up for his funeral mass on Palm Sunday, interrupted by bullets and smoke bombs that killed dozens. But the Vatican has not been so quick to recognize Romero in this way. In fact, I was dismayed to learn a few years ago that Pope John Paul II had decided to remove Romero as archbishop and had actually signed the order the morning Romero was killed. Pope John Paul II visited Romero’s tomb in 1983 and 1996 and included him in a list of American martyrs in a ceremony at the Coliseum in Rome in 2000, but Romero didn’t pass the CDF’s theological scrutiny until early 2005 and his official recognition by Rome was halted by the death of John Paul II in April 2005. It wasn’t until Pope Francis’ efforts last year that the Vatican officially recognized what has been clear to so many Christians for 35 years: Óscar Romero died a martyr and saint.

Interestingly, according to church tradition, martyrdom cannot be declared unless the victim was targeted out of hatred for the church and refused to renounce his or her faith. (Adhering to this would seem problematic for other martyrs, like Maximilian Kolbe.) Yet the publicity for Romero’s beatification uses the slogan, “martir por amor” (martyred for love). Surely, Romero’s life was marked by deep love for Christ, the church, and “su pueblo” (the people). But he wasn’t killed for love. He was killed because the Salvadoran oligarchs hated his faith and the implications of making his faith public. Romero pulled back the curtain on those responsible for violence and oppression in the name of fighting the threat of communism. He stood up for human dignity and the rights of all people without exception. He demanded justice for the poor and vulnerable living in El Salvador. And he didn’t just make bold pronouncements; he visited with Salvadorans to hear about the torture, rape, and killings inflicted by soldiers; he drove to village garbage dumps and searched through the trash to find the disfigured bodies left behind. He was a symbol of hope for those that managed to survive the reign of terror.

One of the greatest signs of hope I discovered this past week was seeing the scores of Catholic school students learning about Romero in churches, at the Museo de la Palabra y Imagen, and in the house and chapel at Divine Providence Hospital.   I was told that just a few years ago, Catholic schools would not have even brought up Romero’s name in the classroom, much less brought their students to see where Romero lived and died.

My hope is that in these days of celebrating Romero’s beatification, Christians all over the world will come to know Óscar Romero far beyond the labels of “martyr” or “saint.” Dorothy Day famously rejected being called a saint. “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” she insisted. Of course we’re all called to be saints—that’s the point of the universal call of holiness—and yet it can be tempting to think of saints like Óscar or Dorothy as extraordinarily pious, perseverant, and rare. In truth, these saints are meant to remind all of us to draw on the strength of the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) to respond to the call to participate in the “communion of saints” (or, as Martin Luther King might say, the “beloved community”). Romero’s example should be more than celebrated; it should be replicated—not ­­­­­­ in terms of strict imitation, but in personal appropriation. Romero’s faith is a model for our own; his compassion for the poor and suffering and commitment to their liberation for the fullness of life should inspire our own; his courage—even in the face of political and religious persecution (promised by Jesus in the gospels) and death—holds us accountable. The word “martyr” comes from the word “witness,” and Romero, in his life and death, is a witness to the demands of being faithful to the Gospel.

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Romero is a reminder of what life can look like when we confront the forces of sin, refuse to kowtow to the rich and powerful and maintain the status quo, and in the spirit of Pope Paul VI, work for justice in the desire for peace. Romero is a witness to faith, hope, and love at work in the world today.   In so doing, he desired to be faithful to the example of Jesus Christ and the Salvadorans he loved so deeply.

In an address at the University of Louvain to receive an honorary doctorate a few weeks before he was killed, Romero reflected,

“In the name of Jesus we want, and we work for, life in its fullness, a life that is not reduced to the frantic search for basic material needs … But we see with equal clarity that in the name of Jesus it would be sheer illusion, it would be an irony, and at bottom, it would be the most profound blasphemy, to forget and to ignore the basic levels of life, the life that begins with bread, a roof, a job … When the church inserts itself into the socio-political world it does so in order to work with it so that from such cooperation life may be given to the poor. In doing so, therefore, it is not distancing itself from its mission, nor is it doing something of secondary importance or something incidental to its mission. It is giving testimony to its faith in God; it is being the instrument of the Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. This faith in the God of life is the explanation for what lies deepest in the Christian mystery. To give life to the poor one has to give of one’s own life, even to give one’s life itself. The greatest sign of faith in a God of life is the witness of those who are ready to give up their own life. “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And we see this daily in our country. Many Salvadorans, many Christians, are ready to give their lives so that the poor may have life. They are following Jesus and showing their faith in him. Living within the real world just as Jesus did, like him accused and threatened, like him laying down their lives, they are giving witness to the Word of life.”

Óscar Romero did more than say these words; he lived them to his last breath. The fact that he did so makes him a saint and martyr, to be sure. But let us not forget that he was a person like you and me and that his example in faith, hope, and love ought to continually inspire and improve our own.