Ars Praedicandi: St. Oscar Romero, pray for us.

This Sunday’s canonization of Oscar Romero provided a lens through which to view the radical call to discipleship that Jesus issues to the rich man—and to all of us—in today’s Gospel.

Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

If Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel
do not make most of us profoundly uncomfortable
then we are not really paying attention.
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Maybe we are not paying attention to the words themselves
or maybe we are not paying attention to our own lives.
Even with our genuine struggles
trying to pay tuitions or credit card debt
or a mortgage or medical bills,
we citizens of the modern developed world
still live in a material abundance
that surpasses the richest person of Jesus’ day
and most people alive in our own day.
“How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God.”
As the Letter to the Hebrews says,
“the word of God…is sharper than any two-edged sword…
everything is naked and exposed to the eyes
of him to whom we must render an account.”
If we are not squirming,
if we are not feeling God’s word
penetrating to the deepest thoughts of our hearts,
then we are not paying attention.

But Jesus is not, I think, simply trying to make us feel guilty—
though exploiting the motivating power of guilt
is a fine Catholic tradition that I, as a parent, approve of.
Nor is he saying that our prosperity is somehow in itself evil.
Jesus’ concern for the rich man who asks him,
“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
is not simply that he make himself poor.
The key to understanding Jesus’ words to the rich man is not
“Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor”
but what follows: “then come, follow me.”
Like Solomon in our first reading,
Jesus calls the rich man to give up what he has
in order to gain something far more valuable,
the heavenly treasure of wisdom.
Jesus, divine wisdom made flesh,
calls him to give up everything that holds him back
from being his disciple,
everything that holds him back
from following in the way of wisdom,
which is Jesus’ way of cross and resurrection.
The act of giving his wealth to the poor
is simply the prelude to following Jesus.

It is true that it is often our material possessions
that hold us back,
the things that we accumulate
and on which we stake our happiness,
which form a wall around us
to protect us from God and from other people.
But that protective wall
can be built of other, less tangible, things as well:
our self-image,
our reputation,
our ideologies,
our compulsions and our addictions.
These are all burdens that Jesus calls us to give up
in order to be free to follow him on the path of discipleship.
But can we answer this call?
Can we become free enough to follow Jesus’ way?
We are, after all, just ordinary people.

Today in Rome, in the solemn rite of canonization,
the Church declared Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador,
who was killed by a government death squad
while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980,
to be a saint.
When he became bishop of San Salvador in 1977
Romero was seen
by both the government and the Church
as an ordinary bishop, a “safe” bishop:
one who was traditional in his theology
and unwilling to interfere in politics,
one who would not cause trouble.
But when priests who worked among the poor
and advocated for their rights
began turning up dead,
killed by government-sponsored death squads,
Romero’s eyes were opened
to the plight of the poor in his country,
and he began speaking out against government repression.
The day before he was killed,
he made a direct appeal to the soldiers in the military:
“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 recovered your consciences
and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order…
In the name of God,
in the name of this suffering people
whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day,
I implore you,
I beg you,
I order you in the name of God:
stop the repression.”

Like the rich man in today’s Gospel,
Oscar Romero heard the call of Jesus to give up everything—
the favor of Church and State,
his previous ideas of what it meant to be a bishop,
and ultimately even his life—
in order to learn true wisdom
by following Jesus on the way of the cross.
His example pleads with us,
just as he pleaded with the soldiers of El Salvador,
to value the wisdom of God above all else,
to let the two-edged sword of God’s word
probe our consciences,
to listen to the voice of God
and be willing to surrender everything for the sake of God.

Oscar Romero was an ordinary man,
someone who, like us, lived behind protective walls
of money and power,
of ideology and self-image,
of reputation and prestige.
But Jesus called him forth from that ordinary life
and stripped him of every worldly protection
and placed him amidst the demonic powers of hatred and greed
with nothing except the love of God to clothe him,
nothing but the cross of Christ to shelter him.
God made this ordinary man a saint
by teaching him the wisdom of the cross.
And God will make us saints as well,
if we are willing to practice the daily discipline
of paying attention to Jesus’ call
to come follow him,
of paying attention to our lives
and all that holds us back from answering that call,
of opening ourselves to the grace
that can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Saint Oscar Romero,
pray for us.

4 comments

  1. Others say that it is clear that St Oscar Romero was converted to the option for the poor while serving as Bishop of Santiago de Maria from 1973-77. And that serving a very poor rural diocese was his first opportunity to see poverty, having previously served only in affluent parishes and circumstances. So he came back to San Salvador with his eyes already open.

    1. Though I absolutely love the Romero movie, I feel like it doesn’t portray the evolution/coming home aspect very well and leans more toward the conversion. But then again, a movie can only do so much.

      1. You are quite correct, Matt. It’s big into the conversion moment, and despite the movie’s other virtues, it did get this part wrong.

        Gene Palumbo’s article particularly mentions this movie as one of the culprits in spreading the false narrative, and he quoted from it to prove his point. I watched the movie a long time ago, so did not particularly remember the scene. I do remember thinking that Raul Julia was convincing in the title role.

        An article in America describing the backstory of the movie showed me a lot more that I was unaware of!
        https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/10/03/oral-history-romero-movie

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