Below is a copy of Archbishop Romero's poem "Prophets of the Future" which serves as our conclusion to the "Prophets of Old" and our transition to becoming "Prophets of the Present." Preceding it is a short writeup I wrote last year, which was the Jubilee of the First Jesuit Companions, as a form of introduction concerning Archbishop Romero.
Oscar Romero has always been a familiar name to drop in discussions about Church involvement in socio-political affairs. But he has never been as meaningful to me as after I watched the profoundly moving film, “Romero”. Three things struck me in particular: his vision, his passion, and his compassion which correspond to the peculiar gifts of the Three Companions whose Jubilee we celebrate this year.
One Good Archbishop
Oscar Romero began with a narrow vision: a world of books, a Church of the church, which conservative forces in the Vatican would have noted in choosing him as prelate of San Salvador. Such a narrow mind implied narrow possibilities—a certain predictability that assured the survival of the institutional hierarchy of the Church in the middle of conflicting forces that threaten to destroy one another in his native land. Romero must have seemed to them an excellent choice: one good archbishop who will never bother to stir the hornet’s nest and will surely preserve the status quo, at least for “The Church”.
But things turned out very differently. Moving from his small diocese of Santiago de Maria straight to the capital of El Salvador, Archbishop Romero began to see the situation from a wider perspective. He saw the wanton living of the military authorities and the business people who conspired to maintain their political and economic status. He saw the violence of the rebels, who were even joined by some of his priests who have ceased to believe in any other way to reform than bloody revolution. More keenly, he witnessed the anguish of the people who suffered horribly from this shameless plunder and useless conflict.
Vatican II asserts that nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in the heart of a follower of Christ. (GS, 1) It must have been a frightening cacophony of voices in the good bishop’s head: the subtle suggestions of the powers that be, the constant threats of the campesinos, and most of all the silent but piercing cry of the poor. Suggestions may be rejected and threats ignored; but even God who is in highest heaven, the Psalmist says, hears and is moved by the cry of the poor.
This awareness slowly, painfully led to the widening of Romero’s vision. He began to see that the interest of the Church is not only its own institutional preservation but first and most importantly, the welfare and dignity of persons whom God created in his likeness and Christ redeemed by his own blood. Romero’s famous words to his people were: “You are the Church.” The most moving scene in the film for me was that one in the parish occupied by the military. While the threat of death initially terrified Romero to peter out of retrieving the Sacrament in the desecrated church, the sight of the people emboldened him not only to return and rescue the sacramental species but to repossess the church and restore it to the people—the true Church of God. He began to see them as truly such and reminded them that they were in fact the presence of Christ here and now, tormented and crucified but on their way to redemption and liberation.
Such a vision kindled in him an intense passion to work for the liberation of his people though any possible and moral way. He negotiated with the government, dialogued with the revolutionaries, and worked in every way he can to recover a desaparecido, release a political prisoner, or comfort the widows and orphans of those who were murdered. Harassed and persecuted, stripped and imprisoned, he was weak and defenseless himself among his suffering people. But his mere presence in their midst steadily became a source of strength, courage and hope simply because he was solidary with them and they found in him not only a brave leader but a true father to lead, shelter and defend them.
Such a passion can only be fueled by true compassion—not one that is pretended but one that is so strong it cannot but issue into action: dispelling all fear, defying all opposition (including Rome’s constant ‘warnings’) and overcoming even his own inner hesitation. Such compassion moved him, not only to dedicate his ministry, but to offer his life as a final and ultimate act of witness to his faith in their struggle, his love for his people and his faith in God who calls all people to freedom and fullness of life. Indeed his blood, poured out with Christ’s own sacrifice, later proved to be, using the words of his self-fulfilling prophecy, “the seed of liberty” for his people and “a sign that hope will soon become a reality”.
Romero was truly God’s best choice for that difficult time in El Salvador. According to that dear pontifical hymn: Ecce Sacerdos Magnus, qui in diebus suis placuit Deo, crescere in plebem suam. Behold a great priest, placed by God in his own time to grow among his people. God himself emancipated and transformed him through his people to be one good archbishop who will in turn transform them and liberate them from their narrow visions, imbuing them with a passion sustained by hope and showing them a radical compassion that lays down its life in the true manner of the Gospel.
Romero died once but now he lives forever in Christ, in the Salvadoran people, and in our hearts who keep his memory a shining model and inspiration for our present struggle.
Prophets of a Future Not Our Own
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador (1917-1980)
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador (1917-1980)
It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime
only a small fraction of the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying that
the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant the seeds that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it 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.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.