2 KGS 5: 1-15AB
PS 42: 2, 3; 43: 3, 4
LK 4: 24-30
Today marks the 34th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. How appropriate that the reading and the gospel for today link together God’s favor for those who seem to stand outside the established categories of access: to healing, to membership in the people of God, to justice. Jesus, speaking in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, infuriated the people he grew up with by reminding them of stories from the Old Testament in which God’s favor went to Gentiles – a widow provided for by Elijah, a Syrian military man cured of leprosy by Elisha.
Born in a small village and apprenticed as a carpenter before entering a life of religious service, Monseñor Romero was known throughout much of his career as a pious, traditional priest, devoted to learning and an introspective spirituality. His election as archbishop in 1977 was closely followed by the murder of his friend Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit who worked closely with small communities of peasants; Grande’s death was one significant step for Romero in his growing understanding of the inevitably social reality of the gospel – just as Jesus recited in the gospel, quoting from the closing section of the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (IS 61: 1-2)
Romero spent three years as archbishop, denouncing the disappearances, tortures, and assassinations occurring around him, before he was himself assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist at the chapel of the hospital where he kept a simple residence. Speaking in Belgium less than two months before his death, Romero summed up his understanding of the role of the church in El Salvador: “Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people's defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.” (Feb. 2, 1980)
Romero’s cause for canonization is currently underway, although some people have objected that he should not be understood as a martyr because he died for political reasons rather than because of his murderers’ hatred of the faith per se (they were themselves most likely practicing Catholics). However, Jesus in the gospel and Romero recall the centrality of right practice for an authentic living of the Christian life, and the danger of challenging regimes of power/knowledge that claim to know and control the truth. The gospel, they both make clear, is not merely or even primarily a set of metaphysical propositions about what is really “out there” or how to be saved after death, but a vision for the transformation of the world in light of the absolute dignity of all persons and the abiding love of God for human flourishing. Failure to act on behalf of that vision is a failure of faith/fidelity, regardless of our doctrinal correctness, to the gospel itself.