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Twice removed: Why our sacraments often don't connect with real life

posted Mar 28, 2016, 10:13 AM by Sue Weigand   [ updated Mar 31, 2016, 6:24 PM ]

In the first two centuries of Christianity, theology was based in experience. Words that were later taken to refer to things that are outside the realm of experience were originally attempts to talk about things that the followers of Jesus were experiencing.

For example, when Paul wrote about justification by faith, he was not talking about getting right with God by believing in Christ, but getting your life straightened out by trusting that what Jesus taught is true. When the Book of Acts talks about being saved through baptism, it does not mean washing away sin by going through a ritual, but being rescued from selfishness by being immersed in a caring community.

Scholars who study other early documents like "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" (often called the Didache for short, from the Greek word for teaching) are finding that these writings were also attempts to spell out what the followers of Jesus were experiencing in their lives. But in the third century, things began to change.

Over time, the experience behind the early writings was forgotten. The writings were recognized as precious, called sacred Scriptures. Even the Didache appeared in some early lists of sacred Scriptures.

Christian intellectuals in the third century, sometimes called apologists, tried to explain their faith to people in the wider pagan world who suspected that the followers of Jesus were members of a dangerous cult. One apologist, Justin, compared the Christian community meal to a temple sacrifice, where pagans shared food in the presence of their god, to show that Christians were religious even though they did not worship in temples.

But other apologists began to talk about their faith as a set of beliefs rather than as a way of living. The words were becoming disconnected from the experiences.

In the fourth century, Constantine wanted to unify the Roman Empire with a single religion, so he legalized and promoted Christianity. When Christians began to travel freely throughout the empire, they discovered that people in different regions had different theologies. Instead of uniting Constantine's empire, Christians argued and divided it even further.

Constantine ordered all the bishops to his villa in Nicaea, and forced them to stay until they produced a document they could all agree on. They came up with the Nicene Creed, a statement of belief that said nothing about living like Jesus, but only about God and the church. The first removal of theology from the experience of Christian living was complete.

The Middle Ages

The attempt of the emperors to preserve the empire failed, and in the fifth century, the western half fell to barbarian invaders from the north. The so-called Dark Ages lasted until the 10th century. Theological thinking came to a halt while people struggled to survive.

Church life, on the contrary, evolved and flourished. The elaborate eucharistic liturgy got pared down to a Mass that could be said by missionaries who carried the faith to the tribes that were settling on the continent, and it was called a sacrifice even though no one remembered why.

Baptism became a short rite performed on babies in a church or adult converts in a river. Confirmation could be given by a bishop on horseback to children who were held up for him to touch. Private confession was introduced by monks for people who needed assurance of God's forgiveness.

Weddings became church ceremonies to be a public record of marriages. Ordination became a series of rites for apprentices who were learning how to be clerics as they ascended through a series of holy orders. Anointing of the sick began as a ministry to people who were ill, but in the absence of modern medicine, it became a last anointing called extreme unction.

By the 11th century, the chaos had subsided. The weather got warmer, farming flourished, commerce expanded, towns grew into cities, cathedrals were built, and schools were founded. Monks turned their attention from copying ancient manuscripts to studying them. Philosophy and theology were reborn.

Among other things, the schoolmen turned their attention to religious rituals, especially to sacraments. How did bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ? Why could baptism and confirmation be received only once? How did the sacraments of penance and extreme unction work? What were the different powers of priests and bishops? Why was the bond of marriage indissoluble?

The schoolmen did not realize, however, that much of their theological language was already somewhat removed from life. They thought that salvation meant going to heaven, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not experienced, that sins were remitted even if they were committed again, that the bond of marriage was indissoluble, that priestly powers were unrelated to priestly ministry, and that extreme unction could be received by someone who was unconscious.

They saw nothing amiss in a Mass that was performed by a priest using words that the people could not hear, much less understand, and who paid attention only when a bell was rung.

In many ways, sacramental ministry devolved into sacramental magic in the late Middle Ages, but the church's leadership rejected repeated calls for reform until the 16th century, by which time half of Europe had converted to Protestantism.

The Council of Trent reformed the sacramental system, eliminating the most superstitious practices, insisting that bishops be true shepherds of their flocks and that priests be trained in seminaries. From the 16th to the mid-20th centuries, Catholic sacramental practice and Catholic sacramental theology mirrored one another.

The baptismal and priestly characters explained why Catholics never left the church and why priests never left the ministry. The Eucharist was elevated at Mass and ensconced in a monstrance for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and was received only rarely, usually after a sincere confession of sins to a priest.

The indissoluble bond of marriage explained why Catholics never divorced. Confirmation and extreme unction did not have visible effects, but Catholics trusted that the former was good to receive in adolescence and the latter was good to receive before dying.

The Catholic church remained medieval in form and thought well into the 20th century.

Vatican II and after

At the Second Vatican Council, the world's Catholic bishops called for an updating of the church's sacramental practices. Historians and liturgists retrieved earlier forms of the Mass and other rites that had gotten lost during the Dark Ages — things like praying in the language of the people, receiving Communion in the forms of both bread and wine, rethinking the relation between sin and confession, and returning anointing to the context of ministry to the sick.

Unexpectedly, the unity of practice and theology began to dissolve. People stopped going to confession regularly. Priests began leaving the priesthood and the number of seminarians dwindled. Married Catholics started divorcing in greater numbers and even remarrying without waiting for an annulment.

The primary effect of confirmation seemed to be dropping out of church. Even baptism was no guarantee that people would remain Catholics or even Christians, as those who left the church sometimes became agnostics or atheists, Jews or Muslims.

Alarmed by this apparent defection, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted on strict adherence to ecclesiastical rules, affirming traditional doctrines, stifling dissent, and denying any further developments in sacramental practice such as allowing deacons to anoint the sick or allowing priests to marry.

But the traditional doctrines no longer match Catholics' contemporary experience of church membership, marriage and ministry, not to mention their sense of sin and their experience of illness. Even Catholic worship feels different from the way it did in the days of the Latin Mass and Gregorian chant, and the previously strong sense of Christ's presence in the Eucharist is hard to recapture.

As happened in the third century, there is a growing gap between theology and experience, only this time the theology is twice removed from life. Official teachings about the Mass and sacraments are not only disconnected from people's everyday lives, but they are also often disconnected from people's experience of worship. For many people, the liturgy is not the main source of their spiritual nourishment, nor the high point of their week.

Around the time of Vatican II, Catholic thinkers like Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, Bernard Cooke and Louis-Marie Chauvet tried to reinterpret the sacraments in more contemporary ways. Fifty years later, however, their work is not given much attention because it suffered from a fatal flaw.

Instead of reflecting on the experience of ritual worship, they reflected on the church's sacramental doctrines and tried to translate them into thought categories derived from existentialism and phenomenology, the psychology and sociology of religion, and even postmodern philosophy.

By being tied to medieval doctrines, however, these theologians had to explain why baptism is permanent, how confirmation gives spiritual strength, why confession is needed, how anointing benefits the sick, why marriage is indissoluble, and why the priesthood is forever.

But these ideas no longer correspond to the world inhabited by most Catholics, so contemporary theologies are just as removed from real life as the scholastic theology they had hoped to replace.

Is there a way out of the current confusion? There is, but it is neither a dogmatic reassertion of the past nor a freefall into cultural relativism. We need to rediscover what is essential to the Christian way of life, reinvent ways to ritualize that, and reformulate what those rituals mean in terms that are faithful both to the teachings of Jesus and to the experience of living in accordance with them.

[Joseph Martos is the author of many books and articles on the sacraments. This article is based on research published in Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual (Wipf and Stock, 2015).]

This story appeared in the Feb 12-25, 2016 print issue under the headline: Twice removed .

Vatican statistics report increase in baptized Catholics worldwide

posted Mar 14, 2016, 9:32 AM by Sue Weigand

The number of baptized Catholics worldwide has grown at a faster rate than that of the world's population, according to Vatican statistics.

Although the number of priests has increased globally, the number has decreased slightly in Europe and Oceania, according to the Vatican's Central Office for Church Statistics.

The figures are presented in the "Annuario Pontificio 2016," the Vatican yearbook, and will appear in the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, which gives detailed figures on the church's workforce, sacramental life, dioceses and parishes as of Dec. 31, 2014.

The number of baptized Catholics reached 1.27 billion or 17.8 percent of the global population, the statistics office reported March 5.

Despite the increase of Catholics worldwide, the yearbook noted a "less dynamic" growth of only 2 percent in Europe. While the continent is home to almost 40 percent of the Catholic global population, the percent of the world's Catholics living in Europe has slowly decreased over the past nine years, it said.

However, with the exception of Oceania, the number of baptized Catholics has grown faster than the general population growth on every continent.

"The African continent remains without a doubt the one with the highest growth," the report said; the number of Catholics in Africa increased by 41 percent, while the number of Catholics in Asia grew by 20 percent.

The percentage of baptized Catholics as part of the general population remains highest in North and South America where they "make up almost half" of the world's Catholics, it said.

The number of bishops of the world continued to increase, reaching 5,237 worldwide compared to 4,841 a year earlier.

The total number of priests -- diocesan and religious order -- around the world was 415,792, which the report said was statistically "stable." There was a steady increase of diocesan priests in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, while numbers in North America, Europe and Oceania continued to decrease.

The number of permanent deacons reported -- 44,566 -- was an increase of more than 1,000 over the previous year.

The number of religious brothers was down slightly, going from a total of 55,253 at the end of 2013 to a total of 54,559 at the end of 2014.

The number of women in religious orders continued to decrease, dropping by 10,846 in 2014.The biggest decreases were seen in North and South America, Europe and Oceania while numbers in Africa and Asia continue to rise.

The number of candidates for the priesthood -- both diocesan seminarians and members of religious orders -- who had reached the level of philosophy and theology studies showed a slight downturn. The number of candidates fell to 116,939 men at the end of 2014 compared to 118,251 men at the end of 2013.

The variation in the number of men training to become priests varies by continent, the report said. There is an "evident decline" in the numbers from Europe and North America, while "Africa and Asia show great vitality," it said.

At St. Pius X Catholic Church, top official is a woman

posted Mar 14, 2016, 9:27 AM by Sue Weigand

On a typical day at St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church in Rodgers Forge, you might find Carol Pacione counseling a young couple, haggling with a contractor, working on a capital campaign or arranging flowers in the nave.

As the senior official of a parish that doesn't have a full-time priest, Pacione, 63, fulfills many of the functions of a pastor.

In a church that doesn't ordain women, she's a pastoral life director — one of a small number of lay leaders who enjoy all the powers and responsibilities of a traditional parish priest, except for the ability to perform the sacraments.

It's a role that has helped the Catholic Church cope with a decades-long decline in priestly vocations in the United States while opening a path to leadership for women.

The number of priests in the United States has fallen from 58,632 in 1965 to 37,578 in 2015.

"Carol is part of a pioneering group of women who have assumed some of the highest leadership positions in the church and in Catholic churches," said Sean Caine, vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.uch an opportunity was made possible by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, when church leaders declared that it isn't just ordained priests who carry the gift of ministry, but all men and women baptized as Catholics.

Today, there are some 35,000 "lay ecclesial ministers" — many know them as pastoral associates — working full time in the Catholic Church in the United States.

"Without them, pastoral ministries would be crippled," says Thomas Groome, director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. "This is the cutting edge of a deep shift in how the Catholic Church conducts its formal ministries, away from a purely clerical paradigm to a more inclusive and representative one."

The vast majority of these laypersons serve in support roles, helping parish leaders carry out work in areas such as finance, health care, music and building maintenance.

Pastoral life directors are the tiny subset who direct parishes. There are 431 at work in the United States, four of them in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Pacione, a graduate of Loyola University Maryland who has experience in youth ministry, religious education, family counseling and church development, is the only woman running a Catholic parish in Central Maryland.

"Years ago, we tended to look only to the ordained — to men — for these skills," says Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. "We were probably overlooking hidden assets in our faith communities, the expertise and talents of the lay faithful. Now we look much more to laymen and women."

The pastoral life director position follows a revision to the Code of Canon Law — the rules that govern the day-to-day life of the church — approved by Pope John Paul II.

It was 1983. Church leaders were concerned about an aging clergy and sought to implement the ideas of the Second Vatican Council to bring the church into closer alignment with the modern world.

The revision, Canon 517-2, loosened strictures on who could lead parishes.

Should a "dearth of priests" occur, it read, a bishop could "entrust … the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish ... to a deacon or to some other person who is not a priest," so long as such leadership took place under the supervision of a priest.

This official — to be known as a pastoral life director, pastoral administrator or parish director, depending on the diocese — could be a man or a woman.

Robinson says Canon 517-2 has turned a potential crisis into an opportunity.

In part because parish life directors come from outside the traditional seminary pipeline, Robinson says, they bring a broad array of backgrounds and talents — in finance, business management, counseling, education and more — to church leadership.

The only tasks lay parish leaders may not carry out are the sacraments — performing baptisms, hearing confessions, celebrating the Eucharist, officiating at weddings and the other rituals that Catholics believe channel the grace of God to the faithful.

Ordained priests visit 517-2 parishes as needed to attend to those responsibilities.

In some "extremely rural" dioceses — such as those in Alaska and Montana — that can still be a challenge, says Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

But Pacione says the model works well at St. Pius X. The parish of 1,300 families draws on priests from Loyola University Maryland and nearby parishes, as well as semiretired members of its own staff.

"We've been so blessed," she says. "Our priests have become members of our community in their own right. You'd never know we don't have a pastor."

With the number of Catholics in the United States continuing to grow — helped by immigration from Latin America and other largely Catholic regions — and the number of priests still in decline, the church is actively supporting the growth in the lay ecclesial ministry.

Aspiring lay ministers can now pursue formal coursework at many Catholic institutions, including the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Baltimore.

But while the number of lay ministers has doubled since 1990, the smaller number of pastoral life directors has remained essentially flat.

Gautier says the center has identified just one key factor: the attitude of bishops.

Confronted with shortages of priests, she said, many prefer other strategies: asking priests to cover more than one parish, importing foreign priests, even closing parishes.

In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 20 priests now serve more than one parish, but archdiocese leadership has long supported the pastoral life director model.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, Baltimore's archbishop from 1989 to 2007, was an early proponent, and current Archbishop William E. Lori extended the six-year terms of all his pastoral life directors shortly after taking office in 2012.

Women serve other prominent roles in the archdiocese. Barbara McGraw Edmondson is superintendent of schools; Diane L. Barr is chancellor, or head lawyer.

"The church has settled on the priesthood, but there are already many women in executive and other high-level positions," Caine said. "Our job is to make them more visible, so that young girls and young women can see that and recognize it and take it into account" when weighing career options or how to serve the church.

It was Keeler who invited Pacione to become one of the first such leaders in the archdiocese in 2002.

He was familiar with her service. She had been director of youth ministry at her home parish, served as family life director for the diocese, and was working as a pastoral associate at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, where she had led a $1.8 million capital campaign for renovations.

She had also helped her husband, Mark, an internationally known youth ministry leader, plan and orchestrate the 1995 visit of Pope John Paul II to Baltimore.

Still, she took weeks to accept. Pacione says she knew few of her fellow Catholics were aware the position existed, and at St. Pius X, where the previous priest pastor had taken ill, parishioners would probably expect a priest — and a man — to take over.

The Rev. Louis Reitz, an assisting priest who has served the church since 1969, says members and even staffers were "probably a little resistant" to their new leader at first, but her determination to involve parishioners in every major decision won the community over.

In 13 years at the helm, Pacione has worked an average of 10 hours a day, six days a week, commuting back and forth from Fallston in her 2001 Honda.

Among her achievements: leading a $1.5 million capital campaign to finance sanctuary renovations and starting the first Catholic Montessori school in the archdiocese.

Mark Pacione died suddenly in 2014, one reason Pacione says she has decided to refocus on family. She plans to retire at the end of March.

"It's time someone else sat in this chair and worked with all these wonderful people," she said.

Reitz says St. Pius X will survive, but it won't be as easy as it looks.

"The Lord guides these things, but Carol has kept this place going without ruffling any feathers to speak of, and that's a remarkable thing in any parish," he says. "We're going to miss her."


US bishops launch 'conversations' with Muslims 'The Catholic Church must help to model real dialogue and good will'

posted Feb 10, 2016, 8:18 AM by Vidal Martinez


The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has announced the launch of a new national Catholic-Muslim dialogue group to combat the climate of fear surrounding Islam.

The initiative will encourage "crucial conversations" between Catholics and Muslims in the US,accordingto Christian Today.

"As the national conversation around Islam grows increasingly fraught, coarse and driven by fear and often willful misinformation, the Catholic Church must help to model real dialogue and good will," Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, said in a USCCB statement.

Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich will serve as the first Catholic co-chair but the Muslim co-chair is yet to be announced.

The bishops' ecumenical and interreligious committee has co-sponsored three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues in the last 20 years, but this is the first national initiative, Christian Today says.

"As the national conversation around Islam grows increasingly fraught, coarse and driven by fear and often willful misinformation, the Catholic Church must help to model real dialogue and goodwill," Bishop Rozanski said.

"Our current dialogues have advanced the goals of greater understanding, mutual esteem and collaboration between Muslims and Catholics, and the members have established lasting ties of friendship and a deep sense of trust," he added.

The national dialogue will work alongside, not instead of, regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues. They are currently operating in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and West Coast and each is co-chaired by a bishop and a Muslim leader from the region. These dialogues will continue to meet and will work collaboratively with the members of the new national dialogue.

Reviving the Truth, Making It Heard The life & death of Oscar Romero

posted Jan 21, 2016, 8:13 PM by Vidal Martinez

For me, it is both easy and hard to speak of Archbishop Romero. It is easy in the sense that I knew him, dealt with him, and could see the profundity of his life, the spirit of union with God that was the root of his entire existence—not just in his years as archbishop, but in his first years as a student, in his early priesthood, and in all the rest of his ministry.

But it is hard because his death still overwhelms me. He was a great man, a great priest, a great bishop, murdered because of the ignominy of this country, the injustice in this country, and the hatred of those who will stop at nothing, not even at the altar.

Archbishop Romero’s homilies have already been published, and this year, at the tenth anniversary of his death, we will also be publishing his journal, which he taperecorded each night. But there’s also something else which, I believe, is a great treasure: the notes he made during his retreats, where he opened his soul before God, before himself, and before the events of the times.

In one of his retreat notebooks there is the phrase, “I will dine with him.” This comes from the Apocalypse (3:20). In the New Testament the Apocalypse is the book of the martyrs. And it is about the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero that I wish to speak. I think the Apocalypse is the only book in the entire New Testament that speaks of the martyrs and of martyrdom. Of course, the Gospels speak of Jesus as the one who gives his life, who hands over his life, and he is, you might say, the prototype of the martyr. As we know, two kinds of accusations against Jesus appear in the Gospels. One kind is religious: that he claimed he was God. The other is political: that he was subverting the people. The accusation of being “political” is as old as Christianity, as ancient as Christ. There’s nothing strange or surprising about it, and it was one of the accusations that was also made all the time against Archbishop Romero.

In the Letter to the Hebrews we learn that without the shedding of blood there is no redemption, there is no salvation. John, in the Apocalypse, is distilling all the thought of the church of that time about martyrdom. He is writing at a time when the church was being persecuted in some places, and the aim of the Apocalypse is to buoy up persecuted Christians. It describes Jesus as the faithful witness, that is, as the martyr.

The martyr is the faithful witness. Our word “witness” comes from a Greek word which means “martyr.” Where we see “be my witnesses in all places,” in Greek it says “be my martyrs.” Later the word “martyr” began to be applied to those who, because they were witnesses, gave their blood for Christ and the faith. I would say that death is not a biological event but a theological event: the death of a Christian is a theological event, and that is how we should see it. That is how Archbishop Romero saw it, and that is how it’s seen by those who are faithful witnesses to the truth.

In the Apocalypse (6:9ff.) John says, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?’” This is the definition of “martyr” John gives. The Roman Empire didn’t care if the early Christians were defending the divinity of Christ or the Trinity; it cared about the fact that they didn’t adore the idols, that they were subverting the empire.

John also says the martyrs protest to God: “Lord, when will you do justice... ?” (6:10). We might direct ourselves to God at this moment as well. After such torrents of blood have been shed, after seventy thousand people have been murdered, including seventeen priests, four nuns, and an archbishop, where is justice? In this country, this democratic, Christian country, we carry on as if nothing had happened. Other countries, right here in Central America, that are not democratic or Christian haven’t killed a single priest or nun.

In response to those who ask, when will there be justice, John sees that the persecution is going to continue, that people will continue to die, but that it’s necessary to continue witnessing to the faith, because for the Christian death should be a vocation. Just as death is a theological and not a biological event, so too for the Christian who gives and wants to give himself in true witness, death is a vocation, a call. The last reference I’ll make to the Apocalypse (from chapter 3) is to the phrase we found in Archbishop Romero’s retreat notes: “And I will dine with him.” Verses 19-20 say: “Take heart and be converted. I am at the door and calling; if someone listens to my voice and opens the door, I will enter and dine with him. I with him and he with me.”

Yet we should be very clear on one thing: we are not to seek martyrdom. What we should aim for is a life of witness. We should seek a life which really gives the kind of witness that’s needed, but we should not seek martrydom itself.

We should also be very clear on what the criteria are for determining who is a genuine martyr. The first is that God is present as the root and summit of the person’s life. Second, the person has been connected with other people. That is, we’re not just talking about a vertical relationship with God, about a person who’s spent his or her whole life singing alleluias, and has known God only in that way. We’re talking about someone who has also discovered God in other people. This is absolutely necessary. Third, the giving over of one’s entire life to the Christian ideal—that your whole life revolves around the ideal that Christ offers us. And the fourth, I would say, is the acceptance of death for the faith itself.

These four elements were present in the life of Archbishop Romero. It’s been said that the degree to which a tree flowers depends on how deeply it's rooted in the ground. That was Archbishop Romero—someone who flowered because he was so deeply rooted in God. For him God was the absolute. He made God the infinite in his life. He tried to communicate all this to others, to share it with them. What most impressed one about Archbishop Romero was his capacity for encounter with God, his ability to root his life totally in God. That was the source of his strength and his vitality. A journalist once asked him, “Where do you get the strength to carry on in spite of everything?” Archbishop Romero answered, “You ask at an opportune moment, because I’ve just returned from my retreat. That’s where I find the energy and the strength.”

I saw this myself on many occasions. I remember one time, in December 1979 at the Hospitalito[the Divine Providence Hospital, where Archbishop Romero lived, and was later killed]. It was early in the morning, at breakfast time, and the archbishop was being visited by Cardinal Lorscheider of Brazil and a member of the civilian-military junta which, at that moment, was governing E1 Salvador. At one point, Archbishop Romero got up and left. Now, I knew those men had come there to see him, not me, so eventually I got up and went looking for him. I went to his apartment, but he wasn’t there; I went to the visitors’ room, the kitchen and the garden, but he wasn’t there either. Finally, it occurred to me to look in the chapel, and there he was, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, which was exposed. I went up to him and said, “They’re waiting for you.” And he said, “That’s okay. They can wait. I’ll be coming.”

I think that Archbishop Romero never said anything, never did anything, without first consulting with God. That’s why he was sure of what he said. He didn’t care what the accusations and the threats were, he was sure of the things he’d said because he had been in dialogue with God about them. This was a man who had discovered that the root of his existence, of his whole being—as a person, as a priest, as a bishop—was God.

I remember another time when we went to Rome together. As soon as we got there, after traveling all night long, he invited me to go to the Basilica of St. Peter. The confessional altar, where the tomb of Peter is said to be, is right at the entrance to the basilica. He knelt down right there and began to pray. I knelt too, but after ten minutes I got up. But he continued for another twenty minutes, totally absorbed in prayer.

When I’m asked, what was it about Archbishop Romero that I most admire, I’ve always answered: the sanctity of his priestly life, his unity with God, his interior life and spirit, because everything else that he was came from all that. For me, that’s the kind of person who is really convincing; someone like that can really bring people along, not just by words but by the person’s life itself, which gives this witness.

Archbishop Romero was very faithful to his spiritual life. He went to confession every week, and he consulted with his spiritual director. He sought out guidance for what he was doing. Like all holy men and women who have felt the mystery of sin, he felt the mystery of our freedom, which is capable of saying “yes” but also of saying “no.” He had the humility to seek God with patience. All this is something which appears very rarely, and that is what made Archbishop Romero capable of being a prophet.

Now, prophets aren’t innovators, and Archbishop Romero was no innovator. The prophets are those who speak of the eternal things, as they apply at the moment. The prophet always speaks of God and of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The prophet speaks of respect for life, and that is older than the first page of the Bible. The prophet, then, in a certain sense is the great conservative, the one who wants to conserve the great values that God has given us.

Archbishop Romero spoke like this, and when he did he was accused of getting involved in politics. There’s nothing that makes me think more of how unjust and stupid people can be. He spoke out about all the people who had been tortured, massacred, and hurled into rivers. That isn’t getting involved in politics; that is speaking of the Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. Every prophet, every bishop, every priest is obliged to speak out like that. The prophet is the one who is faithful to God, who says, God is asking this of me, and I’m going to do it, while others say, “Who knows, this could be dangerous, and you know, you’ve got to be prudent.”

We speak a lot about the virtue of prudence, but not so much about the virtues of fortitude and justice. The prophet is imprudent because God was imprudent, because Jesus was imprudent. Because if our Lord hadn’t said what he said, they wouldn’t have crucified him, either. As a prophet, Archbishop Romero was able to cleanse the language. He revived the truth, made it heard, and many believe that is why he was killed. The truth, in countries like ours, will always have such consequences. There were those who couldn’t tolerate the truth Archbishop Romero proclaimed, just as there were those who couldn’t tolerate the truth that Jesus proclaimed.

It is the absolutizing of God which enables us to see other people and their situations clearly. St. Mark tells the story of the blind man cured by Jesus who, when asked if he could see, replied, “I see people, but they look like trees.” He couldn’t see them well. When we’re not capable of seeing people in their true situations, we’re seeing them as trees. The people are suffering, going hungry, being repressed, enduring so many other things, but for us they can be like trees, like things. But the prophet is one who sees people and their situations as they really are, who feels intimately the things that are going on around him and isn’t able to just let them continue. He is the one who suffers those things, just as Jeremiah and Isaiah and all the true prophets suffered.

The prophet is one whose very existence is a sign, and who lives the values of the Kingdom in his or her personal and community life. He or she is also one who carries on in faith, in spite of all misunderstandings. It was like that with Archbishop Romero. Many of us—for fear or whatever other reason—criticized him, judged him, abandoned him. It reached the point where one day he said, “even if I wind up all alone, I’m going to carry on.” And even today we’re still afraid to have a picture of him or a book about him in our houses.

I don’t want to conclude without mentioning some things he wrote during his last retreat. He died on March 24, 1980, and February 25 of that year he began his last retreat. And this [Msgr. Urioste holds up a simple schoolchild’s notebook]—I even tremble when I touch it—is where he wrote his notes during that retreat. He wrote about his death—let us say, he wrote about his martyrdom.

In one place, for example, he says, “I feel afraid of violence. I’ve been warned about serious threats against me for this coming week.” That is to say, he felt fear, just as Jesus did in Gethsemani. The scripture writers tell us that this, even more than the crucifixion, was the most difficult part of Jesus’ Passion, when he saw there in Gethsemani all that was going to happen to him.

Archbishop Romero was convinced that he was going to be killed. And nevertheless he writes, honestly and humbly, “I feel afraid of violence. I fear the weakness of my flesh, but I ask the Lord to give me serenity and perseverance.” In other words, he’s in no way disposed to take even one step backward, even though he knows that if he carries on, he’s going to be killed. He was offered the chance to leave the country, he was offered all kinds of positions in various places, but he said, no, I’m going to stay here.

In another place he writes, “Father Azcue came and heard my confession.” Father Azcue was his last spiritual director, and on the day he was killed, Archbishop Romero went to have Father Azcue hear his confession. Later, Father Azcue said Archbishop Romero had told him that day, “I want to feel clean before God.” The faithful witness wants to feel clean before God and, of course, before the people. And on this same page in his retreat notebook, he criticizes himself for “not being careful enough about my confessions and my spiritual life,” and then he remakes his life plan, and among the specific things he mentions are, “Get up at midnight to pray.” He also mentions “disciplines,” by which he means punishing himself physically (I think this must mean mortification of the flesh), things like fasting on Fridays, things that you and I don’t do but which were vital for him. They helped make him who he was.

On this same page in his retreat notebook, he writes, “My other fear is about the risks for my life.” He feared, he knew, he foresaw his death. He was receiving all kinds of threats at that time, even public ones. The ads in the newspapers against him in those days were, in effect, threats. But there were others that were even more clear. And there was another sign that he was certain he was going to be killed.

When a bishop dies a group of priests is in charge of naming an interim successor to serve until the new bishop is named. Now, Archbishop Romero had said he wanted three more priests added to this group. And I remember one day at the Hospitalito—we were having a meeting there, and it was about ten or twelve days before he was killed—and he asked us, “Have you done the paperwork to have the three priests added?” We had not. He stood up and said, “Do it, and do it now!” Later on, after his death, we remembered that incident, and we said to ourselves, “Well, he knew...”

On another page in his notebook, he wrote, “It’s hard for me to accept the violent death which, in these circumstances, seems very possible. The papal nuncio of Costa Rica has warned me about imminent dangers for this coming week. My disposition”—and here remember the criteria we mentioned earlier for a genuine martyrdom, especially the accepting of the Christian ideal and the willingness to give one’s life for the faith itself—“should be to give my life for God, however it should end. The grace of God will enable us to live through the unknown circumstances. He aided the martyrs and, if it should be necessary that I die as they did, I will feel him very close to me at the moment of breathing my last breath. But more important than the moment of death is to give him all my life and live for him and for my own mission.” He is not seeking out martyrdom. He sought to live a life of witness.

Later he writes, “In this way I make concrete my consecration to the heart of Jesus, which has always been the source of inspiration and Christian joy in my life. And I put all my life under his loving Providence, and with faith in him I accept my death, however difficult it may be.”

He doesn’t offer his life for something in particular. “I don’t want to state an intention, for example for peace in my country or for the flowering of our church.” Why does he take this position? Because he has his roots deeply in God, even at the moment of his death. “Because,” he says, “the heart of Christ will know how to give my life the meaning it requires.”

He ends with these words: “To be happy, for me it is enough to know for sure that he is in my life and in my death. And in spite of my sins, I have put my trust in him and I will not be confounded,” he quotes a psalm. “And others will carry on the work of the church and the country with more wisdom and more sanctity.”

So he dined with the Lord, and now he’s with him and with our church and with our country. He’s also with the poor, whom he defended so much and for whom he died. I always say that Archbishop Romero was martyred for his love for the poor, for defending them, and for the magisterium of the church. That magisterium is very clear: it says the church should make a preferential option for the poor. To really love the poor requires concrete actions.

This article, based on a talk given at the Jesuit university (UCA) in San Salvador, originally appeared in the March 23, 1990, issue of Commonweal. It was translated by Gene Palumbo.

Catholics and Lutherans in new ecumenical liturgy initiative

posted Jan 15, 2016, 7:40 PM by Vidal Martinez

'It offers an opportunity to look back in thanksgiving'

The Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) have issued common liturgical guidelines for ecumenical services to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

LWF General Secretary Rev. Dr Martin Junge and Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity President Cardinal Kurt Koch made the announcement in a joint letter to leaders of the two Churches.

The guidelines, published in a booklet titled Common Prayer, provide a template for an ecumenical service, complete with suggested prayers, appropriate hymns and themes for sermons..

The Catholic Church in Germany originally balked at the proposal, the paper says, but talks between the LWF and the PCPCU led to a 93-page report titled From Conflict to Communion in 2013 that announced the two Churches would mark the anniversary together.

"This common prayer marks a very special moment in our common journey from conflict to communion. We are grateful for being able to invite you to participate in this journey in witnessing to the grace of God in the world," Rev. Junge and Cardinal Koch wrote in their joint letter.

The document is the first jointly developed liturgical order prepared by a liturgical task force created by the two bodies, an LWF statement says.

The Common Prayer includes materials that can be adapted to local liturgical and musical traditions of churches in the two Christian traditions and is structured around the themes of thanksgiving, repentance and commitment to common witness.

The aim is to express the gifts of the Reformation and ask forgiveness for the division perpetuated by Christians from the two traditions, the LWF says.

"It offers an opportunity to look back in thanksgiving and confession and look ahead, committing ourselves to common witness and continuing journey," the preface to the Common Prayer states.

The Choice of Silence: The life of Edith Stein: Jewess, philosopher, convert, nun and saint

posted Aug 20, 2015, 10:17 AM by Vidal Martinez

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein.

A candleholder with seven branches. A Baby Jesus in a manger. Handwritten translations of Thomas Aquinas. An urn containing earth from Auschwitz.
These four objects, among many others on display in the little museum of the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalena in Speyer, Germany, sum up Edith Stein's exceptional destiny.

How could one of the most brilliant philosophers of her generation, born into an observant Jewish family in Silesia, join the Carmelites and die in the gas chambers, a victim of the Holocaust and a witness to Christ?  To be sure, the call to leave everything for a cloistered life always holds a certain mystery, Edith Stein described it as a “secret."
“Not because she refused to talk about it, but because she was overwhelmed by it,” explains Bénédicte Bouillot, a consecrated celibate of the Chemin-Neuf community and philosophy teacher at the Sèvres Centre in Paris and the Chemin-Neuf Studium in Chartres, whose thesis on Edith Stein has just been published.
Yet for Stein, this vocation at age 42 was more surprising, even though it was part of a slow inner maturation.

 A professor of philosophy at age 26, Edith Stein was close to the main members of the phenomenological movement, Edmund Husserl, Adolf Reinach and Max Scheler. During World War One Stein was struck by the reaction of Pauline Reinach to her husband's death at the front: far from being crushed, Madame Reinach was buoyed by her faith in the resurrection.

“It was Edith Stein’s first brush with the glorious cross, but she had not yet encountered the Crucified,” declares Bénédicte Bouillot. That encounter was to occur through Teresa of Avila. Stein read Teresa’s The book of My Life at 30, during a stay with another Christian friend.   At that moment, she decided to ask to be baptized … an event that took place a few months later, in January 1922.

For her family, this “conversion” was especially painful because, instead of choosing Protestantism, which seemed logical given her intellectual circle, she chose Catholicism, which at the time was seen as full of traditions that were incompatible with the demands of rationalism.

In reality, Stein discovered that Catholic anthropology was deeply consistent with the philosophy of the person that she had begun to develop. At the same time, for Stein, the choice of the Catholic Church corresponded to humbling herself, an act of humility.  As soon as she encountered Christ, she knew that God had reserved a place for her in the Carmelite Order, Stein explained inHow I came to the Carmel in Cologne?, which she gave to her mistress of novices as a gift in 1933.

Stein felt she had already experienced an inner consecration, but on the advice of her spiritual advisor she gave up the idea of becoming a Carmelite immediately and went to Speyer to teach German and history at the women’s teaching college of the Convent of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Magdalena, participating in the life of the religious community.
In her free time, she undertook the German translation of John Henry Newman, and then, encouraged by the Jesuit philosopher Erich Przywara, of St. Thomas Aquinas’ De veritate – the first time the work appeared in German.

“In reading St. Thomas, I realized it was possible to use knowledge to serve God and it was only then that I was able to resolve seriously to go back to my work. It seemed to me that the more a person is drawn to God, the more he or she must go outside the self and bring divine love to the world,” Edith Stein was to write later on to explain the close connection between Thomism and modern philosophy, particularly phenomenology.

For eleven years in Speyer, Edith Stein carried her Carmelite vocation in her heart, waiting for the right time. In 1933, deprived of the right to speak in public by the Nazi regime, she knocked on the door of the Carmelite monastery in Cologne, profoundly convinced that, as she put it, “above this world in flames stands a cross that nothing can consume.” 

The Carmelite monasteries of Cologne and Echt

The German Carmelite monastery in Cologne where Edith Stein entered the order in 1933 was totally destroyed by bombing in October 1943 and no longer exists. A new monastery was rebuilt in Cologne in 1949, not far from the cathedral, on the site of its original foundation dating back to 1637. Some fifteen Carmelites live there today.
On the other hand, the Carmelite monastery in Echt, in the province of Limburg in the Netherlands, where Edith Stein lived from 1939 to 1942, still exists. A room outside the cloister, which was reserved for her because she continued to receive visits, has been turned into a little museum with personal objects of the Carmelite. Her cowl and her doctoral degree signed by her thesis director, Edmund Husserl, are preserved in the parish church of Echt nearby.

Claire Lesegretain



The church is more than just the pope

posted Apr 6, 2015, 1:19 PM by Vidal Martinez

Anyone who reads this column knows that I am a big fan of Pope Francis. I never thought I would see a pope like him in my lifetime. His simplicity, compassion, and commitment to the poor are genuine reflections of the Gospel message of Jesus. His support for openness and honest discussion and debate in the church are marks of his trust in the Spirit. His stress on justice, peace, and care for the environment show his focus on issues that are critical to the 21st century.

That said, I wish he knew how to talk about women in a way that would be more acceptable to educated women. I wish he would ask for the resignations of bishops who have lost credibility with their people by not following the church's rules on dealing with abusive priests.

I also get nervous when people place all of their hopes and dreams about the church on the shoulders of Francis. The pope is not the Catholic church. He has a very important role in the church, but the church is much bigger than him. It includes all of us.

For example, many journalists have asked me about the "Francis effect." Is Francis bringing people back to church?

Anecdotally, we hear from parents and grandparents that their children, who don't go to church, like the pope and say that he has changed their attitude toward the church. But so far we have no polling data to support the hypothesis of a Francis effect.

Part of the explanation is that the pope is not the Catholic church. Tip O'Neill said that all politics is local. I would argue that all religion is also local.

After a television interview, I was talking with a young producer who told me of her experience. She had been raised Catholic, but stopped going to church in college. Now she is engaged and was encouraged by her fiancé and Francis to give the church another try. After going to church a few times, she felt called to go to the sacrament of reconciliation. It was a disaster. The priest yelled at her and told her that everything bad that had happened to her was because she had not gone to confession in 10 years.

There will be no "Francis effect" if when people return to the church they do not meet someone like Francis at their parish. Going to confession today is like playing Russian roulette. You don't know whether you will meet the compassionate Jesus or some angry, judgmental crank who thinks it is his job to tell people how bad they are. This is a form of abuse about which the church has done nothing.

Nor should we limit our focus to the clergy. Parish staff can be tempted to clericalism, and parish communities can ignore new parishioners who can feel lost in a crowd of people.

Try this experiment. Go to a Catholic church you have never attended and see how long it takes before someone initiates a conversation with you. Then go to an Evangelical church and try the same experiment. The Evangelicals will win every time.

Organizational theorists remind us that to reform an institution requires more than just rearranging the organizational chart. It requires a change in culture, or what we Christians call a spiritual conversion. A pope can point the way through both word and example, but unless we get on board there will be no permanent change in the church.

For centuries, the Catholic church has presumed that the role of the clergy is to be active and the role of the laity is to be passive. The Second Vatican Council tried to kill that notion, but old patterns die slowly.

In Brazil, Francis led the bishops through an examination of conscience, which included the question: Do we give the laity “the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?”

When conversation turns to the priest shortage, I sometimes joke, "Maybe God knows what she is doing. Maybe this is the only way to end clericalism in the church."

The positive side of the priest shortage is that the few remaining priests (and sisters) can't do everything and if the church is to survive, the laity must step forward and be empowered to make the church prosper. One pastor I admired used to joke, "More power to the people; less work for the father."

Francis has given us hope and shown us the way, but it is up to us to pick up the ball and run with it. There is no room in the church for passive observers; we are all called to be the body of Christ active in our world today. That means participating in or supporting parish programs for liturgical music, hospitality, continuing education, Scripture discussion, youth ministry, and social justice, to mention just a few.

Francis' desire for a "poor church for the poor" or for the church to be a "field hospital" has to be incarnated at the parish level or it will not happen at all.

Is dialogue with Islam possible?

posted Mar 16, 2015, 10:56 AM by Vidal Martinez

Granted the Islamic State group and the multiple conflicts occurring in the Middle East, is dialogue with Islam possible? This was the question asked by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, nuncio emeritus to Egypt and former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

As a member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa and an Arabic and Islamic scholar, Fitzgerald is especially qualified to discuss this topic, as he did in a March 6 lecture at The Catholic University of America sponsored by the Institute of Policy Research and Catholic Studies and the Africa Faith and Justice Network.

Despite having spent most of his life in dialogue with Islam, Fitzgerald is not blind to the difficulties of dialogue. He began by examining three elements that make dialogue difficult with certain categories of Muslims.

First, "there is a great difference in the experience of Jesus and Muhammad, and thus in the foundational experience of these two religions," he said. Both were prophets with a message of conversion to the world. Both gathered around them disciples.

"Yet Jesus preached the kingdom of God, a kingdom which was not of this world," Fitzgerald explained. "His was an essentially religious message which, although it was designed to have an effect on people's behavior in this world, could be lived out within any political setting."
"[Muhammad's] message too was essentially religious, the acknowledgement of the one God as against the prevalent polytheism, but it had a social dimension to it, which was to bring about the formation of a new community bound not by blood ties or tribal loyalty, but by religion: the Umma." The Umma was both a religious and a political community, and it took up arms to survive. Muhammad was both a prophet and a statesman.

Pre-Constantine Christianity, on the other hand, was a purely religious movement that did not take up arms to survive.

"So although Christianity was, as it were, taken over and used by political entities, in the first place by the Byzantines and then afterward by various monarchs and rulers, in essence, it remains independent of any political power," Fitzgerald said. "Whereas Islam, from its very beginning as a separate community, has been both religious and political, and one would be tempted to say that striving to defend the community, if necessary by force of arms, is a natural component of the religion."

There is a tendency among Muslims to look back to its first period, that of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, as the time of glory and true Islam. This has inspired numerous revivalist movements throughout history. Jihads against Muslims who did not practice a pure version of Islam became common. Most of these movements were local and short-lived, but the Wahhabi movement, which started in the 18th century, is still with us and finds sponsorship in Saudi Arabia.

The attraction of the caliphate is the second issue examined by Fitzgerald. He notes that Islam split into Sunni and Shiite factions after the death of Muhammad because of disagreements over succession.

The Shiite believe that Muhammad appointed Ali, his cousin, as his successor. For the Shiite, each imam designates his successor, who must belong to the family of the prophet. The Shiite believe that there were 12 imams following Muhammad and that the 12th imam went into occultation and will return at the end of time to bring about a reign of justice.

Sunnis believe Muhammad made no provision for succession and therefore succession would be determined through election by prominent members of the community.

Yet despite these divisions, the caliphate during its period of Islamic expansion and prosperity acted as a focal point of unity for Muslims. This lasted until the mid-10th century, when the caliphate began to lose its importance until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk finally abolished it in 1924.

Although an attractive ideal, the caliphate has not always been a dominant factor in the life of Islam and certainly for centuries has not functioned as a unifying political power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's pronouncement that he is the caliph has been condemned by Muslim authorities. A leading scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, has said that the title of caliph can "only be given by the entire Muslim nation."

The last point Fitzgerald examines is Shariah by which the Umma is to be regulated. He notes that there are four sources for Shariah: the Quran; the Sunnah, or tradition of the prophet; qiyas, or analogy; and ijma, or consensus among scholars. The multiple sources and textual ambiguity lead to debate and disagreements over Shariah so that there are at least four different schools of interpretation.

So when it is proclaimed that Shariah law is going to be applied, the question will arise as to which Shariah. Who is going to decide which type of Shariah law is to be applied, and who is to control its application, seeing that all the conditions are fulfilled before a judgment is given?

Fitzgerald concluded: "The takfiri jihadists who have proclaimed an Islamic State where Shariah law will be observed under the guidance of a self-designated caliph are not upholding Islamic tradition, whatever they may say." He said he believes that dialogue is impossible with such people "who are convinced they hold the truth and therefore have no need of listening to others."

But dialogue with other Muslims is possible, he argued. He pointed to four types of dialogue that are possible and encouraged by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue: the dialogue of life, the dialogue of action, the dialogue of discourse, and the dialogue of spiritual experience.

The dialogue of life, or what Fitzgerald calls harmonious living, takes place "where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations," in the words of the pontifical council.

Christians and Muslims have been living side by side for centuries in Africa and Asia, and now Muslims are present in increasing number in Europe and North America.

"Steps have to be taken in order to allow people to get to know one another and to create harmony," Fitzgerald said. Increased violence has made this more difficult, but also more necessary.

Second, there is the dialogue of action where Christians and Muslims work together to face up to problems of society. Christians and Muslims have found common cause in the pro-life movement as well as in advocating human rights, social reforms, and care of the environment. Working together creates understanding and trust.

The third is the dialogue of discourse where, according to the pontifical council, "specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values." Themes such as justice in international trade relations, business ethics, problems of migration, media and religion, respect for the environment, and questions of bioethics have all been taken up in these dialogues. Some dialogues have also discussed purely theological topics like the foundations for holiness and reason, faith and the human person.

Finally, there is the dialogue of religious experience, where, according to the pontifical council, "persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God." Religious communities like the Benedictines and Trappists have been involved in such dialogues.

Fitzgerald concluded "that Christian-Muslim dialogue exists, and therefore it is possible." But the situation is uneven. "There are places where there is very little or no interest at all in such dialogue, yet there are other places where relations with Muslim neighbors have become a normal concern for Christian communities."

But at the same time that cooperation is growing, so too is mutual suspicion, which renders dialogue more difficult.

Fitzgerald puts little faith in international meetings of religious leaders and scholars. It is dialogue and cooperation on the local level that makes a difference. He said local dialogue should not be seen as a fire brigade for responding to a crisis, but as a preventive strategy that builds relationships that inoculate communities from being drawn into violence by suspicions and misunderstandings.

"It entails increasing mutual knowledge, overcoming prejudices, creating trust," he explained. "It means strengthening bonds of friendship and collaboration to such an extent that detrimental influences coming from outside can be resisted."

"Its aim is to build up good relations among people of different religions, helping them to live in peace and harmony," Fitzgerald said. He noted that where Muslim and Christian leaders and communities have a history of cooperation, conflict is less likely to escalate into violence.

"It is the conflict that makes the news, not the absence of conflict," he noted. "And yet this absence of conflict is really the good news."

Where conflict has occurred, there will be a need for a purification of memories, which "means listening to the differing accounts of the same events, paying attention to both facts and perceptions, and trying to come to a common understanding," he explained. "When the past is examined with honesty, it will usually be seen that all is not black and white. There can be wrongs on both sides. In any case, the acknowledgement of wrongs done, of injustices, of atrocities is an important step in any process of reconciliation."

"Interreligious dialogue should lead to a common search for understanding, to a shared sympathy for those who are suffering and in need, to a thirst for justice for all, to forgiveness for wrong done, together with a readiness to acknowledge one's own wrong-doings, whether individual or collective," Fitzgerald concluded. "This would seem to be the true way forward for Christian-Muslim dialogue."

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church

Who Was Oscar Romero? Martyr and Prophetic Instrument of Justice and Peace

posted Feb 3, 2015, 12:00 PM by Vidal Martinez

By Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

In light of the announcement today that Pope Francis approved the promulgation of the martyrdom of Servant of God, Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdamez (El Salvador, 1917-1980), archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, killed in hatred of the faith on March 24, 1980, I offer the following brief biography of this great witness of the Gospel.

Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Goldamez was born in 1917 in the town of Ciudad Barrios, in the mountains of El Salvador near the border with Honduras. Leaving school at twelve he began an apprenticeship as a carpenter, showing promise as a craftsman, but soon thought about ordination, although his family were not keen. He trained at San Miguel and San Salvador, before completing his theological studies in Rome. Because of the war in Europe there was no member of his family at his ordination in 1942. Returning to San Salvador in 1944, he served as a country priest before taking charge of two seminaries. In 1966 he became secretary to the El Salvador Episcopal Conference - a post he held for 23 years. He earned a reputation as an energetic administrator and his inspirational sermons were broadcast across the city of San Miguel by five radio stations.

Oscar became bishop in 1970, serving first as assistant to the aged Archbishop of San Salvador and from 1974 as Bishop of Santiago de Maria. Within three years he was Archbishop of San Salvador. At that time there was growing unrest in the country, as many became more aware of the great social injustices of the peasant economy. His pulpit became a font of truth when the government censored news. He risked his own life as he defended the poor and oppressed. He walked among the people and listened, "I am a shepherd," he said, "who, with his people, has begun to learn a beautiful and difficult truth: our Christian faith requires that we submerge ourselves in this world."

Killed by an assassin’s bullet as he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980, his last words in the sermon just minutes before his death reminded his congregation of the parable of the wheat. "Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies… We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us". He is buried in the cathedral of San Salvador where he had preached justice. People from many nations come to his tomb to find strength in their struggle.

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