Archbishop Romero, martyrdom, and ecumenism

Pope Francis, early on, unblocked the cause for the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and it has recently been reported that theologians in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded unanimously that he is rightly regarded as a martyr for the faith. The Romero Trust in Great Britain has a website devoted to the archbishop which provides English translations of his homilies, pastoral letters, and other works, produces a twice-yearly newsletter, and sponsors an annual lecture about him. The 2013 speaker was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., and this past December the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, entitled his lecture: “A saint for the whole people of God: Oscar Romero and the ecumenical future.” Describing Romero as “ one of the great gifts of God to the whole people of God in the last few decades; one whose witness and teaching is a legacy for Christians everywhere,” Williams gave a moving description of the passion for the poor that drove Romero before asking what his life, and death, might have to say about the future of ecumenism. It reminded me of the "ecumenism of martyrdom" of which Pope Francis recently spoke and was a frequent theme of Pope John Paul II before him, particularly in his encyclical "Ut unum sint."

Some excerpts from Williams' lecture:

He poses a deeply troubling and challenging question about ecumenism: can we see our vision of unity afresh in the context of being united with Christ as he understands it? Do we seek not just the unity of the churches, some kind of fusion of various kinds of institutional life, or unity with Christ?

The ecumenical vision feels and sounds remarkably different if we begin by saying what we pray for and hope for is to be united with Jesus Christ. And through that, and in that, to be united with one another. And to be united with Christ in Christ’s proclamation and embodiment of good news for the poor. Of course, you can misunderstand this. You might think, for example, that ecumenism understood in this light meant that churches ought to assemble around social and political projects, rather than doctrinal formulae. But that’s just replacing one kind of formality with another. ...

... I regard Monseñor Romero not just as a teacher and a martyr who witnesses to justice for the poor, but as a teacher who has something crucial, life-giving, vital to say to us about what and who we are as a Church, as churches seeking to be more fully united. And the question he puts to us is, if we are only truly united when we are more deeply united with Christ, then there is a simple place to start on our path to unity, and that is learning to be united with the cry, and the need, and the agenda of those who are most at risk, and where appropriate to go and to share that risk.

None of this is meant to suggest that we simply dismantle all our interests and concerns in doctrine, and sacrament, and discipline, and simply go and look for good causes to support together. For, you see, none of this would make any sense whatsoever, unless our doctrinal and sacramental commitments were what they are. The Christ who is there with and in the poor is not just an impressive human teacher, but the incarnate Son of God, the Lord Almighty, clothing himself in our poverty, so that we may be clothed with his divine richness. Unless we believe that, none of this business about being united with him in the poor would make any sense whatever. And if Jesus Christ were just a great and interesting good man, then the Eucharist would be meaningless, except as a faintly melancholy commemoration of one of the innumerable tragedies of history, where great and impressive men tend to get killed unpleasantly.

The Eucharist, as the place where the very life of the incarnate Son of God is given to us, the Eucharist is the place where our responsibility for one another is renewed and deepened, and set on new foundations. That again is what makes sense of the commitments we take into our commitments in the world. These commitments are the ground of the whole vision, and they matter theologically precisely because they are what grounds and inspires the vision of solidarity with the poor.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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