Monday, March 30, 2009

John Paul II and the Unfinished Eucharist of Oscar Romero: Questions for the Church in Our Day

It’s my birthday, and I may let my heart out today. I keep it so often in a box.

I’m sitting in Steve’s chair facing the south window of the sunroom. Outside, the redbud leaves, tiny green-yellow laminated hearts, have just begun to peep out, as the last blossoms of the redbud cling tenaciously to black branches now tipped with hearts. A few lissome canes of the Lady Banks rose have grown across from their east-facing trellis and dip through the redbuds, adding more yellow to accent the surprising mauve of the redbud blooms. As the southeast wind blows today, they bob up and down like game pieces in a carnival booth, daring you to hit the mark and claim the prize.

In my heart: Oscar Romero and García Lorca. My memory tells me Romero was martyred sometime around the feast of the Annunciation on 25 March.

But he’s in my heart these days because of a passage I read recently in David Yallop’s The Power and the Glory (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), a searing, damning analysis of the papal reign of John Paul II. Yallop notes that when Romero was martyred, an Italian doctor wrote Corriere della Sera and pointed out that John Paul II loved to travel. He then asked,

Why did this travelling Pope not immediately set out for San Salvador to pick up the chalice that had been dropped from Romero’s hands and continue the Mass which the murdered archbishop had begun? (p. 77)

That question will now not leave my mind or my heart. Why not, indeed?

I know the answer, of course. Leaders just don’t behave that way. They calculate. They do the prudent thing. They seize the main chance. They must represent the center.

And Romero was on the margins. And the people with whom he cast his lot, and whose fate he shared, were on the margins.

Just as Jesus lived.

Yallop writes, in fact, that John Paul II kept his distance from Romero, and humiliated the Salvadoran archbishop when Oscar Romero came to Rome desperate to see him, carrying a huge folder full of documentation about the atrocities the government was committing, with active U.S. complicity, against the poor in El Salvador.

John Paul had become convinced, Yallop thinks, by advisors in the Curia that Romero was a Communist agent. After Romero’s martyrdom, he even entertained the thought—following his advisors’ lead—that Romero had been killed by the left in an act of provocation designed to unsettle the government.

It’s my birthday, and I can let my heart out. My heart has never been quiet regarding Oscar Romero, his life, his fate, the church’s continued denigration of him even in death, my government's complicity in his death, which becomes my complicity because it is my government, using my tax dollars to wage war.

And it will not be quiet ever again, after I have read that deeply unsettling question of the Italian doctor following Romero’s martyrdom: why did John Paul II not immediately travel to El Salvador, pick up the chalice that fell from Romero’s hands when he was butchered at the altar, and finish that Mass?

Why do we have popes who exemplify the Christian message less than do bishops like Romero or lay saints like Dorothy Day and Franz Jägerstätter? Why do we have popes whose lives bring to mind Jesus and his life less than do the lives of Mychal Judge or Jean Donovan?

Why will John Paul II be canonized while the church refuses to canonize Oscar Romero?

Why do the people for whom Romero spoke and whose fate he shared count so little in the eyes of Benedict and the men who run the church, while the rich who run everything in the world and in the church count for everything?

I know the answer to these questions. But I cannot accept that answer. It’s my birthday. I have a right to let my heart out, and to follow what it says to me, no matter how insane, how foolish its advice.

And to remember García Lorca on my birthday, García Lorca who was silenced and placed beneath the earth by the same forces—though at a different moment of history—that tried to silence and bury Romero. But who, like Romero, sings beyond the grave, for those who care to listen.

And the wretched of the earth do listen. And will one day have a hearing, in a world in which God’s way of looking at things counts, finally.

On my birthday, I can choose to think this, no matter how impossible it is to believe. On my birthday, I can choose to follow the logic of my foolish heart, even when my hard head knows much, much better.

And I can offer as my birthday gift to anyone listening that painfully disturbing question of the Italian doctor, which needs to reverberate through the halls of every chancery and every episcopal palace and every Catholic school and office building in the world, until it receives an answer.

Why did John Paul II not pick up the chalice that dropped from Romero's hands and finish Romero's Mass? In the answer to that question lies the tragedy of the church in our time.