198. Oscar Romero: What Does Incarnation Mean?

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” [Exodus 3:7-10, NRSV]

    Oscar Romero /  Vatican II /  The Exodus

Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (1917 – 1980), Archbishop of San Salvador, was very outspoken against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. He denounced the persecution of members of the Catholic Church who had worked on behalf of the Poor. In 1980, he was assassinated while offering Mass. The UN-created Truth Commission for El Salvador concluded that extreme-right wing politician and death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson had given the order.

As the Vatican breaks the news of Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Oscar Romero in 2018, we recall the future saint’s moving speech delivered at our Alma Mater, the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium on 2 February 1980 upon receiving an honorary doctorate. In that speech, Romero stressed three points concerning the meaning of Incarnation.

First, Jesus Christ, the Word-Incarnate that took flesh and pitched tent amongst us (John 1:14), “lived, worked, battled, and died in the midst of a city, in a ‘polis’.” So the beautiful, but also harsh and concrete instead of dreamy and idealistic, truth about the Christian faith is that “faith does not cut us off from the world but immerses us in it”. The Church, then, is never meant to be a fortress set apart from society. Instead, the Church is a mission that lives and works in society. Inevitably, the Church’s insertion in the world results in socio-political repercussions both to the world and to the faith. The constant question with which the Church struggles is how this influence might be truly in accordance with the faith.

On his part, Romero insisted that the Church must be a Church of the Poor and for the Poor. He turned first to a key intuition, if general, of the Second Vatican Council:

  • The essence of the church lies in its mission of service to the world, in its mission of saving the world in its totality, and of saving it in history, here and now. The church exists to act in solidarity with the hopes and with the joys, with the anxieties and with the sorrows, of men and women. Like Jesus, the church was sent “to bring good news to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart, to seek and to save what was lost” (Lumen Gentium, 8).”
  • To put it in one word, in a word which sums it all up and makes it concrete, the world which the church ought to serve is, for us, the world of the poor…. It is the poor who tell us what the world is, and what the church’s service to the world is. It is the poor who tell us what the ”polis” is, what the city is and what it means for the church really to live in that world.”

For Scriptural inspiration, Romero turned to the Old Testament Exodus story for a resounding reminder of the heart of God: “The cry of the sons of Israel has come to me, and I have witnessed the way in which the Egyptians oppress them”’ (Exodus 3:9). These words compel the Church to see where she has failed in the past to see clearly, “the first and basic fact about our world”. With “new eyes”, pastors of the Church then made clear judgment about the harsh reality and declared at Medellin and at Puebla:

  • That misery, as a collective fact, expresses itself as an injustice which cries to the heavens” (Medellin, Justice, 1).”
  • So we brand the situation of inhuman poverty in which millions of Latin Americans live as the most devastating and humiliating kind of scourge. And this situation finds expression in such things as a high rate of infant mortality, lack of adequate housing, health problems, starvation wages, unemployment and underemployment, malnutrition, job uncertainty, compulsory mass migrations, etc.” (Puebla, Final document, 29).”

Far from separating us from our faith, this intimate experience of harsh realities – this encounter with the Poor – has regained for the Latin American Church the central truth of the Gospel, and urged upon her a necessary pastoral conversion. As a result, the Latin American faithful are sent back to the world of the Poor as to our true home. And so, within this world of extreme poverty which lacks a human face, the Latin American Church located a contemporary sacrament of the suffering servant of Yahweh, and in that sacrament, the faith community from which Romero came has undertaken to incarnate itself. There, the local church determined “not to pass by afar off, not to circle round the one lying wounded in the roadway, but to approach him or her like the good Samaritan”. Right there, the local church lived out its understanding of the incarnation and pastoral conversion – the same two elements our Latin American Pope Francis stresses on every available opportunity. Like Romero, instead of turning inwards in a self-referential way, the Church, Pope Francis insists, must ever turn ourselves outwards towards the world of the Poor. In turning towards the Poor, the Church has made of the Poor the special beneficiaries of its mission just as Puebla has declared: “God takes on their defense and loves them.”

Romero well understood that the church cannot do otherwise, for it remembers that Jesus had pity on the multitude. At the same time, he was painfully aware that by doing so, it has entered into serious conflict with the powerful economic oligarchies, as well as the political and military authorities of the state. It was very painful to witness the severe persecution of the Church and the crude violence the powerful applied on priests and religious, killing many, not to mention the vast number of suffering poor peasants. But the Church insisted on following Christ regardless, for this is the fundamental option for the Poor:

  • No, one is talking of something more profound, something more in keeping with the Gospel; one is talking of an authentic option for the poor, of becoming incarnate in their world, of proclaiming the Good News to them, of giving them hope, of encouraging them to engage in a liberating praxis, of defending their cause and of sharing in their fate.”

Second, the Latin American experience propelled the Latin Americans to a better understanding of what the incarnation means. What then do we mean, when we say that “Jesus really took human flesh and made himself one with his brothers and sisters in suffering, in the tears and the laments, in the act of surrender.” We must think in concrete and not imagine the incarnation in some philosophical and universal terms. Here, Romero admitted his bias and partiality. Incarnation, in his context, is incarnation in the world of the Poor. From that perspective the Church will become a Church for everybody, including the rich and powerful. To the latter, the Church will offer a service particularly through the apostolate of conversion. The Church must help the rich and powerful to be so converted that their hearts, minds and souls shall always prioritise the interests and welfare of the Poor. In all this, the Poor must lead and teach the Church:

  • The world of the poor, with its very concrete social and political characteristics, teaches us where the church can incarnate itself in such a way that it will avoid the false universalism which ends up with the church associating itself with the powerful ones. The world of the poor teaches us what the nature of Christian love is, a love which certainly seeks peace but which unmasks false pacifism – the pacifism of resignation and inactivity. It is a love which should be freely offered, but it is one which ought to seek to be effective in history…. The world of the poor teaches us that the sublimity of Christian love ought to be mediated through the overriding necessity of justice for the majority. It ought not to flee from honorable conflict…. The real world of the poor also teaches us what one is talking about when speaking of Christian hope.”

Third, incarnation in the socio-political world deepens faith in God and in his Christ.

“We believe in Jesus who came to bring the fullness of life (John 10:10), and we believe in a living God who gives life to men and women, and wants them truly to live (St Iraeneus).” These are radical truths of the faith, and “become really true and truly radical when the church enters into the midst of the life and death of its people”. There, we confront the Christian faith’s most fundamental choice: to be in favor of life, or to be in favor of death. With great clarity, Romero insists that neutrality is impossible. We either serve the life of the Poor, or we are accomplices in their death; either we believe in a God of life, or we serve the idols of death”.

  • We know perfectly well that the fullness of life is to be achieved finally only in the Kingdom of the Father, and in history this fullness is achieved through a worthy service of that Kingdom, and total surrender to the Father. But we see with equal clarity that in the name of Jesus it would be a sheer illusion, it would be an irony, and, at bottom, it would be the most profound blasphemy, to forget and to ignore the basic levels of life, the life which begins with bread, a roof, work.
  • Early Christians used to say “Gloria Dei, vivens homo” (the glory of God is the person who lives). We could make this more concrete by saying “Gloria Dei, vivens pauper” (the glory of God is the poor person who lives). From the perspective of the transcendence of the Gospel we believe we can determine what this life of the poor truly is; and we also think that by putting ourselves alongside the poor and trying to bring life to them we will come to know what is the eternal truth of the Gospel.

Pope Francis stated during Romero’s beatification, “His ministry was distinguished by his particular attention to the most poor and marginalized.” The same attention frequently resonates in the words and deeds of the Holy Father who insists since the inception of his papacy that the Church must be a Church of the Poor and for the Poor.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, April 2018. All rights reserved.

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