His canonization cause was stalled for nearly four decades, but the institutional church finally recognized yesterday what the people of God have known for years: Monseñor Oscar Romero is a saint.
Pope Francis’ pursuit of this canonization has been an act of love for the faithful. Archbishop Romero, prophet and martyr of El Salavdor, has incalculable gifts to offer the church through his wisdom and his witness. We should use these gifts to study new church and social issues through the prism of Romero. With the Synod on Youth underway in Rome, this newly-canonized, but longtime saint can lead the delegates and the church forward towards LGBT liberation.
Oscar Romero was an archbishop in El Salvador during the 1970s who was outspoken and unceasing love in his for the poor. Because he was a voice for the voiceless, right-wing powers in that nation assassinated him while Romero celebrated Mass in a small hospital chapel on March 24, 1980. But he should not be reduced to just a holy martyr, for, like Jesus, the truest lessons are not how these prophets died, but how they lived.
St. Oscar Romero lived as a Christian. His heart was nearly wholly committed to those people and groups in society who suffered under oppression, like the Salvadoran campesinos (peasant farmers) with whom Romero stood in solidarity as their government brutally repressed them. Romero never refused to denounce evil, but he preferred to build up by affirming the good rather than tearing down. He believed fundamentally in people’s goodness, echoing through his life the words of St. Irenaeus’ “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” He said once of the church’s mission:
“The transcendence that the church preaches is not alienation; it is not going to heaven to think about eternal life and forget about the problems on earth. It’s a transcendence from the human heart. It is entering into the reality of a child, of the poor, of those wearing rags, of the sick, of a hovel, of a shack. It is going to share with them. And from the very heart of misery, of this situation, to transcend it, to elevate it, to promote it, and to say to them, ‘You aren’t trash. You aren’t marginalized.’ It is to say exactly the opposite, ‘You are valuable.'”
Though seeking Christian perfection, Romero was human. Like the Word of God on which he so relied, the archbishop dwelt among his people and, in Pope Francis’ parlance, “smelled like his sheep.” The Word of God for him was a rock and a reference point which illuminated the context in which he and the Salvadoran people live. Ignacio Martin-Baró, a Jesuit priest in El Salvador who would himself be martyred, said of the saint:
“The phrase used by Christians at the end of Scripture readings, ‘This is the word of the Lord,’ was not a mere saying for him. It was an urgent commitment to go on preaching the word and using it to bring before hearers the real situation of the country.”
The Word of God speaks to each of us, enabling us to read the signs of the times in our lives and in our contexts. Like Romero, we must dutifully undertake the work of discerning necessary responses and seeking from God the courage to undertake the work before us. Romero is clear that this work is the church’s uncompromising mission rooted in Christ and lived in the world:
“When we struggle for human rights, for freedom, for dignity, when we feel that it is a ministry of the church to concern itself for those who are hungry, for those who have no schools, for those who are deprived, we are not departing from God’s promise. He comes to free us from sin, and the church knows that sin’s consequences are all such injustices and abuses. The church knows it is saving the world when it undertakes to speak also of such things.”
What is the Word of God telling us about LGBT people and their families today? What is the church’s work to be for people marginalized because of their sexual and/or gender identity? What would Romero’s response be if he were alive today and aware of the important conversations in church and society about LGBT issues?
One sign of our times, affirmed by the Gospel, is the growing acceptance of LGBT people and the affirmation of queer love. This movement is, at its core, about the transcendence of human hearts such that it is said to every person regardless of sexual orientation and/or gender, “You are valuable.” It is a movement from dying to life. Coming out is a key step to becoming fully alive, as is falling in love, caring for one’s partner, and forming a family centered on love. How could this saint, who so desired people on the margins come alive in their glory, not celebrate LGBT people and their love?
But beyond celebrating personally, Romero would likewise insist that the church must be a prophetic companion with LGBT people still facing immense discrimination and violence. Where lesbian and gay people can be jailed and killed because of their sexual orientation, where the fundamental right to life is threatened by hate crimes and self-harm, where freedoms of speech and expression are curtailed, where religion enforces closets of shame and sacramental denials, where families are denied basic legal protections, these are the wounds which give rise to the cry of the poor. St. Oscar Romero, like God, hears these cries even today, and he places himself and the church in solidarity with LGBT people and their families in the pursuit of liberation.
We should pray that St. Oscar Romero intercedes for us to God to raise up bishops who affirm the human dignity of LGBT people and who will speak out against human rights violations directed to LGBT people, especially laws which criminalize their existence.
His celebration of the human person and his commitment to liberation is why St. Oscar Romero now speaks to the Synod delegates as they undertake their next week of conversation on young people and the faith. Two issues which have emerged are whether the term “LGBT” should be used in church documents and whether the institutional church should recognized LGBT families as families (check back later this week for Fr. James Martin, SJ’s, take on these questions).
The answer to both is a clear, “Yes.” It is past time that LGBT Catholics and their families at least be shown the respect, if not the affirmation, which is their birthright as people created imago dei and baptized into the people of God. It is time the institutional church stop referring to people as “intrinsically disordered,” and instead state without qualification, “You are valuable.” It is time for the church to be in full solidarity with LGBT people as marginalized and oppressed communities. If the Synod delegates listen closely, they will hear Romero’s voice as prophet and pastor coaxing them onward with affirmative responses to these important synodal questions.
St. Oscar Romero — ¡Presente!
[Editor’s Note: When Robert Shine was 16 and preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, he chose “Romero” as the name he wanted for the sacrament. ]
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 15, 2018