The Long Reach of Pope Francis: how he (and Oscar Romero) touched our diocese & our parish

Pope francis oscar romero


I once was once skeptical about Pope Francis.

When he was elected, my first thought was “Can anything good come out of an Electoral College of Cardinals packed so tightly with clones of the reactionaries, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? Bergoglio must be one of those carbon copies.”

But I was wrong.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio turned into Pope Francis. Far from a triplet brother of his immediate predecessors, the new pope has proven to be truly Latin American. That’s so even to the point of embodying the ideals of liberation theology, or reflection on the gospel from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed. He has espoused the latter’s “preferential option for the poor,” its trenchant critique of corporate globalization, and its openness to marginalized people of all kinds. What a surprise!

My second thought was, “But he’s already old. His papacy will be short. He won’t be able to accomplish much of enduring impact.

Imagine then my further astonishment, when a mere three years into his papacy, Pope Francis’ touched  in remarkable ways our  tiny and remote diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. Even stranger to say, his reach extended to our little Kentucky parish of St. Clare’s in Berea. It made me wonder if this is happening all over Francis’ world. I hope so.

First of all, consider what’s happened in Lexington.

Our previous bishop was a canon lawyer – an appointee of John Paul II. Bishop Ronald Gainer distinguished himself by urging pro-choice politicians to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. He has since shown other overriding concerns by forbidding Catholic School girls in his new diocese from engaging in sports (such as wrestling, rugby, and football) “…that involve substantial and potentially immodest physical contact.” You get the idea.

After waiting for more than a year, Bishop Gainer’s replacement was at last named. It was John Stowe, a Conventual Franciscan. Father Stowe showed his colors in his introductory press conference. There was not a word about abortion, contraception, or gay marriage, much less about girls’ wrestling.

Instead he introduced himself as “a Franciscan educated by the Jesuits and appointed by a Jesuit Pope who has taken the name Francis.” “I love Pope Francis,” Father Stowe said, “and I will do whatever he asks.”

Turns out, the new appointee is not only a disciple of the pope; he is also a sharp critic of reactionary politics – especially as they affect immigrants. (Fr. Stowe, BTW, speaks fluent Spanish.)

For instance, in 2006, when Fr. Stowe addressed the Mayor’s Congress on Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, he criticized the U.S. Congress saying, “We shudder to imagine what the inscription on the Statue of Liberty might read if it had been erected by the current U.S. Congress.” Promising words indeed.

And that brings me to our parish, the long reach of Pope Francis and its connection with our new bishop.

You see, during this past Lent, for the second year in a row, a small group of us met each week to study the pope’s “The Joy of the Gospel” – the Apostolic Exhortation published in November 2013. In one of our concluding sessions, we were searching for something practical to connect the pope’s words with our community of St. Clare’s.

The calendar told us that the beatification of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero was coming up on the 23rd of May. (Beatification is a major step towards canonization or sainthood in the Catholic Church.)

Romero, you recall, was the martyred archbishop of San Salvador. In 1980, he was gunned down at the altar by an assassin connected with El Salvador’s Arena party which was supported by the Reagan administration. Because Romero is considered the patron saint of liberation theology (which the pope saw as too influenced by Marxism), John Paul refused to even call the archbishop a martyr. Instead, he referred to him merely as “a zealous pastor.”

Pope Francis has changed all of that. Romero, he says, was not only a martyr, but has advanced him on the way to official recognition as a saint of the entire Roman Catholic Church.

Well, our little discussion group thought: Why not have our parish celebrate Romero’s beatification?

“Great idea” we all agreed; “We could hire a Mariachi band, invite the Hispanic community and folks from Berea College’s Union Church” (a Church of Christ with whom people from St. Clare’s traveled to El Salvador on more than one occasion). “And then we could follow it all with a big fiesta.”

Someone else added, “And why not invite the new bishop?”

“Wouldn’t hurt to ask,” was the consensus — although we thought his acceptance would be unlikely, since by the end of May, he’d barely have been installed as bishop.

Well, guess what? He agreed to come. That sends a strong signal about his priorities.

So did his letter written immediately after receiving our invitation:

Thank you for your kind words of welcome and the excellent suggestion of celebrating the beatification of Archbishop Romero. I am so happy to know that St Clare’s and Union Church are in a relationship with the Church in El Salvador. That is exactly what Pope Francis is encouraging us to do!

I just returned last night from visiting our Central American Friars; we celebrated the 35th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom although we were in Costa Rica. This past February 1st, I was able to celebrate mass in the hospital where Romero was killed—all this to say, Oscar Romero is a great inspiration in my life and I am thrilled to know of a community that wishes to celebrate his witness.

I will look for possible dates to celebrate the beatification with your community.

Your message is most welcomed!!

Bishop-elect Stowe’s acceptance of our invitation means that everyone in our parish and from parishes nearby will surely attend an event that might otherwise have been overlooked. Everyone will want to meet the new bishop.

He is sure to have some inspiring words to say about Romero, and hopefully about liberation theology, and U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s. This will indeed be a teachable moment.

Do you see what I mean about Francis’ long reach? This is already far better than I anticipated three years ago.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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