(Sunday Homily) Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus in Pope Francis & Oscar Romero!

Romero poverty

Today is Pentecost Sunday, sometimes called the “Birthday of the Church.”

Significantly, Pentecost’s vigil (yesterday) is the day the church has chosen to “beatify” Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in El Salvador on March 24th, 1980. His beatification (the final state before canonization or sainthood) took place there yesterday.

The co-incidence of the two anniversaries is full of meaning for a community of faith desperately in need of rebirth.

Politically speaking, the unblocking of San Romero’s beatification process by Pope Francis represents the pope’s call to appropriate Jesus’ Spirit of Life and leave behind all traces of the political conservatism that characterized most of the archbishop’s life. Pope Francis calls us to boldness, radicalism and outspoken partisanship on behalf of the world’s poor. That’s the Spirit of Jesus, he says. It’s the Spirit Oscar Romero eventually embraced.

To get what I mean, please join me in reflecting on (1) Roman Catholic conservatism – at least as I currently experience it, (2) the conversion of Oscar Romero to the radicalism of liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor,” and (3) the directions for similar change given by Pope Francis in his “Joy of the Gospel.” Following those directions, I argue, promises his church a New Pentecost.

I The Irrelevance of the Catholicism I Experience

To begin with, consider the Catholic Church I experience each week. Its present form is a construction of the reactionary popes, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013). I consider their papal reigns disastrous.

Because of their counter-reforms, my local parish not only ignores the progressive initiatives of the Second Vatican Council, it gives every indication of attempting to reverse them in the minds of my fellow parishioners.

In fact, the documents of Vatican II are rarely referenced in our church. Their place has been taken by the conservative invention, The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Masses” from one week to the next show almost no variation or planning. Everything seems rote. Sermons are full of clichés about heaven and churchy bromides. Not a word connects the Radical Jesus with Ferguson, Baltimore, Iraq, drone warfare, torture, the LGBTQQ struggles, or climate chaos. To introduce such topics might “upset” some people, so they’re completely ignored.

No such sensitivity, however, is displayed regarding conservative issues concerning abortion, gay marriage or climate change. The latter is almost never mentioned, while the former issues (abortion and gay marriage) are highlighted at every opportunity. Our diocesan newspaper, The Crossroads, communicates the distinct impression that good Catholics are good Republicans and vote accordingly.

II Oscar Romero’s Pentecost

For most of his life, Oscar Romero would have been comfortable in my local church.

Remember, Monsignor Romero started out conservative in every sense of the word. To a large extent, that’s why he was appointed archbishop in 1977. Romero was considered safe. He was patriotic. He unquestioningly supported his country’s military. He looked on the widespread rebellion of the poor in El Salvador with great suspicion. He considered the would-be revolutionaries communist subversives.

And yet, the archbishop had this close friend on the opposite end of the political spectrum. He helped Romero grow. That friend was Rutilio Grande. Grande was a Jesuit who took seriously his vow of poverty.

So Father Grande moved out of the parish rectory and lived with the poor. He knew first-hand their struggles, their family break-downs, their unemployment, hunger, low wages, and harassment by local police.

Worse still, Grande knew the Salvadoran military’s strategy for defeating the country’s impoverished insurgents. It was simply this: kill everyone who might possibly be sympathetic to rebel forces. That meant most of the country’s non-elite. It meant many of their parish priests. For Rutilio Grande, the slogan of the White Hand death squad represented an everyday reality and threat: “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

Eventually, of course, the White Hand killed Rutilio Grande himself.

It was his martyrdom that pushed Oscar Romero over the edge and radicalized him. He utterly abandoned his conservatism. He would later say, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” (The “they” Archbishop Romero referred to was his own government, its military, and their backers in the United States.)

So Archbishop Romero started listening to the poor. He attended their “biblical circles,” where peasants shared their thoughts about Sunday gospel readings.

Once after listening to simple farmers sharing thoughts about “The Parable of the Sower,” the archbishop stood up without comment and walked away from the group. The local priest followed him and asked anxiously, “What’s the matter, Monsignor, did something offend you?”

“No,” the archbishop responded, “quite the opposite. It’s just that I think I’ve heard the Gospel of Jesus today for the first time.”

In other words, the archbishop discovered that when poor people read the Bible, they see things that remain invisible for conservatives comfortable with whiteness, patriarchy, and empire.

Jesus was none of those things, the archbishop realized. He was brown or black, poor, a victim of empire, and counter-culturally open to the viewpoints and experience of women. Those were the Master’s viewpoints. They deeply influenced how he saw the world.

More specifically, Jesus stood on the same ground as El Salvador’s poor (and the poor of the Global South). He was born out-of-wedlock to a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He was a working man with calloused hands and sweat-stained clothes. He loved fiestas. His friends, people said, were drunkards and prostitutes. Rabbis expelled Jesus from the synagogue, and thought he was diabolically possessed. Even his family questioned his sanity. Jesus became a vagrant without visible means of support. He lived under an oppressive empire. Imperial authorities saw him as an insurgent and terrorist. He ended up on death row, a victim of torture and of capital punishment.

All those characteristics, Archbishop Romero realized, described Another Jesus that to him was far more compelling, inspiring and faithful to the gospels than the abstract and other-worldly Jesus elaborated in the theological texts that guided his doctoral studies in Rome.

So Romero concluded that the poor knew Jesus more deeply and authentically than he ever could. (They had what scholars called a “hermeneutical privilege.”)

Even more, the Jesus of the Poor revealed Another God who alone can save our world from the path to destruction we’ve embarked upon. (And this is where Pope Francis’ continuity with Romero’s vision comes in.)

III Pope Francis’ Pentecost

Like the converted, Spirit-led Oscar Romero, Pope Francis does not shy away from radicalism, controversy or partisanship in the name of social justice. In fact, the pope identifies the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” [“Joy of the Gospel” (JG) 220, 258].

And the pope walks his talk. Think about his:

  • Part in negotiating an end to U.S. policy towards Cuba, despite what Miami Cubans might think.
  • Recognition of the Palestinian state in the face of objections from Israel and its supporters.
  • Identification of the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace” over the same objections.
  • Famous “who am I to judge” statement about homosexuality.
  • Unblocking of canonization procedures for Oscar Romero, the patron saint of liberation theology.
  • Embrace of liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor.”
  • Planned encyclical on climate chaos, even over objections by U.S. Republicans and their think tanks like the Heartland Institute.
  • Stated intention to influence the Paris Climate Summit next December.

Yes, (in U.S. terms) the pope has not been afraid to alienate Republicans and give the distinct impression that their agenda is largely incompatible with Christian faith.

I’d even go so far as to say that “The Joy of the Gospel” is like a manifesto against Republican approaches to social issues. I mean, JG:

  • Condemns wide disparities in income (188).
  • Advocates redistribution of wealth (189)
  • Rejects trickle-down economic theory as illusionary and entirely dysfunctional (54).
  • Sees unfettered markets as homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).
  • Demands market regulation as indispensable (56).
  • Views “each and every human right” [including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192)] as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (213).
  • Presents environmental protection as a moral imperative (215, 216).
  • Dismisses war as incapable of combatting violence which the pope sees as caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59).


It will no doubt offend some in my parish to read these words. But that’s the point of Pentecost, isn’t it – to shake us up?

After all, Jesus offended the conservative members of his parish-equivalent. Romero offended conservative Salvadorans and conservative U.S. “Americans.” Pope Francis makes no bones about offending Jewish Zionists, Miami Cubans, U.S. Republicans and climate change deniers.

The Spirit of Life is not conservative. It is not imperial. It wants everyone to survive and thrive – especially the ones the dominant order rejects as unworthy.

In those senses, It makes a preferential option for the poor.

Published by

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.

12 thoughts on “(Sunday Homily) Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus in Pope Francis & Oscar Romero!”

  1. Beautifully and bravely said, Mike. You have brought Romero to life for me again and have reinforced my understanding of liberation theology.


  2. Does the “Spirit of Life” make “a preferential option for the poor”? Hmm.

    Based on things you’ve written, Mike — a second vacation home, your family’s enviable advantaged position within a college campus with jobs that provide pensions and much more — I make the educated guess that you’re much wealthier than me, Mike. Speaking from a position of relative poverty, while I enjoy as much of my life and time as possible, I don’t think that the Spirit of life makes a preferential option for the poor.

    Rather, I observe that the “poor” who are trapped in mismanaged areas of the world try to make a beeline for wealthier societies that offer more opportunities. There is a joke that the national anthem of Cuba is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. The people there don’t have the same opportunities that you have to travel freely and experience different locations — and from what I’ve heard (advise me if I’m wrong) it is Cuban leaders who are restricting the options of the general population there.


    1. How dare you? Your comment is entirely misplaced and cruel — and decidedly off the mark and way out of context. Your comments consistently badger and malign a good man — a very good man — who has spent his entire life trying to alleviate ignorance and suffering.


      1. Aliceny, I disagree with you. I am not “badgering”, anymore than Berea College “badgers” its students by offering them different information about the origins and translations of different Christian Bible passages (information which may challenge preconceived belief systems). If Pentecost is to “shake us up”, let’s shake it up then. We are all “good” people, Aliceny — you, me, Mike, and others here. Shaming is not the purpose, at least not for me — I am pointing out that “poverty” is relative, and not-so-desirable, based on experience. Healthy prosperity coupled with generosity and willingness to make space for others seem like excellent goals to strive for — not just within the U.S., but elsewhere, too. How does that situation come about?

        “Things That Matter” is not my blog. Mike is the host here. There are many voices and experiences that matter — including mine — also relatives, associates and penpals who are immigrants and refugees from insanely mismanaged, conflicted, oppressive societies, misguided at levels far beyond undeniable corruption that we currently experience here in the U.S.

        Mike, if you are experiencing my words as cruelty, know that cruelty is not my intention. Your integrity, and mine (as I come towards the end of my life) are the prizes. I encourage you to hear me (and others) out — and admire when you exercise your ability to do so.

        And — I have another post that is in moderation, linking to Economist articles on Liberation Theology.


    2. I think you’ve misunderstood the concept of “preferential option for the poor.” The idea is that if we serve the “Spirit of Life,” we will understand reality from the viewpoint of the poor and support policies that percolate up from addressing their problems rather than trickling down from our society’s de facto “preferential option for the rich.”


      1. Thanks Mike for your response. I don’t think I misunderstand, but rather, disagree with the emphasis on money and political struggles.

        French emperors of the 1600s didn’t live as well as I do in “poverty” in the U.S. What does it all *mean*? How can people in El Salvador *live well*, with or without a certain level of money and possessions? It is “politics” that will change that, or something else?

        You have mentioned that you and Peggy have participated and benefitted from the “Course in Miracles”. What about the work of Jose Silva and his family, who worked on clarifying/focusing imagination and thinking through various techniques? There were Catholic religious orders that used Silva Method in past decades (don’t know if that still happens).

        Also, there are teachers like John Assaraf who ask students to put their attention on “abundance” instead of “poverty” (which again is relative. If the bottom 10% of a society is designated as “in poverty”, by definition we will always have the poor with us).

        Historically, combining religious with political organization corrupts religion. Might pursuit of happiness come closer to target by focusing on self-perception and life strategies?


  3. Lies, lies, and more lies. Pope Francis rejects liberation theology (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2013/05/pope-francis-affinity-for-liberation-theology-wait-what/), his “who am I to judge” comment was NOT regarding the question of homosexuals in general but about a gay lobby in the vatican (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/faithbased/2013/07/pope_francis_on_gay_priests_who_am_i_to_judge_what_his_comments_really_mean.html), and he did NOT call the leader of the palestinians an angel of peace (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/pope-didn-call-abbas-angel-peace-italian-newspaper-article-1.2226792). This is a terribly dishonest blog – shame on you for using the words of Pope Francis for your own purposes. You are building a tower of Babel.


    1. Dear Jason, I understand your concern. Perhaps introducing the phrase “liberation theology” is not helpful. It’s probably best to stick with Pope Francis’ phrase “preferential option for the poor.”


  4. In Reply to Mary Benami:
    Sorry, Mary, if I steamed up a little. I said what my heart told me to say and you did the same
    from your point of view. Your reply was well said. I view this as an end to the matter.



  5. “Own”. What does “own” mean? Control access to?

    There is only one Pope in Catholicism, and according to National Catholic Online, “In 2012, there were 1,228,612,000 Catholics in the world and 393,053 priests.”


    Is there something terribly wrong with those numbers also? How could over a billion people delegate their most intimate spiritual choices to one other human being via nearly 400,000 other human beings? Is that also unbalanced? Is that part of a pattern — that some people feel they are fundamentally unequal to others, and feel a need to subjugate themselves to others as a rule?

    Please excuse me if this is in any way offensive, because that is not the intention. I am asking a serious question about the way people think of themselves, their relationships to others and to the DIvine/Spiritual influence in their lives.

    There may be a fundamental difference here also; I believe that the spiritual more often rules the physical, instead of the reverse (although without a doubt it also happens that the physical will rule the spiritual, life is diverse beyond comprehension).


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