(Sunday Homily) Dylann Roof Will Surely Go to Heaven

Dylan Roof

Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 1:13-15; 2: 23-24; PS 30: 2, 4-6, 11-13; 2COR 8: 7, 9, 11-13-15; 2 TM 1: 10; MK 5: 21-43.

Today’s readings are about death. They contain claims that are absolutely astounding, challenging, and almost too good to be true – especially in the light of last week’s massacre of nine black church goers during a Bible Study class at the historic Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.

There the twenty-one year old perpetrator, Dylann Roof, slaughtered the people with whom he had been discussing the Bible just moments before. He had to kill them, he told a survivor, because “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Immediately, the entire country responded with horror. Many vilified the shooter as they found out about his racist Facebook postings, his easy access to firearms, and his flaunting of the Confederate Battle Flag. They argued about whether he should be executed as a terrorist or as a hate crime killer.

South Carolina, Alabama and other states flying the Confederate Battle Flag talked about removing it from their State Houses. Some discussed honoring the victims by passing omnibus legislation to address South Carolina’s racist structures involving health care, voting rights, housing and education.

President Obama got more personal. He said racism is in our DNA – an inheritance from our past that is difficult to erase.

Surviving families went deeper still. They forgave Dylann Roof choking as they did so through their tears of mourning.

Others asked, “What have we become as a nation?”

All of these reactions are familiar. We witnessed similar phenomena after Sandy Hook and Columbine.

It’s what human beings do in the face of brutality, violence and massacre. We blame; we soul-search. And sometimes forgive. Sometimes we even recognize complicity in the crime and resolve to change.

Those last reactions – forgiveness, soul-searching, and conversion – are justified by today’s readings. As I say, they address the astounding Judeo-Christian belief about death. Few of us can truly accept them. Once again: they seem too good to be true.

The first reading from the Jewish Testament’s Book of Wisdom startles us immediately by proclaiming: “God did not make death.” Instead he fashioned all things to have being. Specifically, human beings were formed imperishable by God. Death is experienced only by those who believe in the devil.

What? God did not make death? We are imperishable? Belief in death comes from the devil? Hold on; there’s more.

Today’s Alleluia verse becomes more specific still. It tells us to cheer up because “Christ has destroyed death” entirely. It has no reality at all.

Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus illustrates that truth. He equates death with mere sleep. There is nothing to cry about he tells those mourning the “tragic,” “premature” death of a 12 year old girl. She is merely sleeping. And then he grabs her by the hand and shows he’s right.

Do we really believe such statements? Is that Jesus story a child’s tale? Do we really believe that God did not make death? Do we believe that Christ has destroyed it?  Is death no more than sleep? Is death a mere illusion – moving from one room to another?

Those who are Christians routinely claim say yes. We even go further. Our belief says that “death” is not the end. Instead it is the greatest, happiest moment in life. For with it, life does not end. It goes on in ways so magnificent, so full of peace and wisdom and joy as to make it difficult to describe and impossible to comprehend.

That’s the faith we claim. Again, it seems too good to be true.

But if that’s what we believe, our faith has practical consequences regarding Dylann Roof and others like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Richard Speck, and even Adolf Hitler. The conclusions are these (as inspired by Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God):

  • All those killers did no harm or damage to the ones whose deaths they caused. The souls of those they killed were released from earthly bondage, like butterflies emerging from a cocoon.
  • Their deaths are thought to be “untimely” only by those who believe that anything in God’s universe can happen when it is not supposed to. Given who God is, nothing can possibly be untimely.
  • The people left behind mourn the dead only because they do not know the joy into which those souls entered.
  • The killers themselves remain loved by God and will go to heaven, whatever that means. (There is no other place for them to go. Dante’s inferno was his creation, not God’s. To repeat the metaphor: death itself is the “devil’s” creation.)
  • Their actions were mistakes, those of unevolved human beings. The proper faith-inspired response to them is not punishment, but God’s response: forgiveness, healing, correction, re-education, and eventual reintegration back into the fullness of life.
  • None of them acted alone. Germany produced Adolf Hitler; millions thought he was right. South Carolina and the United States created Dylan Roof; many sympathize with his racism. We all bear responsibility for his actions. In a sense, we are all Dylann Roof. Killing innocents is killing innocents whether it’s in Charleston, Baghdad, Ferguson, or Guantanamo.
  • In God’s perfect universe, the function of Dylann Roof, Dzhokhar Tsamaev, Richard Speck, and even Adolf Hitler is to force us to face who we are and what we want to become. We claim we live in the land of the free, home of the brave, in a democracy where all are equal. Some even hold that we are a Christian nation. Few of us admit subscribing to racism. But then a Dylan Roof forces us to look in the mirror and reassess. Suddenly Confederate Battle Flags come down and politicians are discussing omnibus legislation.

From a faith perspective, Dylann Roof has become our teacher.  His lesson is the reverse of what Jesus, the Buddha, Krishna and Pope Francis have taught. The latter all reveal to us the splendid human beings every one  of us (even Dylann Roof) can become. The former shows us where we are headed if we refuse to change course.

NYT Criticism of Pope Francis’ Encyclical: an Early Right Wing Response


In Sunday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat offered a critique of Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Laudato Si’.”  His piece was entitled “Pope Francis’ Call to Action Goes beyond the Environment.”

The op-ed is valuable since it offers a preview of the right-wing critiques of “Laudato Si’” (LS) that we’re likely to hear over the next few months. Let’s consider them one-by-one.

To begin with, the author is correct. Pope Francis’ encyclical does go far beyond climate change. It is brilliantly overwhelming in its breadth of scope which sees climate chaos as but one symptom indicating that the present world system is fundamentally unsustainable.

Other symptoms include deforestation and loss of wetlands (8), “water poverty” and infant mortality (28), species extinction (33), over-fishing (40), destruction of coral reefs (41), uncontrolled urbanization (44), food waste (50), the north’s “ecological debt” to the global south (51), debt crises in general (52), war (57), information manipulation (54), desertification (89), cruelty to animals (92), economic domination by unproductive financial interests (109), resource depletion (111), dangerous market-driven production of GMOs (134), secret negotiations of trade deals (135) and human anxiety, loss of purpose and of human community (110).

Additionally there are related problems of  human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds, and the fur of endangered species . . . buying and selling of organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation. . . and the elimination of children because they are not what their parents wanted (123).

In the pope’s vision, all of these problems are interconnected. In fact, that’s the basic thesis underlying the Francis tour de force: EVERYTHING IS INTERCONNECTED (42, 117, 120, 137, etc.). At root what causes the problems are the unregulated nature of free markets, blind reliance on technological development, and excessive anthropocentrism (LS Chapter 3). Causes are rooted in “the lie” which denies that there are any limits to economic growth (106).

What are needed to combat such manifestations are radical changes in the ways humans live, produce and consume (23). Francis says we need a “bold cultural revolution” – a recovery of values and great goals that have been swept away by human “delusions of grandeur” (114).

Not surprisingly, the pope finds such values and goals embodied in the Judeo-Christian tradition, its teachings about divine ownership of creation, human stewardship of the same, and its unswerving reverence for all forms of life, from the least to the greatest (Chapter Two). All life forms, the pope teaches, from algae to human embryos and the planet itself have intrinsic worth. None of them should be treated as insensate instruments put on earth for human profit and pleasure.

On Douthat’s analysis, such reflections might be all well and good. However, they represent only one viewpoint. And this brings us to the right-wing arguments against the pope’s analysis that we can anticipate over the next months. They have to do with papal negativism, the success of the market in eliminating poverty, the Catholic approach to overpopulation, and the capacity of future technological development to solve the planet’s problems.

For starters, Douthat calls the pope’s approach “catastrophism.” The other viewpoint – evidently Douthat’s own – he terms “dynamism.”

Dynamists are far more optimistic than the pope. They believe that the market and technological advances will possibly head off what the pope sees as inevitable catastrophe especially for the world’s poor absent that earlier-mentioned bold Cultural Revolution.

Coming from his dynamic perspective, Douthat argues that (1) poverty is diminishing world-wide, (2) overpopulation (spurred by the Catholic vision of marriage and fecundity) plays an important role in the problems the pope enumerates, and (3) who knows, the pope could be wrong: technology and the market just might automatically solve the world’s problems.

On the pope’s holistic analysis, each of such conservative arguments fails miserably.

The first (that world poverty is diminishing) is questionable on two counts.

First off, Douthat’s thesis is based on a World Bank study showing that “extreme poverty” as opposed to normal poverty is diminishing. (Normal poverty is defined as an income of $2.00 per day.)

While it’s true that incomes among the world’s poorest have risen from .87 cents per day in 1981 to $1.25 in 2005, the number of people living in normal poverty has remained unchanged over that same period. Moreover, the number of humans living in the “unspeakable conditions” of normal poverty would actually have risen sharply over the same period were it not for the economic development of China, whose improvement cannot be explained by unfettered markets as championed by neo-liberal apologists.

Secondly, Douthat’s approach to poverty misses the pope’s point about including the devastation of the natural environment in definitions of poverty. Given the earlier cited list of problems addressed in the pope’s encyclical, it is impossible to argue that world poverty is diminishing. As he puts it so delicately, humans are turning the planet into a pile of filth (21). Impoverishing nature means growth in world poverty.

Douthat’s second defense of the “dynamic” vs. the “catastrophic” approach – the one about population – is similarly short-sighted. The pope addresses it head-on. In effect he admits that there are too many people in the world – but not the ones Douthat has in mind.

Douthat is thinking about the masses in the global south. By contrast, Pope Francis’ focus is on the global north – the United States and Europe. His implication is that there are indeed too many people. But they are Americans and Europeans whose ecological footprint is far more devastating than the footprint of the poor living in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. The world cannot sustain people living the lifestyle of Americans and Europeans.

The pope writes: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption” (50).

Additionally, Douthat does not address the good economic reasons the world’s impoverished have for contributing to the population pressures the columnist finds so disturbing. Simply put, those reasons center around the absence of social services and benefits Americans and Europeans take for granted, but which conservatives continually rail against.

The impoverished need large families because their economies remain largely agrarian, and each additional child represents another field hand. They need children to provide additional income where jobs provide no government-mandated living wage. They need many children to insure that at least one will survive to care for them in their waning years. They need family members to replace them as income-earners where the government provides no workers’ compensation for injuries sustained on the job, or where there is no government-provided health care.

In short, Americans and Europeans have small families because of urbanization and the government “programs” representing their countries’ “social wage.” Absent income supplements like adequate minimum wages, social security, and health care, large families make complete sense. Or as Barry Commoner put it in 1976, poverty breeds overpopulation and not the other way around.

As for Douthat’s final Pollyanna expression of faith in undirected markets and technology, they are just that “Pollyanna.” Surprisingly (especially for a Republican), they represent a refusal to accept Pope Francis’ call for what GOP members claim to prize so highly – personal responsibility.

Like the interconnectedness of all reality, the call to responsibility is a recurring theme in “Laudato Si’” (e.g. 64, 67, 78, 105, 118).

Moreover, Douthat’s simplistic approach to technology fails to deal with Pope Francis’ key point that technologies are not neutral. Their development and use is largely controlled by the world’s rich and powerful. Francis writes: “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral for they create a framework . . . dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups” (107).

In effect, then, placing hopes in technological development equates with naïve surrender to the very people principally responsible for our planet’s “unprecedented situation” (17).

In the end, Ross Douthat’s loaded categories “Catastrophists” vs. “Dynamists” are misleading. More accurate classifications would be “Ecologists” vs. “Atomists.” Pope Francis is an ecologist. He sees the interrelatedness of all reality and the interrelatedness of all reality with Ultimate Reality. His approach is holistic.

Meanwhile, Douthat is an atomist. In his op-ed nothing seems to be connected.  He can’t see the relative meaninglessness of the categories “extreme poverty” contrasted with the unspeakable conditions of normal poverty. He’s oblivious to the fact that Americans and Europeans represent the planet’s true excess population. His faith in blind markets and future technological developments are slices of pie in the sky.

Pope Francis would say it is out of line with our culture’s best insights and values. It is entirely irresponsible.

(Sunday Homily) Why Listen to Pope Francis on Climate Change? He’s A Prophet in Our Midst

Readings for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JB 38: 1, 8-11; PS 107: 23-26, 28-31; 2COR 5: 14-17; LK 7:16; MK 4: 35-41.

Thursday Pope Francis published his long-awaited encyclical on the environment and climate change. The document is called Praised Be: on the Care of Our Common Home (PB).

Today’s liturgy of the word is perfectly synchronized with the encyclical’s release. Its elements emphasize God’s sovereignty over nature, its overwhelming beauty and might, the power of Christ-Consciousness to save from nature’s fury, and the new order of God’s Kingdom proclaimed and embodied in the Master from Galilee. Moreover, in articulating today’s themes, the humble Pope Francis distinguishes himself as a “great prophet,” in whom “God has visited his people” – the refrain in today’s Alleluia Verse.

Begin by considering the readings; afterwards we’ll turn to the encyclical and to Pope Francis’ prophetic status.

In our first reading, God speaks to Job sitting on a dung hill like the “pile of filth” into which, the pope says humans are turning the earth (PB 21). Like us, Job is trying desperately to figure out why bad things are happening to his world. Significantly, the Divine One speaks out of a storm and declares God’s sovereignty over nature – its seas with its threatening waves, the sky with its dark clouds, storms with their winds, thunder and lightning.

That theme of God’s sovereignty over nature is picked up in today’s responsorial which emphasizes the fearful might of the world’s oceans. Psalm 107 calls the sea an “abyss” – a threatening black hole. It is the work of the Lord who on the one hand causes storms to arise, but on the other restores calm to the waves and brings relieved travelers back to safe haven. Again, it is God, not humans who controls nature – a major theme of Praised Be.

Then in today’s Gospel selection Jesus calms the sea when it threatens to sink the boat he and his friends are using to travel to the “other shore.”

It’s the identity of Jesus’ followers as “Other Christs” called to do what Jesus did that is emphasized in today’s reading from Second Corinthians. There the apostle identifies Jesus as the herald of a completely new reality. The old order is no longer relevant, Paul says; it has entirely passed away. It’s that reality that followers of Jesus’ Way are to embody and usher in.

All of the themes in today’s liturgy of the word find echo in Pope Francis’ encyclical. Consider them one-by-one:

  • God’s Sovereignty over nature: Here Francis bluntly states that the pervasive understanding that God gave humans power of dominion or destruction over the earth “is not a correct interpretation of the Bible” (67). According to Francis, God denies any pretense of absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23).
  • Nature’s overwhelming beauty and might: The very title of the pope’s encyclical reflects this point. “Laudato Si” are the first words of a prayer composed by Francis’ namesake, the great Italian mystic, Francis of Assisi, identified by the pope as the patron of ecology (10). Of St. Francis the pope writes, “Like it happens when we fall in love with someone, every time that Francis looked at the sun, the moon, the smallest animals, his reaction was to sing, sharing in the glory of all the other creatures. . . he entered into communication with all of creation.” At the same time the Pope Francis argues that today’s climate chaos with its fearful storms, droughts, and extreme temperatures represents the earth protesting against “the violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin.”
  • The power of Christ-consciousness to save us from nature’s fury: St. Francis, the pope notes, was a mystic like Jesus of Nazareth (98). He had Christ-consciousness. It allowed him, like Jesus, to speak to elements that most humans understand as impersonal (98). So like Jesus speaking to the wind and waves in today’s Gospel, Francis conversed with animals and regarded the sun as his brother and the moon as his sister. Only the adoption of such sensitivity and reverence, the pope says, can restore balance to our planet (11).
  • The new reality to which we are called: “An economic and technological development that does not leave the world a better place and with an integral superior quality of life cannot be considered progress” (194). So Francis proposes a new model beyond the worship of the “free market.” Its exact shape must be worked out through a process of international dialog (180). However it necessarily includes an international body with legislative power to control excesses of production and consumption connected with unfettered capitalism.”

In providing such clear direction, Pope Francis’ encyclical solidifies his identity as a “great prophet.” As it turns out, he is the only world leader capable of turning the planet around. His power combines the exact virtues required for such a herculean task:

  • Consciousness: Pope Francis’ consciousness is unique. Virtually alone among world leaders, he sees climate change, poverty, morality and spirituality as inextricably interconnected.
  • Courage: Among his peers, Francis’ courage is unparalleled. By comparison the “leader of the free world” (not to mention climate change denialists) looks like a timid child bowing and scraping before the world’s wealthy few – indecisive about Keystone XL and arctic drilling. Moreover, the pope intends to take his message of interconnection directly to the lion’s den. He will speak not only to the United Nations, but will confront a U.S. Congress largely hostile to his position on climate chaos.
  • Credibility: As a scientist with an advanced degree in chemistry and as titular head of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, Francis has access to the world’s finest scientific minds. He has done his homework. He addresses not just climate change, but problems undeniably caused by human activity – “water poverty,” food waste, waste in general, overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, human trafficking, income gaps between the global north and south, the rampant elimination of innumerable species, and war.
  • Charisma: The world loves Pope Francis. No other world leader more widely admired or more capable of influencing people regardless of nationality or creed. It is interesting to see Catholic politicians like Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and Bobby Jindal speak condescendingly about a religious leader’s forays into fields “beyond his expertise” – as if they were better informed and could out-Catholic the pope. This is a battle they cannot win.
  • Constituency: Pope Francis is the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. There are more than 70 million Catholics in the United States – not to mention the millions of non-Catholics who admire the pope. Can you imagine what would happen world-wide (politically and environmentally) if even a small percentage of them took the pope’s words to heart? What if they radically changed their behavior (and voting) patterns to save the planet for future generations and prevent the poor from suffering the worst effects of industry-induced environmental degradation?

Praised Be leaves none of us off the hook. Rather the virtues just enumerated provide guidelines for each of us. As Paul’s “other Christs” and as humans in general (62) we are called to “Franciscan”:

  • Consciousness: Each of us can become expert. Just reading Praised Be will take us a long way in that direction. Do your part for the planet; read the encyclical now. It is the best, most comprehensive and accessible text available on the most important issue facing our world. (Good supplemental reading is This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.
  • Courage and credibility: Good information breeds these qualities. Like the pope we all need to fearlessly confront our uninformed, misinforming, head-in-the-sand politicians and demand that they serve us, our planet, children and grandchildren. Enough of letting them confuse us with their obfuscations.
  • Charisma: Few in the world can claim anything like Pope Francis’ charisma. But his fearless outspoken truth-telling is contagious and can infect us all by association. We must follow his example and use our innate talents to spread the message of Praised Be.
  • Constituency: Whether Catholic or not each of us needs to join Pope Francis’ constituency. In my own parish, our Peace and Social Justice Committee plans to buy copies of his encyclical for every parishioner over the age of 16. Beginning in September (about the time of the pope’s visit to the U.S.) we’ll initiate a parish-wide study of the encyclical. We’ll gather to watch Francis’ speeches to the U.N. and our Congress. Praised Be provides a foundation for turning every Catholic Church into a peace and social justice dynamo.

Again, today’s Alleluia Verse proclaims “A great prophet has risen in our midst. God has visited his people.” Today Pope Francis is that prophet. That’s why we should listen to him and follow his example.

Maximum Security Is a Lie: the Saga of Richard Matt and David Sweat

Matt and Sweat

Of course you’ ve read about the prison break at Clinton Correctional near the Canadian border. Everyone in the neighborhood is alarmed; the governor’s declared a state of emergency. The hills and forests around Clinton are crawling with police, and bloodhounds. Helicopters search from above. Few of us will admit we’re rooting for the escapees. Here’s my admission:

The Saga of Richard Matt and David Sweat 

From Clinton prison

There is no escape.

That’s what they say;

It’s the tale of the tape


Walls are thirty feet high

Twenty-four inches thick;

The guards are all psychos

Every one of them’s sick.


But don’t tell that to Ricky Matt

Or to David Sweat,

‘Cause laughter and derision

Are all that you’ll get.


You see, they’re real smart

And they’ve got power tools.

And besides that they know

All their watchers are fools.


They’ve got homies inside

Who hear noises at night

But they just don’t say nothin’

Their mouths are shut tight.


There are friendlies outside

Awaiting in cars

While Davey and Ricky

Break through concrete and bars.


Crawl through heating ducts and plumbing trails

(The journey seemed miles)

Then emerge from a manhole

Can you imagine the smiles?


But they’re killers, you say

And the saying is fair

But they’re no worse than Zimmerman

George Bush or Blair


Who still walk our streets

And give speeches for pay

And will never see jail

For even a day.


These guys have done hard time

Years in the Max

Where guards treat them like dirt

That’s just the facts.


Dave and Rick will be caught

And thrown into “the hole”

Where daytime’s like night;

They’re both black as coal.


But their tale will be told

It just can’t be denied

Like “Cool Hand Luke,” “Shawshank,”

“Bonnie and Clyde.”


Sweat and Matt give us hope

That we all can escape

From a system where jailers

Torture and rape.


Where they watch us like vultures

And control us by fear

These fugitives announce

Our deliverance is near.


Their whole saga supports

The conclusion I’ve reached

The securest of systems

All can be breached!

About Last Night: Romero Event a Huge Success!


It was the best event our parish has experienced in my 40 years of membership there. Around 225 people attended. I’m talking about our celebration of Oscar Romero’s beatification.

There was even a miracle! After a dreary day of clouds and threatening rain, the sun came out exactly at 5:00 as everyone assembled.

There were smiling faces (young and old, Hispanic and Anglo), children chasing each other across the parish lawn, reunions of friends including former pastors, loud Mexican music, a great DJ, dancing, embraces, back-patting, handshakes, laughter on all sides, an abundance of homemade food, buy-in on the parts of everyone, beautiful table cloths and tents with white folding chairs, and energy that wouldn’t stop.

I’ve never heard more enthusiastic singing in St. Clare’s. The church roof seemed in danger of just flying off into space. The choir was magnificent, enthusiastic, and well-prepared; it was backed by horns, guitars, drums and beautiful vocals.

Never before have the Hispanic and Anglo communities interacted so seamlessly. The program was beautifully printed, the sound system flawless. Songs and hymns alternated between Spanish and English. Everything was translated beautifully.

“This is the best thing we’ve ever done!” was the euphoric refrain.

Our new bishop, the Franciscan, John Stowe, was there unpretentiously in his friar’s garb and scarlet skull cap. He was everything we hoped for – arriving half an hour early, mixing effortlessly, and staying afterwards to enjoy the rich variety of desserts and sweet drinks served under the tents.

His Spanish is beautiful, and he was careful to translate everything he said. He spoke of the Guadalupana, of his own visits to El Salvador, of Oscar Romero’s heroism, and of the martyr’s influence on his own life. He challenged us to follow the archbishop’s example of commitment to the poor and voiceless. He referenced liberation theology, and ended his remarks shouting “Viva Oscar Romero!”

As for my own remarks I was so worried about . . . .  The audience was so attentive.

My former teaching associate and good friend, Ann Butwell, translated everything sentence-for-sentence. She was wonderful. Afterwards I was told that a college student said he had never heard such a radical speech, but that the words were welcome. And that’s what I felt from the entire audience; though I’m sure a good number of listeners were scandalized.

Nonetheless, I let it all hang out. I spoke of the cruelty of U.S. policy in El Salvador, its support of the elite minority, its death-squad strategy there and in Iraq. I spoke of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and their reluctance to advance Oscar Romero’s canonization. I asked the audience to imagine 1.2 billion Catholics becoming true peacemakers and dissuading their sons and daughters from joining the military. I suggested we should rain books, schools, and hospitals on perceived enemies rather than bombs and hellfire missiles.

The first time I mentioned Pope Francis, everyone applauded.

All of that taught me something. People are ready to hear strong words and critical thoughts even in church. It’s the same experience I’ve had in the classroom, both in Berea College and among the American fundamentalist students when I taught liberation theology in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica.

There’s a new spirit in the air; people are ready for the truth. They’re ready for change, despite the power and money trying to convince us that the old spirit with its falsehoods and denials are universally accepted as “common sense.”

Here in Kentucky – in St. Clare’s parish – we find ourselves in a Kairos (a special time of God’s grace). But our window’s opening is small, and we must act quickly to take advantage of the opportunities for meaningful change in the church and in society at large.

It’s true; Bishop Stowe is absolutely channeling Pope Francis. That’s wonderful.  But Bishop Stowe is young (49 years) and will soon be moving on to a bigger stage. Meanwhile Pope Francis is old and will soon be known as Pope St. Francis. Who knows what disasters might succeed their periods in office?

But think of the moment we have:

  • The parish Peace and Social Justice Committee has just sponsored the most wonderful event in the history of our local church. (Even before last night, remarks I’ve heard overestimate the size and activity of our twenty-person group.)
  • As a result of the Romero event, the committee enjoys a higher profile than it’s ever had.
  • So the community is likely to be receptive of the events the Committee has been considering around the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change later this month. Those activities include buying copies for everyone in the parish, discussing the encyclical in pre-Mass “Sunday Schools” next September and staging screenings and discussions of the pope’s speeches delivered to the U.S. Congress and U.N. during his visit that same month.
  • Meanwhile, we’re in a national election cycle, and our planned events around climate change will raise consciousness (and questions) about candidates’ positions on that pivotal issue. It all may influence the way people vote.

The pope, Bishop Stowe, the success of the Romero event, the pope’s encyclical, his visit to the United States, the coming national elections, the crisis of climate chaos, and the enhanced status of the St. Clare Peace and Social Justice Committee – it’s all coming together.

We must seize the moment!

Pope Francis Beatifies Oscar Romero: No More Bullsh*t!


I’ve been agonizing about this little talk I’m to make tomorrow evening at the beatification celebration of Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Everybody will be there: parish members, guests from other churches (Protestant and Catholic), former pastors, and John Stowe, our brand new bishop.

So I’ve been boring my friends (and readers of this blog) with draft after draft. To begin with, my worries have centered on the writing concerns I’ve inflicted on my students over the years. You know, the ones about having a sharp thesis, a clear preview of the points to be made, good follow-through on those points, and a strong conclusion.

More than that, however, I’ve fretted about possibly offending my audience. I mean, if I really articulated what I think must be said about Oscar Romero, many listeners might just turn me off. “Too political,” they’d say, “inappropriate,” “polarizing,” “ranting.” I’ve been warned against all those things. (In any case, I’ve been told by a prominent member of my church that “90% of the people are offended by what you write in the Lexington Herald-Leader every month!”)

Yes, I’m worried.

But then I thought of Dan McGinn, a mentor of mine during my doctoral studies in Rome. Like me, he was (but Dan still is) a priest in the Society of St. Columban. He was always refreshingly outspoken and unfailingly called things by their names.

Dan was fond of saying that if he ever “made bishop,” he’d put a special motto on his coat of arms. [Every bishop has a coat of arms with his motto at the bottom. For instance, the motto of the new bishop (John Stowe) heading our diocese of Lexington, Kentucky is “Annunciamus verbum vitae” (We proclaim the word of life.)] Well, Dan said that if ever made bishop, the motto under his coat of arms would be “No more bullshit!”

Bottom line is: I’ve decided to follow Dan’s implicit advice and throw caution to the winds. I no longer know exactly how my talk will come out. But I intend to say something like the following:

Oscar Romero

Good evening.

I’ve been asked by the parish Peace and Social Justice Committee and by the Lenten “Joy of the Gospel” Study Group to say a few words reminding us of why we are here.

Of course, we’re here to celebrate the beatification of Blessed Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador. But why should we care?

We should care, I think, because Romero’s beatification personifies and embodies Pope Francis’ basic call in “The Joy of the Gospel.” There the pope summons the entire church to reform, to be converted, to repent, and be transformed. Nothing can remain as it has been, the pope says. The church must become relevant to the problems of poverty, inequality, and war that afflict our world.

So I suggest that the pope’s decision to beatify Oscar Romero dramatizes the pontiff’s exhortation.

But which side should we take in a politically polarized world? Which side are we on?

The side of the poor, the pope says. And by that he doesn’t mean greater generosity in making up our Christmas baskets or giving an extra dollar in Sunday’s second collection. He means doing what Oscar Romero did – what Jesus of Nazareth did.  He means identifying with the poor, their ways of seeing the world. He means refusing to support our culture’s favorite way of dealing with them – treating them with “tough love,” depriving them of life’s basics, waiting for wealth to “trickle down,” and when push comes to shove, killing them (whether that’s in Ferguson, Baltimore, Bagdad or Palestine).

In other words, Oscar Romero provides a case study of the kind of conversion and relevance the Holy Father urges us to embrace.

Like most of us – I speak for myself – Oscar Romero started out uncritical and unquestioningly patriotic. Until he was 60 he supported a system that had 1% of El Salvador’s population controlling 90% of its wealth. He sided with his county’s police and military which were at war with its own people to keep things that way.

He bought the line that those opposing the system were communists. So while his country was on fire, his sermons addressed the usual banalities: the afterlife, heaven, hell, and individual salvation.

The United States supported El Salvador’s government too. All during the 1980s, it gave its military more than one million dollars a day to fund what was called “the El Salvador option” for defeating the country’s insurgency. It was a “death squad” solution which killed everyone who might be connected with the insurgency – teachers, union organizers, social workers, priests and nuns. The slogan of the military’s “White Hand” death squad was, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

That slogan took on new meaning for Archbishop Romero when his good friend, the Jesuit, Rutilio Grande, was martyred by the White Hand. Grande was killed because El Salvador’s government saw how he lived among and served peasants and slum dwellers sympathetic to the insurgents. So they considered him a terrorist.

In reality, Father Grande was entirely motivated by the Gospel. He had come to see the world from the viewpoint of the poor. That was the essence of Jesus’ message, he said – good news for the poor. In the gospels, Grande found, Jesus not only saw the world from the viewpoint of the poor, he identified with them becoming one of them. He shared the values and characteristics of the poor that El Salvador’s rich despised.

For instance, Jesus’ skin was black or brown, not white like the elite of El Salvador. Jesus was dirt poor. He was conceived out-of-wedlock by a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He belonged to the working class. His hands were calloused; his clothes were sweat-stained. Jesus liked fiestas and was accused of being a drunkard, possessed by the devil, and friend of sex workers. He was harassed constantly by the police and died a victim of torture and capital punishment, because the occupation forces of Rome considered him a terrorist.

That was the Jesus Rutilio Grande worshipped and preached – a Jesus completely like the people he served.

And so the “White Hand” or “The Secret Anti-Communist Army” (or one of those death squads) killed him – along with 75,000 other El Salvadorans. (Imagine the impact of those deaths in a country of just 6 million people!)

Grande’s death profoundly changed Oscar Romero. He said, “When I saw Rutilio lying there dead, I knew I had to follow his path.” And he did.

Archbishop Romero began speaking out against the government, army and police. He saw that the soldiers fighting against peasants and poor people weren’t heroes, but misled and brainwashed victims. Just before his death, he fairly shouted at them in a final homily: “No soldier is bound to follow orders that contradict the law of God. Don’t you see; you are killing your own brothers and sisters? . . . I beg you; I implore you; I order you: stop the repression!”

Those words sealed San Romero’s fate. The next evening while celebrating Mass for nuns in a hospital chapel, a sniper got him too. He became the first bishop to be murdered at the altar since Thomas Beckett at the beginning of the 12th century.

That’s the Romero story. It’s the story of a churchman converted late in life to centralizing peace and social justice concerns. And that’s the “Joy of the Gospel” connection. In that Apostolic Exhortation, the pope calls us to a similar centralization. The beatification of Oscar Romero reinforces that message.

To understand all of that, you have to grasp one shocking fact: Oscar Romero was killed by Catholics. And when he was murdered, there were fireworks and celebrations in the neighborhoods of El Salvador’s elite. These people were friends of the Vatican.

As a result, Pope Francis’ predecessors (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) were not anxious to canonize the archbishop. He was too polarizing, they thought. He too clearly took the side of the poor in their struggle with the rich. They even wondered if he had been duped by the communists.

And besides, how could Romero be classified as a martyr? After all, martyrs, by definition are defenders of the “true faith” against non-believers. But (again) Romero was killed by Catholics and hated by people who went to Mass each Sunday and believed all the right things about abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and divorce.

So John Paul II and Benedict XVI blocked Romero’s canonization and put the process on hold.

Francis has removed the block. Do you see what that implies?

It implies that “the true faith” is Romero’s faith. Its hallmark is identification with the poor in their struggle for justice — not those other narrow “moral” concerns. The true faith addresses issues like the justice of our economic system, wide disparities between the rich and the poor, and an economy based on war. It addresses climate change as a moral problem. All of these are themes central to “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Can you imagine what would happen to our state if the diocese of Lexington followed Romero’s example and became famous and distinguished as “that little peacemaking diocese in Central Kentucky” that everyone’s talking about?

Can you imagine what would happen in Berea if St. Clare’s worked closely with Union Church and cooperated to become as outspoken as Oscar Romero about issues of economic justice, racial and gender equality, war and peace?

Can you imagine what would happen in the world if 1.2 billion Catholics adopted Archbishop Romero’s spirit? What if Catholics on principle decided to absolutely reject war as a solution to the world’s problems and adopt economic justice instead? What if (in effect) we decided to drop books, hospitals, and schools on our perceived enemies instead of bombs and drone “hell fire”?

This evening, as you listen to the words of Oscar Romero during our celebration, please keep those questions in mind. They are vital to our faith.

What I’m saying is that all of us should care about Oscar Romero. He remains relevant to us; he challenges us today.

Archbishop Romero, Pope Francis, and Jesus Himself call us to radical change – to take sides. In effect, Oscar Romero’s beatification raises that old question: “Which side are you on?”

What’s your answer?