“Never give up.”

The community of Perquin, capital of the FMLN during the war.

Our final day in El Salvador found us waking up in Perquin to head to Mass led by Padre Rogelio Poncel, the Priest we had met the day before over breakfast. Padre Rogelio preached about John the Baptist, calling particular attention to the differences between the messages of John and Jesus. For the Baptist, Rogelio claimed, the stress was “on the rights of God” and therefore of the need for all humans to cherish God and follow his demands. For Jesus, the focus was on “the rights of human beings.”  For Jesus we can respond to God only if we are responding to our fellow human beings. He concluded that it is in loving our neighbor that we love God and that in cherishingthe rights of our neighbors that we respect the rights of God. There is no going to God without going to our neighbor.

The mass was also punctuated with lively singing, in the popular style, further reflecting an impulse we had experienced time and time again in our travels: the impulse of the Salvadoran people to make their worship responsive to their community’s historical and present context. From the community of Romero’s crypt, to the Christian Base Communities and their formation schools, to now the parish mass in Perquin, Salvadoran religious leaders and lay people had a strong confidence in their own assessment of their liturgical needs, and a willingness to carry on as they needed to, even in opposition to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Following mass we loaded onto the bus and Daniel drove us to a short way to the community of Agua Blanca in Cacaopera, Morazán, where we met with Acción y Vida, an organization of youth leaders seeking to improve quality of life through sustained social and political engagement. We heard from a new generation of leaders who, while inspired by their formation in communities of resistance, feel unrepresented of the language and models of their parents. They are engaged in inspiring work to offer sexuality education to their communities, educate people about HIV/AIDS, and continue to insist that the voice of rural youth be a part of the formation of El Salvador’s future. Still, like many of the groups we have met with, their voices are on the distant margins of the national conversation, out of the boundaries of the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, and maybe even not central to the discourse in their local communities, still they continue their work with impressive energy and a gentle but persistent spirit.

Finally, after a 5 hour ride back to San Salvador, we gathered for dinner with Fr. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit, who taught at the Catholic University. He is alive today only because he was out of the country, at a conference in Thailand, the night that is colleagues and their two housekeepers were murdered by the death squads. Sobrino’s talk captured the spirit of so many groups and individuals we had met. His theological affirmations were rooted in the reality of the lived experience of the people of El Salvador, and he was insistent that all true theology must be grounded in experience.

The people of El Salvador call Romero a Saint. While it may take generations for the Catholic Church to agree, Sobrino told us “reality makes things obvious.” Those who are grounded in reality know that “in Romero, God walked with us in El Salvador.” Sobrino spoke beautifully, clearly, and succinctly, without straying into complex reasoning or cloudy questions of ontology and metaphysics. He insisted that we all keep our eyes squarely on the suffering of the world, and act to end it, drawing on the stories and teachings of Christianity to reflect on and frame that action. Finally, he offered a perfect closing mantra for the fullness of what we met in El Salvador. Quoting from Micah he reminded us that our task is to walk humbly with God. Like Madre Alicia who walked into the teeth of an empire for the sake of truth, sustained by the potent power of a mother’s anguish; walk. Like the women who carry on a weekly mass in Romero’s crypt despite pressure from the Archbishop to stop; walk. Like the 6 year-old Children in formation schools in the countryside, learning the tragedy of their history and the hope of their parents struggle; walk. “The one thing we have learned here” Sobrino said, “is never to give up.”

The Union delegation with Fr. Jon Sobrino (front center).

Resurrection and Trespass


As our bus made its way to the national cathedral on Sunday morning, my mind was flooded with images of the various events we had read about taking place there. I had read and seen images of these events so many times that my thoughts came to me as if they were memories. But the reality is that these memories are not my own.  The crypt, located under the main cathedral is where the body of Monsenor Romero now lies- but the Monsenor is hardly at rest. We were there to attend a special mass organized by a group of local lay women who have named themselves “Community of the Crypt.” The first thing I noticed was the cloth hanging on the lectern, which displayed one of the many powerful statements of solidarity with the people made by Oscar Romero. Aware of the many threats to his life, Romero proclaimed to the country that even if he was to be killed he would be resurrected in his people.

Coinciding with the sound of a thundering fire cracker (or two) which signaled the start of a protest on the front steps of the cathedral, mass began with statements from members of the Community of Crypt. During the service there was a constant flow of motion around Monsenor Romero’s tomb and even though a mass was taking place (seemingly unperturbed), so were many other things. This is perhaps a good reflection of what Romero’s ministry must have been like. Daily dedication to the eucharist (i.e. the sacrifice of Christ) surrounded by seeming chaos.

Following mass we were fortunate enough to talk with some of the women from the Community of the Crypt. They explained how the group was founded, how they went about planning weekly mass, and the challenges they sometimes face in their relationship with the diocese of San Salvador and its officials: a challenge rooted in the tension between living the gospel of the poor as Oscar Romero did in his life and serving dogmatism, as the hierarchy of the institutional Roman Catholic Church so often does. After paying respects to Romero’s tomb we also spent some time in the cathedral above. As we departed from the national cathedral, Dr. Knitter pointed out the irony of how accurately the cathedral/crypt placement mirrors the predominant dynamic in the Catholic Church. The church of the people which preaches justice, peace, and solidarity takes place in the “basement” while the traditional mass of the institutional church takes place above in the grand cathedral. Fortunately, Monsenor Romero, as he did in life, takes his place with the people, in the basement, where his presence is palpable. Although I had expected to find a place of mourning and sadness, the tomb of Oscar Romero was a space overflowing with joy, hope, and purpose. I felt immediately that Romero was correct. He has been resurrected in his people.

A less spiritual encounter with Salvadoran culture filled our afternoon: grocery shopping for snacks. As we 13 Americans filed into the Super Selecto a Salvadoran man struggled to get past us. With an exasperated look on his face, the man whispered to himself “OH…MY…GOD!” which immediately triggered memories of many times I have done the same exact thing, annoyed by groups of tourists in New York. Although the experience seemed to connect he and I in some way (how similar we human creatures are) it also stirred a feeling that had been simmering since we arrived in El Salvador: trespass.

Although it would be easy enough to dismiss this sense of trespassing as simply reflective of feeling awkward as a foreigner (not knowing the language or custom, travelling in a pack, etc.), I suspect the feeling goes much deeper. What is obvious from even the little time we have spent in this country is that El Salvador is a land and a people defined by the atrocities of war and the demoralization of denial. Generations of people in El Salvador have only horrific crimes against human rights as the historical points of reference in their lives; massacres, assassinations, disappearances, capture and torture. It is upon this sacred collective experience that I am trespassing. The remnants of a country brought to it knees by American capitalism, the same society to which I belong.

Gene Polumbo, a journalist who has lived in El Salvador since 1980 (the year Romero was assassinated), expressed this concept well when he told our group that the blood of the 75,000 Salvadoran men, women, and children who were killed in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s is on our hands.  By “our” he meant the United States. By “our” he meant himself and those of us surrounding him. By “our” he meant most (maybe all) of the people who will read this blog. Our foreign policy has caused the massacre of tens of thousands. Our failure to act allowed 8,000 people to be disappeared. Our ignorance allowed these crimes against humanity to remain unknown. Of all the things Gene shared with us that evening, and he shared MANY things, this stuck with me the most.

In light of all these realities, I hope my trespass here in El Salvador will also be a true journey of solidarity and accompaniment, a mission to simply be with the pain of this people so that I might come to know truth better. I pray that the burning hope which I see vividly alive in the Salvadoran people will light aflame hope within me as well.

Küng & Ratzinger vs Benedict XVI !

At the age of 82, my good friend Hans Küng is still at it.  He launched a new book on March 10 (the same day his former university colleague, Joseph Ratzinger — a.k.a. Benedict XVI — launched Part II of his book on Jesus).

The title of Küng’s book  in English, Can the Church Still Be Saved?, is essentially a call to the Roman Catholic laity to stand up,  to resist the refusal of Pope and bishops to allow any real change in the RC Church, and so save the Church.

The only hope for the Church, Küng maintains, lies in the courage and resistance of the laity.

Sounds radical?  Sure is.  But I heard basically the same message from Joseph Ratzinger when he was a promising young theologian serving as a “peritus” (an expert advisor to the bishops) during the Second Vatican Council.  At a press conference during the 1963 session (the exact year is fuzzy in my aging memory), he told us that throughout the history of the RC Church it has happened that the Bishops so lost touch with the message of Jesus that it became incumbent upon the laity to exercise their prophetic role given in Baptism and to stand up and refuse to obey!

That was Joseph Ratzinger in 1963….Quite different from Benedict XVI in 2011.

But the Ratzinger of 63 echoes what Küng said in the press conference for his new book. I quote from a report on the conference:

Speaking at the book launch in Tübingen, Germany, Wednesday, the 82-year-old said Jesus Christ would not like today’s Catholic Church.

‘If Jesus of Nazareth returned, he would not prohibit contraceptives, he would not shut out divorced people, and so on’, Kueng said.

He charged that the curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, had come up with a long series of rulings over the centuries that opposed the teachings laid down in the Christian New Testament.  He said Benedict XVI and his predecessor John Paul II had reinforced this.

In the book, he argues that resistance to church doctrines that are ‘obviously against the Gospels’ is a duty.

Küng said this included Catholic parishes insisting on keeping their priests after they marry, even if church law declares the man is no longer a priest.

He said the church could only saved by the faithful taking over responsibility for their church.

Küng’s words, and his example, urge me to take up this responsibility.

I sure hope a growing number of Catholic laywomen and men will feel the same. The well-being of our Church is at stake.

The Catholic Church Burns While the Bishops Fiddle

Two items crossed my desk and mind yesterday. Together, they evoked Nero and his fiddle.

The first was an excellent article by my fellow parishioner at Ascension Parish on 107th Street, Peter Steinfels.   It’s titled “Further Adrift,” playing on the title of his 2004 book, A People Adrift, and showing that in the light of the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the Catholic Church is suffering even greater losses, in numbers and in spirit.

Two paragraphs in Peter’s reflections captured the sad reality of my church:

One out of every three Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. That dwarfs the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. Thomas Reese, SJ, recently described that loss as “a disaster.” He added, “You wonder if the bishops have noticed.”

I wonder too. As far as I know, there has never been any systematic discussion of these findings at the meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They will meet again in mid-November, with an agenda that will deal with many things—but not with these devastating losses.

Item #2: My son John sent me a pamphlet that had been distributed in his Chicago parish on Understanding the Revised Mass Texts. In it, the bishops, following orders from the Vatican, labor to explain the importance of such liturgical changes as:

  • “greatly sinned” instead of “sinned through my own fault.”
  • “and with thy spirit” instead of “and also with you”
  • “Lord God of hosts” instead of “God of power and might.”
  • (here’s the kicker!) “not worthy that you should come under my roof” instead of “worthy to receive you.”

Where are these men, these pastors!  They fiddle with language while their – OUR! – church burns.

In his article, Steinfels expresses not just the anger, but the deep, deep grief that so many Catholics are feeling.

Whether it’s “greatly sinned” or “sinned through my own fault” something is profoundly amiss in the Catholic Church.

Not So Easy, your Holiness!

Pope Bendict XVI’s recent efforts to deal with the clergy sexual abuse problem are not only too feeble; they’re downright dangerous.

The National Catholic Reporter reported on Benedict’s sermon for his general audience on Sept 8 with this lead: “The problem of abuse by clergy is solved more by a spirit of penitence and conversion by its members than by a radical change of church structures, Pope Benedict XVI said.”

The Pope’s own words were: “a true renewal of the ecclesial community is not achieved so much with a change in the structures as much as with a sincere spirit of penitence.”

Your Holiness,  that approach not only lets you and the bishops off the hook.  It allows the conditions in which this problem bred to endure.

Maybe it’s because the Pope doesn’t like liberation theology that he won’t accept one of its central claims:  sin may have its roots in the human heart, but it can take on an independent reality of its own in the structures of institutions and laws.  To confront sin and evil, a change of heart is always necessary.  But often it is not enough.

And that certainly pertains to the problem of priestly and episcopal pedophilia, and its cover up.   The actual acts of sexual abuse of children may not be directly linked to obligatory celibacy. But it does have to do with the clerical ethos or culture that results from the all-male, all-celibate (supposedly), and all-powerful structures of authority in the Catholic Church.

Even more clearly, the sad cover-ups and the persistent refusal to admit complicity by most bishops (especially in the USA) have to do with the patriarchal structures that place absolute power of authority in the hands of one bishop in each diocese and in the hands of one bishop over all the Catholic Church.

Unless these structures are changed according to the spirit and I dare say mandates of the Second Vatican Council – which called for greater power sharing between bishops and pope, and between laity and clergy – there will be no “true renewal of the ecclesial community.”

Your Holiness,  Please change your heart so that we can change our structures.