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Issue Date:  March 31, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Expensive Catholic words

I don’t know if “prudence” is in Archbishop Pius Alick Vundla Ncube’s vocabulary, but the Zimbabwean prelate has placed himself squarely in the front lines of advocacy for the country’s poor and that means also squarely in opposition to Robert Mugabe, the guerrilla leader turned prime minister.

I write this on the eve of the anniversary of the assassination on March 24, 1980, of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. I don’t know much more than is in Marko Phiri's article about Archbishop Ncube, but what is described as his advocacy for the poor, his pursuit of justice, raises those familiar, if difficult, issues that begin to surface when the Gospel is raised in the public arena. (See story)

Preferential option for the poor. Justice. Peace. One is almost reluctant to use these words. They’ve become so worn and ground thin by overuse. The worry is they have become brittle to the breaking point or are on the brink of collapsing in a heap of dust.

Yet the ideas -- don’t speak them, just think them and maybe they’ll regain some of their weight and resonance -- are seductive in a wholly appropriate way. If, especially in this season, we move through our prayers and readings and meditations on the final weeks of Jesus’ ministry, then we understand that these themes are part of our religious genetic code.

Romero, of course, runs the risk of being romanticized into caricature. One gets the sense, however, in reading his biography and his diaries, that this rather unassuming churchman had little desire to become anyone’s champion.

That’s usually the case, isn’t it, with genuine leaders? They are more often than not dragged to the podium, forced by circumstance to take their place before the crowd. Articulating the point of view becomes a requirement of their lives before it becomes a choice. And always -- from Jesus to Gandhi, from Dorothy Day to Martin Luther King and so many others in this era and past -- always it gets them into trouble. They understand arrest, they have premonitions of death.

Those words -- peace, justice, the poor -- are Catholic words. They roll off our tongues so easily and so often in sermons and discussion groups, in what we read and sing. Despite all the effort we and others devote to the complex of stories and controversies that make up the modern church, those words still define the bulk of the church’s life.

And every now and then we are reminded of how expensive they can be.

Romero holds such strong appeal 26 years after his death, I think, because he was slowly led to a kind of Christian imprudence; the case he articulated was fashioned from the reality of death and oppression around him. Reluctant he may have been, but there was also an integrity that moved him eventually to cut through the official obfuscations, the business-as-usual ignorance that a bishop might claim of these complex political and military realities. He cut through the haze that we all know is the stuff of justifying state violence, and he called it for what it is: sin.

That’s the point that is usually lost in the recollection of his final sermon, which ends in his plea to soldiers to disobey orders to kill and then the spectacularly bold call to the government, “In the name of God, and in the name of this longsuffering people … I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

Many paragraphs before that he spoke of “personal sin” as “the root of the great social sin.” In a prescient analysis that stands today, he said, “Present-day society is a sort of anonymous world in which no one is willing to admit guilt and everyone is responsible. We are all sinners, and we have all contributed to this massive crime and violence in our country.”

It was an expensive sermon. The next day he was assassinated.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006

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