To the editor:
As a long lapsed and disillusioned Catholic, I couldn’t help but be moved by the images of the more than 3 million people who gathered on a beach in Rio de Janeiro to hear Pope Francis celebrate Mass last month.
Those images got a significant amount of coverage in the U.S. media. But it was the other Mass “El Papa” celebrated in one of Rio’s most destitute slums — a Mass barely covered by the U.S. media but widely covered in the Latin press, that both caught my eye, gave me hope, and made we wonder if the Catholic Church I was raised in, and the things it taught me to believe in, might, finally, have a new kind of man as its leader.
What caught my eye at the Mass “El Papa” celebrated in the slum was the large photograph of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador hanging directly behind the pope on the altar.
Like Pope Francis, Archbishop Romero was a man who stood with the poor and in opposition to the economic, social, military, and yes, religious forces in Latin America that have kept many millions mired in poverty while a wealthy, select, and powerful few have lived lives awash in material comforts.
Romero’s advocacy for the poor and criticisms of the U.S. backed elites and military of his country cost him his life in 1979, when he was assassinated while celebrating Mass by a senior military officer named Roberto D’Aubisson, a man trained by the U.S. military at Fort Benning, Ga.
D’Aubsisson was never held accountable for his role in Romero’s assassination and, in fact, went on to become president of El Salvador in the early 1980s and, along with other right wing military dictators like General Ephrain Rios Montt of Guatemala and Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama, was a close ally of the Reagan/Bush administration during its bloody siege of Central America.
Both before and after his murder Rome, led by John Paul II and then Benedict, largely ignored and minimized Oscar Romero and his courage.
As right wing conservatives politically, both John Paul and Benedict were disdainful of Romero’s commitment to and advocacy for the poor. They viewed him as a “liberation theologian,” something they, the Reagan/Bush administration, and the Central American militaries and oligarchies feared.
For Pope Francis to have featured the image of Archbishop Romero so prominently is, hopefully, a signal that the Church will, once again, stand for the things the carpenter from Nazareth stood for and died for as opposed to the interests of the rich and powerful few at the expense of the many.
Only time will tell; but Archbishop Romero’s photo on display at that Mass, and Pope Francis’s gentle and insightful comments about gay priests are both signs that someone new is in charge in Rome and that long-awaited and needed changes might, just might, finally be at hand.