Monthly Archives: October 2018

Serve in mission

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

Notes for a homily at Masses at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center, Ames, Iowa, the sister parish of la Parroquia Dulce Nombre de María, Dulce Nombre de Copán, Honduras.

Isaiah 53:10-11
Hebrews 4:14-16
Mark 10:35-45

I come to you, with deep gratitude, from your sister parish in Honduras, Dulce Nombre de María – for your generosity, for your prayers, for your concern. Our pastor, Father German Navarro, sends you his prayers and thanks.

Our parish, in the mountains of southwest Honduras, has over fifty towns and villages, most with their own church where Delegates of the Word lead Sunday Celebrations of the Word. Catechists help form the children and prepare them for the sacraments. Twenty-nine Communion ministers bring communion to the sick and communion at Sunday celebrations.

I come back this week to St. Thomas, where I served for almost twenty-three years as a lay campus minister, also involved in the parish social ministry. I have been eleven years in Honduras. Two years ago I was ordained a permanent deacon, the first in our diocese, the third in Honduras. I have been serving in some way with the Dulce Nombre parish for almost all my time in Honduras. Now I live in the parish.

Last Sunday I was among about 100 deacons serving at the Mass of the Canonizations of Monseñor Oscar Romero, Pope Paul VI, and five others. When I got the tickets for my pastor and me, I thought this would just be a chance to be close to the Pope. But it ended up that we deacons served, by carrying the Body and Blood of Christ to the thousand or so priests there. We were there to serve.

It is so easy to want to have the best seats in the house – or the seats of power in the Kingdom, as James and John wanted. But the message of Jesus is that we are to serve as he does: “I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give me life as a ransom for many.”


Saint Clare washing the feet of her nuns

The temptation to power and dominion is strong, even in the church – as we have seen recently. But the commitment to serve is also present. I would say it is especially present among the laity who give themselves in service to their families, to those in need, and to the poor.

I think of Adolfo, one of our extraordinary ministers of communion in our parish. Basically illiterate, he walks at least once a week to several of the villages in his part of the parish, bringing communion, most of all to the sick and homebound.

I think of the people who give a day to help out in the parish coffee fields, which St. Thomas helped buy a few years ago. They come, putting aside their own work or a chance to get paid work, and get nothing but lunch. I also recall the women who come and work in the parish kitchen to prepare meals for our parish formation programs

And then there were the forty-two men and women, including five young people, who gave a whole week in mission last month, visiting homes of the sick and those estranged from the church and society. This is our third year of these week-long missions which have borne fruit, including the number of couples married in the church.

This service is not something that is done out of mere idealism or good will, as important as these may be. We make real formation efforts to help our parishioners recognize their calling to accompany the poor and needy as Christ was made flesh and made himself poor, to accompany the suffering.

And there is suffering.

A medical brigade from St. Louis has been coming to our area and I often help them with translating. This last time, an older woman brought her eleven-year old son with Down’s Syndrome, to get some medical attention. He had never seen a doctor in his life.

A more tragic tale is of a man in his early thirties who committed suicide. He had serious mental health problems and was taking medicine. But the medicine ran out and he could not get it locally. It was only available in the capital, about 6 hours away, for about $200. And he could not get the money, even on loan. As I see it, he did not kill himself; the lack of medical care killed him.

Medical care is hard to come by in our parish and it is expensive to get to the hospital and special clinics in the nearby city of Santa Rosa. At times people pay about seventy dollars for the trip. This is in country where over 65% earn less than two dollars a day. With a generous donation of St. Thomas, our parish purchased a car to make these trips for the cost of fuel and a small stipend for the driver. We are also asking each sector of the parish to set up a process to have funds available when the family cannot afford even this. Carro San Rafael is a blessing that you have given us.

The problems are many – lack of easy access to high school education is one. The donations for scholarships to a weekend program have helped.

The cost of living, especially the cost of basic foods, has risen. Fuel costs for vehicles and propane have also gone up significantly. There is also massive unemployment and those who work on the land do not get a good price for their products. Coffee is getting about75 cents a pound. Buying El Zapote coffee helps 14 families who get more than twice this.

Thus there are many people who get into debt – sometimes for their farming costs. In addition, this year some crops have been affected by near-drought conditions, affecting the lives of farmers.

Our area does not have the violence in the cities and other areas affected by gangs and drug-trafficking, but there have been cases of violence, often related to a cycle of vengeance that is exacerbated by a justice system that doesn’t work.

No wonder people flee, seeking an escape from desperation, from poverty, from violence.

In all this we need to turn to the advice of Pope Francis and to the witness of the saints who call us to accompany the poor and take on their cause as our own. As the recently canonized Oscar Romero of El Salvador said:

“The church, in its zeal to convert to the gospel, is seeing that its place is by the side of the poor, of the outraged, of the rejected, and that in their name it must speak and demand their rights.”

We do this – not just in Honduras, but here in Ames – because we seek to serve as the Lord calls us, even more as the Lord Jesus himself is.

We need to recover in our prayer lives the image of Christ the Servant, for, as the letter to the Hebrews notes, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” He sympathizes with our weakness, identifying with those at the margins. Jesus, in his sufferings justified many, calls us to have compassion, to literally suffer with those who suffer.

We need to recover the place of service in our lives as followers of Christ the servant.

As Martin Luther King said, we need to recover a new definition of greatness, not the greatness of power and position that James and John sought.

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

…by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

All of us can be that servant. Your mission field may not be Honduras. But you have a mission here in central Iowa – to serve those you love, to serve even your enemies, and most all of to serve those at the margins. There we can encounter Christ. There we can find true greatness. For there we can serve as the Lord serves.

This may not be easy. It may be costly. It cost Monseñor Romero his life, but as he wrote a month before he was martyred:

My disposition ought to be to give my life for God, whatever might be the end of my life. The circumstances which are unknown will be lived with God’s grace. He attended the martyrs and, if it is necessary, I will feel him very close when I hand over my last breath to him. But more valiant than the moment of death is to hand over to him all one’s life and live for Him.

In your family, in your work, in your play, be a servant.

Romero and the witness of daily life

Shortly before his death, Romero went on retreat. In the middle of the violence and repression in El Salvador, in the face of the death threats he was receiving, in the midst of the opposition from most of the bishops in El Salvador, he sought the will of God in prayer.

During that retreat, on February 25, 1980, he wrote:

…my disposition ought to be to give my life for God, whatever might be the end of my life. The circumstances which are unknown will be lived with God’s grace. He attended the martyrs and, if it is necessary, I will feel him very close when I hand over my last breath to him. But more valiant than the moment of death is to hand over to him all one’s life and live for Him.

Martyrdom is a gift of God. It is not something that Romero or other true martyrs sought. Martyrdom comes from a life lived in witness to the living God. The word martyr means, first of all “witness.”

Martyrdom is lived and prepared for in the way we live every day.

Monseñor Romero, teach us to live our lives as a constant witness to the God of life, the God of love.



Romero – thou shalt not kill

One of the most important homilies Romero ever preached was the one on the day before his martyrdom. They are prophetic words that were probably the tipping point for those who sought to silence his voice. His words was greeted with a thunderous applause in the Sacred Heart Basilica where he was preaching.

convento painting copy

They are words that all of us should take into account in a world best by calls for vengeance, for war, for violence against our enemies. They are no more than a concrete call to conscience which is based in the way of Christ who told us to love our enemies and in the example of the early Christians who proclaimed, “We must serve God rather than humans.”

Read, pray, and live these words of Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, martyr of the Americas:

“I want to make a call, in a special way, to the men of the army and in particular to the bases of the Guardia Nacional, the police in their barracks.
“Brothers, you belong to our own people. You kill your own brother peasants; and in the face of an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God should prevail that says: ‘Do not kill!’ No solider is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. No one has to comply with an immoral law. It is time now that you recover your conscience and obey its dictates rather than the command of sin.
“The Church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of the dignity of the human person, cannot remain silent before so much abomination. We want the government seriously to consider that reforms mean nothing when they come bathed in so much blood. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: ‘Stop the repression!’”

Romero and the idols

Idolatry is often associated in the popular Catholic imagination with worship of images of false gods. But in the twentieth century the Church began to speak more about both personal idols and social idols.

Romero spoke several times about idols – first of all about personal idols, the idols of self. For example, in his March 23, 1978, homily he said:

We must overturn so many idols,
the idol of self, first of all,
so that we can be humble,
and only from our humility
can learn to be redeemers,
can learn to work together
in the way the world really needs.
Liberation that raises a cry against others
is no true liberation.
Liberation that means revolutions of hate and violence
and takes the lives of others
or abases the dignity of others
cannot be true liberty.
True liberty does violence to self
and, like Christ,
who disregarded that he was sovereign,
becomes a slave to serve others.

But Romero was not averse to identifying and denouncing the idols of society. In his January 7, 1979, homily he boldly stated:

That reign of God finds itself hindered, manacled, by many idolatrous misuses of money and power. Those false gods must be overthrown…. Today the idols are different. They are called money, they are called political interests, they are called national security. As idolatries, they are trying to displace God from his altar. The church declares that people can be happy only when, like the magi, they adore the one true God.

On the day before he was martyred, Romero referred to a hymn that had been written. It is the Gloria of the Misa Campesina Salvadoreña.

The last two verse boldly state the challenge of idolatry:

Now, Lord, you shall be glorified
as you were before, there on Mount Tabor,
when you see this people now transformed
there is life and liberty in El Salvador.

But the gods of power and money
are working against this transfiguration.
Therefore, now you, Lord, are the first
to raise your arm against the oppression.

Beloved Monseñor, give us the courage to raise our hearts and minds and live against the idolatries of our lives and of our world.

Romero and the wide Reign of God

Though Romero was educated in the pre-Vatican II church, he grew to have a grander vision of the workings of God in history than the narrow ecclesiology that branded non-Catholics as “separated brethren” or “sects.”

He connected with Protestants in El Salvador and he received a lot of support from Protestant churches throughout the world. Some attended his Sunday Masses and Romero often acknowledged their presence.

Though he was critical of violence and narrow ideological positioning, Romero was open to speaking with all, even the revolutionaries.


What he said in a December 3, 1978 homily provides the framework for this openness:

Everyone who struggles for justice,
everyone who makes just claims in unjust surroundings
is working for God’s reign,
even though not a Christian.
The church does not comprise all of God’s reign;
God’s reign goes beyond the church’s boundaries.
The church values everything that is in tune
with its struggle to set up God’s reign.
A church that tries only to keep itself
pure and uncontaminated
would not be a church of God’s service to people.
The authentic church is one that does not mind
conversing with prostitutes and publicans and sinners,
as Christ did –
and with Marxists and those of various political movements –
in order to bring them salvation’s true message

God works and the Reign of God is beyond the Catholic Church, as Vatican II also noted.

May Romero’s openness to the Reign of God fill today’s Church with an openness to God working in many ways and through many people.

Romero and Pope Paul VI

It is fitting that Monseñor Romero and Pope Paul VI are canonized together. One of my favorite images of Romeo is when he met with Pope Paul VI and presented him with a photo of the recently martyred Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande.


Pope Paul VI encouraged Romero to continue his work. Despite negative comments from Salvadoran elites and most of the bishops and despite the cool, at times harsh, reception that Romero received in some departments of the Vatican Pope Paul received him warmly.

Romero, in his diary, recalled what he heard from the Pope:

“I understand your difficult work. It is a work that cannot be understood, in which you need to have a lot of patience and courage. I know that not all think as you do: in the situation of your country this unanimity of thought. Nevertheless, proceed with courage, with patience, with strength, with hope.”

Pope Paul VI, who wrote of the new vision of evangelization linked with liberation in his 1975  letter Evangelii Nuntiandi, shared Romero’s vision.

In a homily shortly after returning from Rome, Romero said:

When Paul VI talked about having to renew the church, and that this was the goal of the Second Vatican Council, he explained very well that renewal does not mean accommodating to the modern ways of the world, which at times are unchristian. Renewal means making the church consistent with the seed that was planted. A tree, however much it grows, remains consistent with its seed. What is important to understand is that God’s word is a seed, and it cannot be altered. We would like a teaching more accommodated to our interests. We’d like a preaching that isn’t so bothersome, that doesn’t cause conflicts.

But when Christ planted the seed, he had conflicts. That seed is the word of the Just One, of the Holy One, of the one who knows what he wanted when he created humanity and nature; and so it guides us, but it collides with sin. It clashes with those who don’t want the seed to grow.

Saints Monseñor Romero and Pope Paul VI, pray for the church, that it may be a force for the real liberation of God’s people – from all that keeps us from living as members of the Reign of God.

Romero and the church of the poor

Monseñor Romero was a man of the church. His episcopal motto, taken from St. Ignatius Loyola, was “Sentir con the Iglesia” – “To be of one mind and heart with the church.”


But how that was worked out in his life is, I believe, part of the mystery of the conversions that led a humble man with a great love for the poor from his youth to become an outspoken advocate of the poor, “la voz de los sin voz” – “the voice of the voiceless.”

As archbishop he did not fail to speak against all that he perceived as sin and he suffered for that – even from his brother bishops who did not understand the political dimensions of the Gospel.

In his homily of April 16, 1978, he spoke forthrightly of what the church should avoid.

A church that doesn’t provoke any crises,
a gospel that doesn’t unsettle,
a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin,
a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin
of the society in which it is being proclaimed –

what gospel is that?
Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone,
that’s the way many would like preaching to be.
Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter
so as not to be harassed,
so as not to have conflicts and difficulties,
do not light up the world they live in.
They don’t have Peter’s courage, who told that crowd
where the bloodstained hands still were that had killed Christ:
“You killed him!”
Even though the charge could cost him his life as well, he made it.
The gospel is courageous;
it’s the good news
of him who came to take away the world’s sins.


Lord, make of us a courageous church, unafraid to speak the truth in love.




Romero and human life

In the midst of violence, repression, the killing of innocent people, including priests and catechists, Monseñor Romero affirmed the gift of life.


Less than two weeks before he was martyred, he reaffirmed this commitment in his March 16, 1980, homily:

Nothing is so important to the church as human life,
as the human person,
above all, the person of the poor and the oppressed,
who, besides being human beings,
are also divine beings,
since Jesus said that whatever is done to them
he takes as done to him.
That bloodshed, those deaths,
are beyond all politics.
They touch the very heart of God.

Do the cries of the poor touch our hearts?


Romero – prayer and the poor

Monseñor Romero was a man of prayer. It is said that when, as archbishop, he faced difficult decisions in the face of the violence and divisions in El Salvador, he could be found praying in the chapel in front of the Blessed Sacrament.


But his was not a spiritualized prayer, but a prayer rooted in the reality of the people he served, fully aware of their sufferings and of the injustice of society.

About a year after being named Archbishop of San Salvador, he shared these thoughts in his homily of February 5, 1978:

The guarantee of one’s prayer
is not in saying a lot of words.
The guarantee of one’s petitions
is very easy to know
– How do I treat the poor? –
because that is where God is.
The degree to which you approach them,
and the love with which you approach them,
or the scorn with which you approach them
– that is how you approach your God.
What you do to them, you do to God.
The way you look at them
is the way you look at God.

And so I ask myself: How do I look at the look? How do I interact with them?


The photo is of the chapel in the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador where Monseñor Romero lived and was martyred on March 24, 1980.


Romero – the seed that bears fruit

In ten days, Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero will be canonized in Rome. God willing, I will be there with my pastor to celebrate the holiness of a man who was the voice of those without a voice.


As a novena to prepare for this recognition of the church of the poor by the universal church. I will be offering quotations and occasional reflections. Today I offer words from a sermon of Monseñor Romero on the text of John’s Gospel, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains alone, but if it dies it brings forth much fruit” (John 12: 23-26).

Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives —
that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments,
who want to stay outside what demands the involvement of all of us —
they will lose their lives.
What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably,
with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled,
with good connections — politically, economically, socially —
lacking nothing, having everything.
To what good?
They will lose their lives.
But those who for love of Me uproot themselves
and accompany the poor in their suffering
and become incarnated and feel as their own the pain and the abuse —
they will secure their lives, because my Father will reward them.”
Brothers and sisters, God’s word calls us to this today.
Let me tell you with all the conviction I can muster:
it is worthwhile to be a Christian.
To each of us Christ is saying:
If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do as I do.
Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried.
Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid.
Those who shun suffering will remain alone.
No one is more alone than the selfish.
But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all,
you will reap a great harvest.
You will have the deepest satisfaction.
Do not fear death threats; the Lord goes with you

This has been a challenge for me since I first read it over thirty years ago. I want it read at my funeral.

Photo of a photo in an exhibition in the Centro Romero of the UCA, the Jesuit university in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Other posts on Francis:
The Upside-Down world of St. Francis
Francis and encountering Jesus in silence