Author Archives: John Donaghy

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


The Upside-Down World of St. Francis

Today, we’ll celebrate the feast of Saint Francis.


This morning I’m going to the village of Delicias, Concepción, to celebrate their feast day. They are planning a procession (despite the rain) followed by Mass.

After Mass, I plan to rush off to La Entrada to celebrate the feast with lunch with the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters here in Honduras. (Yesterday I spent the afternoon cleaning the kitchen and baking bread.)

I don’t know if Padre German will have me preach in Delicias, though he has two other Masses today. But I’ve something prepared.

There is a passage in G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi that inspires my thoughts this morning.

If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hanged the world upon nothing. If St. Francis saw in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact. St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.

I had thought of beginning to preach standing on my head – but I am not sure if I can do that well.

But Francis turned the world upside down.

The Gospel in the Franciscan lectionary is Matthew 11: 25-30: “The Father has hidden these things from the learned and revealed them to the simple.”

In a world that values degrees and learning, what is more contrary than to affirm that the poor have a privilege in understanding the revelation of God. How much more important that is here in Honduras where the rich and the powerful look down on the poor.

Francis opens up for the radical simplicity of the Gospel by interpreting the Gospel through the lens of the poor Christ, laying aside the notions of an imperial and dominating god.

The reading from Galatians 6: 14-18 is chosen because Francis bore “the marks of Jesus on his body.” He lived with the sufferings of Christ before his eyes and was marked by the stigmata for two years before his death. But what is more counter-cultural than to desire to share in the sufferings of others and to accompany those who are in need. So was Christ and so was Francis.

The first reading, Ecclesiastes 50: 1-3, 7, refers to the one who repairs the temple of the Lord and propped up the sanctuary. When Francis heard the Lord speaking to him from the cross in San Damiano, “Go, repair my church,” he took it literally and began to rebuild the church. (He also rebuilt several others.) A man of leisure, used to the good life, works with his hands.

Francis became poor for the sake of Christ; he worked as the poor worked; he gave up power and position.

He truly saw the world upside-down – suspended from the Crucified Lord.

The photo, courtesy of Terry McElrath, is from the entrance to the church at what was St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary, Callicoon, NY, where I spent high school and two years of college.

Other posts on Francis:
Francis and encountering Jesus in silence
Francis and Gandhi: peace and nonviolence
Francis and repairing the church
Francis and the leper
Saint Francis and poverty
Saint Francis: gratefully loving the world
 Saint Francis: performing the Gospel
Saint Francis and the challenge of nonviolence
Saint Francis and the evangelization of love



Francis and encountering Jesus in silence

So often I think of St. Francis in terms of what he did. He tamed the wolf at Gubbio. He praised God for all creation. He lived as a poor man and cared for lepers. He was a man of peace who charmed even the Sultan.

But central to Francis was Someone – Jesus. Francis was nothing without this relationship.

Five years ago when I visited Assisi I spent a whole morning at the Carceri, the place above Assisi full of caves, where Francis and his early followers went to pray. There is a small room where once there was the cave of St. Francis, but there are still some caves. I sat for some time in the small chapel and, in the midst of visits of school kids, I found peace.

But I also found and entered the cave of Brother Masseo. I had to maneuver down steps with a bit of ice.


I entered the small cave and went to the back.


Looking out on the hillside, I had the sense that this was one of those thin places the Irish speak about, where the veil between heaven and earth is almost non-existent.


There, in the silence, in the solitude, God is present – if we open ourselves to His loving presence.

At the center of the life of Francis of Assisi was the encounter with a God of love, an encounter nurtured by silence and prayer.

Sister Ilia Delio, in Compassion: Living the Spirit of Saint Francis, notes that this relationship was essential for Francis.

The key to Francis’ “ecological life” is relationship. Francis found himself to be an “I” in need of a “Thou” and realized that he could not be fully a person apart from being a brother. His relationship with God, rooted in a profound love of God and his acceptance of God’s love in his own life, changed the way he knew himself in relation to others. He took the commandment of Jesus to heart, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) and realized that to love oneself, one must know oneself.

Out of that silence and prayer, the place of encounter with the living God, Francis and his companions could know who they were and live as the poor men of God and preach the Gospel.

I ask God to give me the grace of silence and prayer, so that I may better serve God and the poor.


Saint Francis, help me open my heart to God and to the poor.

Francis and Gandhi: poverty and nonviolence

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every one’s need, but not every one’s greed.”

Today, the birthday of Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi, the Mahatma, in 1969, is the international day of nonviolence.


Though St. Francis never would have used the term “nonviolence,” he was an advocate of all that leads to peace.

In particular, St. Francis saw the relationship between possessions and war, taking seriously the words of Saint James (4:1-2):

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.

Because of this Francis sought a life of poverty for himself and his companions, a truly shocking proposal in the thirteenth century and even more so now.

The response of the church officials was strong. As G. K. Chesterton notes in Saint Francis of Assisi:

“The good Bishop of Assisi expressed a sort of horror at the hard life which the Little Brothers lived at the Portiuncula, without comforts, without possessions, eating anything they could get and sleeping anyhow on the ground. St. Francis answered him with that curious and almost stunning shrewdness which the unworldly can sometimes wield like a club of stone. He said, ‘If we had any possessions, we should need weapons and laws to defend them.”

There are few of us who have the courage and the trust in God to give up all, but we can start by trying to live lives of austerity.

I am not talking of the mandatory austerity that has often been imposed on countries since such austerity measures most often affect the poor.

I refer to the voluntary austerity that we see in Francis, in Gandhi, and in many who accompany the poor. This is what Pope Francis writes about in Gaudete et Exsultate, ¶70, commenting on the Beatitudes in Saint Luke’s Gospel :

Luke does not speak of poverty “of spirit” but simply of those who are “poor” (cf. Lk 6:20). In this way, he too invites us to live a plain and austere life. He calls us to share in the life of those most in need, the life lived by the Apostles, and ultimately to configure ourselves to Jesus who, though rich, “made himself poor” (2 Cor 8:9).

I believe that developing a spirituality of austerity, trying to live “a plain and austere life” is what will help us work to peace. Austerity, “sufficiency for all as the first priority,” is a personal commitment to the poor and can be,  in the words of Denis Goulet, “the economic expression of a society’s commitment to placing the needs of all above the wants of the few” (The Uncertain Promise,  p. 164).

When we learn to live austerely – as persons, as communities, as nations – we begin to live nonviolently, in the spirit of Francis and Gandhi.


The sculptures are found in a park south of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Francis and repairing the church

When I visited Assisi in 1973, one of the first places I went was the church of San Damiano, where Francis heard Christ speaking to him from the cross, “Go! Repair my church, which you can see around you is falling into ruins.”

I overheard an English Franciscan friar explaining this to a few young people. Francis was going through a serious emotional crisis after his experience as a prisoner of war in Perugia after a battle in which Assisi lost. His response was what he needed – to do something physical. His work literally rebuilding the church of San Damiano was a form of physical therapy which helped him heal.


Later that day I went up to the major basilica where Francis is buried. As I marvelled at Giotto’s frescos on the walls of the upper church, I heard a Conventual Franciscan friar explain to a group that Francis got it wrong. He was not called to rebuild the church of San Damiano but to reform the whole church.

I think this friar got it wrong.

Reform of the church begins with the small everyday acts of building up the church. It is, in a way, to show in one’s daily life what a reformed church looks like. It is not to call on the authorities and castigate them (even when that is necessary). There is more.

Leonardo Boff, in Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church, puts it this way:

Francis of Assisi was obedient to the church of the popes, and at the same time he went his own way with the gospel of poverty in his hand and heart. In 1970, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote: “Francis’s no to that type of church [powerful and rich] could not be more radical; it is what we would call prophetic protest”. It does not attack or criticize the dominant style; rather, it simply inaugurates and enacts a new style.

Francis lived the repair of the church – reconstructing San Damiano and other churches, kissing and caring for lepers, becoming one with the little ones of this world and showing others the way of poverty, living Christ amidst wealth and power by living without possessions and sharing God and all that he had with those most in need.

We can repair the church, first and foremost, by being followers of the poor Christ, who healed the sick and raised the dead. We can be a witness to the corruption by living austerely. We can “repair the world” by letting Christ repair us.

This, of course, does not rule out prophetic denunciation. But that must be rooted in a conversion to the God of the poor, so that we may become a poor church, a church of and for the poor.