Why we must hear the voice of the poor

By Steve Atherton

When the first celebration of the life of Óscar Romero was held in the Metropolitan Cathedral in 1980, just after his martyrdom, the person giving the homily ended with the words: ‘Óscar Romero, Saint of the Americas, Pray for us.’ In response, Archbishop Derek Worlock exclaimed, ‘Steady on!’, yet it turns out that the speaker got it right. Blessed Óscar Romero is to be canonised this year.

Óscar Romero was one of the most significant Church figures of the 20th century and one of the spiritual fathers of Pope Francis. Obviously, they are both South American bishops, they both pray constantly, they both have a very traditional spirituality, they both prioritise the view from the margins of society, they both put the Church at the service of the poor, they both hold in tension different ways of being Church, and they have both understood that opinions only change when people listen to each other.

Romero was a good listener. He struggled with the changes brought about by Vatican ll until he took to heart the opening words of ‘Gaudium et spes’: ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.’

He held a secretarial role during the conferences of Latin American bishops at Medellin and Puebla where their insistence on the centrality of the experience of the poor became the recognisable voice of Latin American theology, later better known as Liberation Theology. This was the start of Romero’s ‘conversion’. When he was a bishop he allowed himself to be evangelised by the poor. You can imagine the surprise he caused when, as Archbishop of San Salvador, he would go to a village and knock on doors. After he had visited a few houses, the word spread around and he would go to the church to talk with people for the rest of the day. He took their concerns to heart and called himself ‘the voice of those who have no voice of their own’.

I think that Romero has been such an important figure in the Church in England because he identified which issues of the day were important, and because of his insistence on prayer and his vision of the Church as a place of safety in the midst of a troubled world. Romero’s significance for us lies in the way that although he was not a politician, his reading the Gospel compelled him to recognise that, ultimately, only political pressure can protect the weak and the vulnerable.