By Catherine Sullivan
“I really should understand this by now,” I thought as I sat in a graduate-level seminar on Catholic social teaching. “But I still don’t get it.”
The topic was Archbishop Óscar Romero, a man I had encountered many times before. As a high school student, I viewed the 1989 film about his life, “Romero,” in religion class. As an undergraduate, I spent a week living, serving and learning at the Romero Center in Camden, New Jersey. Even though I was familiar with the basics of his biography, his story had yet to penetrate my heart.
The adults who had facilitated those experiences were ardent in their devotion to the future saint. They exhibited a passionate, fiery desire for social justice that was equal parts inspiring and intimidating. On an intellectual level, I understood the call to give food to the hungry and shelter the homeless. I wanted to feel the same passion for justice as my mentors clearly did, but fiery was the last word I would use to describe myself. I’m an introvert who feels uncomfortable at protests and isn’t great at making small talk with people on the street.
Could I change those things about myself? Would I have to in order to be a good Christian?
My Catholic social teaching professor was different. On the first day of class, she entered the room calmly, gently resting her hands on the seminar table before beginning. As the semester progressed, my respect and admiration for her grew as I learned about her life at the local Catholic Worker House, listened to her incisive readings of the church’s magisterial documents and heard rumors about her subversive work for justice abroad. She was much more inspiring than intimidating, and her evident integrity and peaceful demeanor led me to believe that I could trust her with questions I had been too embarrassed to ask anyone else.
So, after class that day, I worked up the courage to approach her.
“I’ve learned about Romero before, but I still don’t understand what the big deal is,” I confessed. She nodded and moved to sit back down. I knew that corrupt governments oppress their people all the time. “What makes his situation different?”
She unpacked the 8 x 10 photographs of his assassination that she had used during the lesson and placed in her bag just moments before. Passing them to me to take a closer look, she began to tell his story once more, this time including a key detail that I had somehow missed in the past.
“El Salvador is a Catholic country,” she explained in an even, soft voice. “The people in power — the wealthy people who oppressed the poor and ordered Romero’s assassination — they were all Catholic.”
As I held the photographs in my hands, looking at the sorrow and panic on the faces of people who witnessed his death, a small fire began to grow in my stomach. Grief and anger and disappointment twisted like flames inside of me as I grappled — really for the first time — with the fact that people in the church that I love and call home could act in ways that were directly opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I imagine that Romero might have felt something similar when he learned about the death of his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ. After maintaining the status quo for years, it was only then that Romero felt convicted to become “God’s microphone” and advocate for the poor, even though he knew it would likely cost him his life.
So many people find his outspoken and risky work for justice inspiring — and it is. However, knowing that Romero struggled in the beginning to understand and work against injustice relieved me from a burden of shame I had been carrying around for years. Romero’s story, paired with the way my professor gave me space to process it, both consoled me and finally convinced me that advocating for the poor is an essential and necessary part of my relationship with Jesus.
Indeed, caring for the poor is a “constitutive” part of the Christian life, but it can take many different forms. We need people like Romero who will risk it all to speak truth directly to power and people like my professor who can accompany individuals step-by-step as they experience a conversion of heart. There is a place for everyone at the table, no matter how long it may take someone to arrive.
Today, when I think of St. Óscar Romero, I think not only of his example of courage in the face of unthinkable oppression, but also of my professor’s example of patience in the face of my own complacency and privilege. As I navigate the challenges of teaching my young children how to love Jesus and pursue justice, I often need both courage and patience to answer their questions honestly, to model making good decisions about how to spend our family’s time and money, and to trust that the slow work of parenthood will bear good fruit one day.
Catherine Sullivan is a Catholic writer, reader and teacher. After earning a master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame, she spent nearly a decade teaching religion and English to middle and high school students. She now stays home with her three young daughters and writes a monthly newsletter on the Catholic imagination called Wonder & Awe. Come say hi and find more of her thoughts on books and faith on Instagram @catherinesullivanwrites.