A HOMILY PREACHED IN WORTH ABBEY CHURCH 25th JUNE 2017
“Do not be afraid”, says Jesus to his disciples in Mathew’s Gospel Ch 10,26. You know, I really don’t think he meant them to try to eliminate or ignore the fear that would come into their lives. You can’t just wave it away, you can’t do that; and after all, Jeremiah lived with it: some of his enemies threw him into an abandoned well hoping that he would starve to death in the mud. Fortunately others came and rescued him. And Jesus in Gethsemane lived with it as he fulfilled his Father’s will for our salvation. No, the context of this teaching seems to say that we must not allow our fears or apprehensions to dictate to us.
Three years ago on 23rd May Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was beatified. His story is human and moving. He had been made a rural bishop, later being promoted to Archbishop in the metropolis at a time when conservative elements in Rome were making episcopal appointments; he was regarded as a ‘safe conservative’.
When I was at university there were a number of catholic clergy involved in teaching and chaplaincy roles. One in particular was to be seen at every single party, always with a glass in his hand, chatting animatedly away. And among the student body he became known as “the cocktail priest”. Sad to say, but unsurprisingly, he did not persevere in the priesthood.
Well, Archbishop Romero was a bit of a cocktail priest, mixing with the wealthy elite, fawned on by the upper class hostesses, receiving gifts from them, baptising and marrying their children. But then the military, whose commanders belonged to that elite, began a violent persecution of the peasantry in Romero’s former diocese. One of their priests who had been a confidante of his, Fr. Rutilio Grande, one day sent him an urgent appeal to visit them and by his presence protect them from impending violence by the army. He rather reluctantly agreed because he regarded those people, and indeed Fr. Grande as well, as trouble makers. But he arrived too late: while he was still on his way, the military shot Fr. Grande dead, entered his village and massacred the population who had gathered together in the village plaza to receive the Archbishop.
The scene of wholesale slaughter and destruction that greeted him was a profound shock, and the murder of Fr. Grande affected him even more deeply. Anger and frustration kicked in and slowly turned into a deep conversion. He became outspokenly critical of the military, loosening his ties with the social elite, and instead becoming the comforter and champion of the persecuted poor.
Despite several informal whispered but explicit warnings from the military, he continued to appeal in public to the soldiery in his preaching and on the radio, “in the name of God” not to involve themselves in the murder of their own people. And as we all know, on 24th March 1980 he was shot dead at the altar while celebrating Mass.
Archbishop Romero had been a “cocktail priest”, a sinner. But in the poor, he heard the Word of God and accepted and lived with the fear that then came into his life. The message for us is never to allow our own reputation or interests to stop us speaking the truth in love, bearing witness to the faith we hold.
It is such an easy option just to slip into living as a covert Christian. I have to ask myself every time I go out without a clerical collar on, ‘Why am I doing this ?’ (There can, of course, be good reasons for doing it, but I still have to ask myself the question). A couple who are friends of mine, professional scientists and faithful Catholics, tell me that in the Company they work for, anyone who admits to faith is considered weird, unconnected with reality. That isn’t a passport to promotion ! And yet acceptance of our Baptism requires that we live as agents of the Good News:
“If anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for them in the presence of my Father in heaven. But the one who disowns me in the presence of men, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven”. (Matthew 10, 32-33)
“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops”. (Mtt 10,27)
May God give us the wisdom to respond in a helpful and fruitful way to this injunction. And if we haven’t been very good about it until now, comfort comes to us from knowing that every saint there ever has been, was a converted sinner !