The life of Oscar Romero, like Elizabeth Ann Seton’s, teaches the need to do the works of mercy, including the very difficult ones.
“The corporal and spiritual works of mercy should become ever more the style of our life,” as Pope Francis put it — a daily duty.
For most of us, the works of mercy mean food and clothing drives. For Romero and Mother Seton, it meant tolerating terrible suffering and bringing difficult healing. Consider how their lives reflect some of the tougher works of mercy.
To instruct the ignorant.
Oscar Romero was born in El Salvador in 1917, where “instructing the ignorant” was tough. The city offered public education for Grades 1 through 3 to give a rudimentary understanding of math and reading. But Romero’s parents wanted something more for him, so they arranged for a private tutor until age 13.
Nobody was surprised when the pious child said he wanted to be a Catholic priest and entered minor seminary. His education continued through studies at the Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained in 1942 and returned the favor of instructing the ignorant by becoming the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper where he gained a reputation for fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church.
The impoverished childhood of the Salvadoran son of Santos and Guadalupe could not be more different than Elizabeth Ann Bayley’s affluent early years in 18th-century New York.
Elizabeth grew up committed to her family’s Episcopalian faith, and married and began raising her five children in it.
Unlike Oscar Romero, Elizabeth became Catholic later in life, after she brought her sick husband to Italy in the hope for a cure. He died there, and soon after Elizabeth was introduced to the Catholic Church by the Filicchi family. They kept in touch with her after she returned home, as she learned the faith and began instructing her own children.
“You would have been pleased to hear their questions about St. Michael and how eagerly they listened to the history of the good offices done to us by the Blessed angels,” the still-Protestant Elizabeth wrote in 1804. After each lesson, she said, “I bless them each with the Sign of the Cross and I look up to God with a humble hope that he will not forsake us.”
To counsel the doubtful.
Romero was martyred at Mass in 1980 by unknown assailants allied with El Salvador’s ruling regime, at a time when Marxist elements in El Salvador were active, and when controversial forms of “liberation theology” were stirring in the Catholic Church. As a result, some Catholics feel an unease towards Romero, as if he was somehow a spokesman for this theology.
Chris Bain, a British Catholic charity leader, explained to the Catholic News Agency (CNA) how this happened.
El Salvador was “run by a repressive, self-styled right-wing regime whose brutality was justified as necessary to stop the country from becoming communist, an approach supported by the U.S. government at the time,” he said.
While not embracing liberation theology, Romero spoke against the atrocities of the ruling regime and counseled others to do the same. This is the reason he was killed.
After his martyrdom the political Left “made him in their image without understanding him fully, and the Right colluded.”
What people don’t understand, said the postulator for Romero’s cause, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, was that Romero was not a “reformer, let alone a politician, as some have wanted to see him, exploiting his name.” Instead, he was a “man of God, a man of prayer, a man of obedience and love for people.”
To bear wrongs patiently.
“Romero’s witness of martyrdom, starting from Latin America, through Pope Francis, can help the whole of America, the whole of Europe,” Archbishop Paglia told the Catholic News Agency.
El Salvador’s government had tolerated, or facilitated, the murder of 30 priests in his archdiocese, and death squads had killed many catechists and abducted many lay faithful. In the face of these trials, Archbishop Romero said he could find “rest, peace and strength” in Christ, and felt that the martyrs would “feel His closeness when offering their last breath.”
On March 24, 1980, Oscar Romero gave what was to be his last homily in the Hospital of Divine Providence. “We know that every effort to improve society, especially when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us,” he said.
As Romero raised the chalice at the consecration of the Eucharist, a hired assassin entered the chapel and shot him dead.
St. John Paul II noted that Romero died as other saints did who were killed at the altar—St. Stanislaus of Krakow and St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury—saying, “They killed him right at the most sacred moment, during the highest and most divine act.”
A strong connection between the Eucharist and martyrdom of a different sort was a daily part of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life.
After she entered the Catholic Church, Mother Seton became a professed religious sister, founding a congregation that served children and the poor. She worked from an office positioned so she could see the tabernacle through the chapel door throughout the day.
Looking to the tabernacle in the midst of her duties, she would at times experience what she described as “a daily martyrdom. I love and live, and love and live in a state of separation indescribable.” Her martyrdom was a profound sense of absence: “In meditation, prayer, communion, I find no soul; in the beings around me, dearly as I love them, I find no soul; in that tabernacle I know he is, but I see not, feel not.”
To admonish sinners.
Bishop Oscar Romero was killed in odium fidei, out of hatred for the faith, and that included Romero’s adherence to Christ’s message of service to the poor. His message was “like a slap in the face to a contemporary society folded in on itself, each individual interested in his own well-being,” Archbishop Paglia told CNA.
“It is inconceivable,” said Romero in a September 9, 1979 homily, “that someone is called ‘Christian’ and does not give preference to the poor as Christ did. This is not Christianity! … Let’s say to everyone: we must take the cause of the poor seriously, as if it were our own cause, or even more, for it is indeed the very cause of Jesus Christ.”
The life of a saint inevitably involves the unpleasant task of admonishing sinners. In her Collected Works, several letters Mother Seton wrote to parents of certain pupils testify to this.
She told one set of parents that their child had a “disposition to self-will which made herself and us unhappy.” In reference to another child, she spoke of the “true danger” of “pushing her too far too fast,” forcing “an exterior look without the interior spirit.”
To comfort the afflicted.
Like any loving mother, Elizabeth Seton believed that admonishment of a child—if done with kindness and sensitivity—is meant for the sake of a greater comfort. And that is also true of a bishop, a spiritual father and representative of Mother Church.
At the beatification of St. Oscar Romero, Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said that “the figure of Romero is still alive and giving comfort to the marginalized of the earth.”
In a similar way, the legacy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s service to the poor has continued to bless untold numbers of people over the past two centuries.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
This reflection was previously published. Click here to view all Seton Reflections.
Image: Creative Commons 3.0