Friday, March 6, 2009

Soul Journal of El Salvador: The Meaning of Saints

Yesterday, I wrote about "the communion of saints" from a Protestant perspective, that all of us are called saints because of the grace of God. Today, I want to begin with a different notion of sainthood. We often speak of this or that person as a "saint," meaning that s/he does wonderful things, is self-giving, or seems especially holy. (The root word for 'saint' and 'holy' are the same in Latin and Greek and Spanish. English is the oddity here.) Or, we speak of specific saints from history, those noted persons who have been officially designated by the Roman Catholic Church as saints according to their lives, their deeds, and miracles attributed to prayers in their names, etc. Hence, we have Saint Valentine, Saint Jude, Saint Mary, Saint Augustine, and before too many years I suspect that we will have a Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

Being born and bread Protestant, I have never had a great appreciation or understanding of saints. I heard of Catholics who would "pray to saints" and I thought that was weird. I heard of miracles that were attributed to those prayers and it sounded hokey to me (still does). And, the whole things smacked of a kind of "works righteousness" which seemed to rub against my understanding of grace. But, then I met San (Saint) Romero.

I call him San Romero because that's what courageous people in El Salvador call him. He has not yet been officially designated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and, frankly, there are numerous political and theological hurdles to such an act. But, it is because of Archbishop Oscar Romero's life and death that I think I am beginning to understand a different meaning of sainthood.

Jesus, speaking about his impending death, once said, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). San Romero used that metaphor to speak of his own death, saying "If they kill me, I shall rise once again in you, my people."

And that is precisely what I see among the poor in El Salvador. Because San Romero was in a position of power, but chose to walk with the people in humility, the humble people of El Salvador embrace their humility as a place of dignity. Because San Romero was in a position to live in a palace, but chose instead to live simply at a hospital for cancer patients, the feeble in El Salvador know that God does not reject them in their weakness. Because San Romero was in a position to live, but chose instead to speak the truth even under the continual threat of assassination, God's people in El Salvador are willing to live and even to die if necessary, in order to proclaim "good news to the poor" (Luke 4:16ff). And even when San Romero was murdered while serving the sacraments at the chapel of that hospital, his spirit has indeed risen among the people. He continues to inspire, the continues to teach, he continues to give hope that the work for justice is worth the price that it exacts.

If that is what a "saint" is, then I'm all for it. I have no compunction about saying, "San Romero, pray for us, live among us, and lead us in our walk toward justice." Amen.

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