Once, long ago, St. Nicholas and St. John Cassian left heaven to walk through Russia. They passed through Moscow, with its magnificent churches and palaces, and wandered the Russian forests and steppes. It was spring, and the ground was beginning to thaw. As they rounded a bend in the road, they came upon a peasant whose cart was mired in the mud. Push as he might, the peasant could not free his cart. John Cassian gave him some pious advice about the value of trials and suffering. Nicholas pulled his bishop’s robes up to his knees and got into the mud with the peasant. With his help, the peasant got the cart out of the bog. God, of course, was watching all of this, with the result that St. Nicholas now has several feast days in the Byzantine calendar, while St. John Cassian has only one every four years, on February 29. The story is apocryphal, but it reflects the love Byzantine Christians have for a bishop like Nicholas who makes their problems and suffering his own.
For centuries much of the energy of Christian institutions has gone into perpetuating their existence. Religious leaders have compromised their consciences in order to obtain power or preserve privileges. Each compromise has discredited the institution it sought to defend, until many people now consider the word “Christian” synonymous with hypocrisy and oppression. John Sprong, Episcopalian bishop of Newark has said it well, “Our task as Christian people is not to protect the institution we represent. It is to seek the truth of God.”
Archbishop Romero is a saint precisely because he changed his priorities from the service of institutions, to seeking God’s truth. Those who chose him for his office thought they had a quiet, conservative man who would support the status quo. That is what he had done all his life. Less than a month after he became archbishop, however, a right-wing death squad killed one of his priests. As Romero traveled to Aguilares to bury the priest, he began a conversion like that Paul experienced as he traveled to Damascus.
In El Salvador, seven out of ten children went to bed hungry in 1977. A few rich families owned the farmable land, while the majority of people were landless and underemployed. For half a century the rich had controlled a corrupt government. The Catholic Church had allied itself with the government and taught the people to suffer and obey. When Romero returned from Aguilares, he began to break this alliance and to take his stand with his people.
The wealthy class quickly branded him as a friend of revolution and complained to the Vatican. He was, in fact, a person of peace. He knew that even if the rebels had put down their guns there would still have been violence. The violence caused by the greed of the wealthy would have gone on as before, resulting in the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from hunger and disease. Romero encouraged peaceful solutions wherever possible, and where violence was unavoidable, he tried to overcome the spirit of hatred and vengeance.
When the government published lies in the newspapers or blacked out the news, his pulpit became a font of truth for the people. He took the Gospel from a dusty shelf and applied it to every aspect of human life. He preached the reign of God, where life, truth, and justice prevail. He defended the poor and oppressed at the risk of his own life. In all these things, he preached a Gospel that could be seen, a Gospel that was alive.
On March 24, 1980, he was shot as he celebrated Mass. His last words had dealt with the grain of wheat that must die in order to bear fruit. He died a poor man, having forgiven his murderers. He was buried in his cathedral among his people, who have come to him at his tomb ever since, as they did when he walked their muddy roads.
Christ did not leave an elaborate theology, nor did he compile volumes of canon law. He talked about love and about God’s reign. The essence of what it means to follow him is very basic. Take away cultural accretions and what you have left can easily be carried through muddy streets, wherever you have to go. A person used to struggling with the mud has a pretty good idea of the essentials. For those who are not, a few miles in the mud will help them realize what baggage can be left behind.