A Romero celebration in Alsager

Sermon preached at the lovely reordered St Mary’s Alsager for the meeting of Congleton Deanery Synod. It commemorates Archbishop Oscar Romero. It could have been said better – but I share it anyway.

27 bishops wrote to the Daily Mirror a couple of weeks ago complaining about the Government’s welfare reforms. They pointed out that recent cuts have forced tens of thousands of people into a painful choice of “heat or eat” and reminded us that half a million people visited a food bank last year, and 5.5 people were admitted to hospital with malnutrition.

The letter caused a minor stir. Why? Was it because the bishops were dabbling in politics? Was it that they chose the Mirror rather than the Times? Was it because they knew what was lamentable and lament?

The letter raises the question of the place of church in society. What is this place?

Is it at the centre of things? Hopefully the answer to that is “yes”, so long as that means the “heart of the community”, as opposed to wanting to look big.

Is its place to be on the side, on the edge? Hopefully the answer to that question is “yes”, if by yes we are meaning that we are on the side of those who are overlooked – those who are overlooked because of their poverty, because they don’t fit in, because they are shied away.

On this day 34 years ago Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while celebrating Mass. He was Archbishop of San Salvador, Archbishop of a church which took the people of El Salvador to heart, a church which had been edged out by a violent government, a church which was on the side of the landless poor. He spoke out on their behalf and became known as the Voice of the Voiceless. His voice became stronger. People packed into the Cathedral to hear him. They listened to him on the Archdiocese’s radio station. And then he was silenced, by a gun fired from the doorway of the chapel in a cancer hospital as he celebrated Mass.

He was the third bishop to have been murdered in the sanctuary. Bishop Stanislaus of Krakow was killed in 1079 (for scolding the Polish king for his sins), Thomas Becket was killed in 1170 for defending the Church’s rights and freedoms. Oscar Romero was killed in 1977 as an outspoken opponent of injustice and defender of the poor.

Oscar Romero, other martyrs, other ministers, remind us what these spaces are for. They are spaces where we become occupied with God and by God. They are spaces where we occupy ourselves with what occupies God – spaces for the sinner (rather than the righteous), for Lazarus (not the rich man Dives, or the celebrity Divas), for those whose cries are heard by God (and ignored by others). It is the poor, who, according to Romero, “are the ones who tell us what the world is and what service the church must offer to the world.”

We need to safeguard these spaces of blessing and salvation, where truth is told and lives are rebuilt. They are dangerous, countercultural breathing spaces in which lives are lost for the sake of gaining the kingdom.

Romero said this in one of his sermons: “An accommodating church that seeks prestige without the pain of the cross is not the authentic church of Jesus Christ.”

This is the Jesus who comforts his followers in the face of the hatred of the world. He reminded followers then, as he reminds us in this evening’s gospel, that the world didn’t love him, but hated him. “If they persecute me, they will persecute you.” But “if you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own.” Going the way of the world is not following Jesus’ way. That’s not the way Jesus had in mind when he calls people to follow him.

There has been a lot of ink spilt about the identity of the “beloved disciple” in John’s gospel. Was it John Zebedee, Lazarus, Thomas, Nathanael, John the Elder, or even Paul? Or, was it none of these people? Whoever it was had a special place in Jesus’ life. That place is stated as “the place nearby” at the cross (John 19:25), and “reclining next to him” (13:23).

The beloved disciple is the one who “leant back against Jesus”. He is the one who had the physical contact. He is the one who was at Jesus’ side. 

Who is the beloved disciple? Is it you? Is it me?

The beloved disciple is THERE, just there (indicating heart/shoulder). The beloved disciple is at the side of Jesus, and because of that SEES and understands what the others couldn’t. That closeness means that he/she is able to hear the whisper of Jesus. (13:23).

Oscar Romero was at that place. He could see, understand and articulate the truth of what was happening. He was able to name the injustice and the suffering.

The place is the “kolpos” or “bosom” of Jesus.

There is one other use of the word “kolpos” in the gospel, and that is at 1:18, where it is Jesus who is described as being at his Father’s bosom, or “close to the Father’s heart”.

The beloved disciple is the one who is at the heart of Jesus, who is close to the Father’s heart, who hears what occupies Jesus’ heart – who sees and hears as Jesus hears.

That is the space we are called to be in as beloved disciples.

It’s the space Oscar Romero occupied as he celebrated Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital (a place at the edge and on the edge of life). His place was close to the Father’s heart, occupied with what occupies God.

In that most dangerous of places he was shot – a life given for the sake of the kingdom.

A prayer to finish with, from Oscar Romero:

“Let us be today’s Christians. Let us not take fright at the boldness of today’s church. With Christ’s light let us illuminate even the most hideous caverns of the human person: torture, jail, plunder, want, chronic illness. The oppressed must be saved, not with a revolutionary salvation, in mere human fashion, but with the holy revolution of the Son of Man.”

Here’s a sermon preached by ++Rowan Williams on the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination.

Maggi Dawn has posted a prayer closely associated with Oscar Romero.

Francis reports: a Maundy Thursday sermon


Today, Pope Francis has been celebrating Mass at Casal de Marmo, a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Rome, and washing the feet of the prisoners there.

This is one of the many gestures that has captured the imagination of people around the world, along with his willingness to get out of his car to shake hands with people without the fear of getting shot, wanting to pay off his hotel bill, and choosing to live in a simpler apartment. I don’t know about you, but I find all of this very exciting. In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has had problems with its PR (rightly so, because of the ways in which it has covered up abuse scandals). But with the white smoke has come a whiff of excitement. Maybe, the church in its impoverished state, can become the church of the poor, for the poor. And, without doubt, what the world needs is, according to Pope Francis, a wounded church that goes out onto the streets, rather than a sick church that is withdrawn into its own world.

There has been far too much inspiration and charity from within the Roman Catholic Church for it to be hidden behind a smokescreen of scandal.

The juvenile detention centre has 48 prisoners. The majority of them are Muslims. Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 of the prisoners.

I wonder how they will feel. I wonder what will go through their minds. I wonder what sensations will travel from their feet and from the ground of their being. Will they know, through this action, that God loves them? Will they know that they are dear to him? Will they know that they are forgiven for the wrong paths those feet have taken them?

I wonder what Pope Francis will feel through his hands, in his mind and at his heart. Will he feel the journey those feet have made? Those feet of young people. Will he feel inside their shoes, their trainers, their boots, their bootees to the life they have led? Will he understand their running away from their homes, rival gangs, the police? Will he feel the cramping of life in those shoes and why they have kicked off?

This is what Maundy Thursday is about, that we love one another. It is a new commandment which is fleshed out in Jesus example of foot washing, and which is reenacted across the world this evening, including prisons and a detention centre in Rome. This is a love which is prepared to lovingly tend the other, whatever the state of the other’s feet may be, wherever those feet have been. This is a love which feels for the other, and which forms the foundation for a community of vulnerability, compassion and love with the least, the last and the lost.

It is a transformative act. The two parties will never feel the same about each other again. He felt for me. He understood me. He held me dear. He loved me.

Another Francis has hit the news this week. The Francis Report is the independent inquiry into what has gone wrong with the NHS in the light of the Mid Staffs Hospital. The important thing highlighted is the question of how to restore compassion to the National Health Service, and how safe care can be given to every patient every time. The publication of the report had nurses ringing in to Radio 5’s phone in, frustrated that they are unable to provide the level of care that they should be providing. Their hearts were going out to those who have been neglected, but their hands were tied up in so much other work.

I looked for a response to the Francis Report on Twitter from nurses. Mara Carlyle, now singer, but was a NHS nursing assistant for 7/8 years, mostly on wards so understaffed, tweeted:

If you give nurses enough resources and time to do their jobs properly, guess what? They will and they do. Because there weren’t enough staff for everyone’s basic needs to be attended to which inevitably led to some poor standards of care, that we often had to choose between attending to patients who were (variously) crying, dying, hungry, thristy, dirty, fallen out of bed …

Alison Leary, a registered nurse and macmillan lecturer in oncology writes of the work of a nurse (work described by Florence Nightingale as “women’s work which should be done quietly and in private”) and she asks:

How would you feel about dealing with a stranger in such an intimate way? A stranger who is so humiliated at his or her inability to control their own bodily functions that they weep? Then imagine having to care for him or her and 29 other patients with only two colleagues to help you.

So we have the juxtaposition of the Francis Report and its admissions about compassion, and Pope Francis and his expression of compassion, feeling for the other, loving the other.

Nurses want to alleviate suffering – physical, psychological, social and spiritual.

The dilemma for nurses is how they can show compassion in a system which expects so much from them.

If that is the dilemma of the nursing profession, it is perhaps the dilemma of our society. Don’t we want to be the answer to the problem of suffering, however that is experienced?

But how?

How does the NHS recover its capacity for compassion? How do we become compassionate? How do we feel for one another? How do we love one another?

The answer is repeated in story after story – from the story of the care of the Good Samaritan, to the story of the nurse most likely referred to as an angel. All of them are touching stories.

The answer is hinted at in tonight’s liturgy, and in Jesus own example of footwashing and his encouragement (“should”- is that command or encouragement?) for us to do just the same. This is the practice of loving one another, just as Jesus loves us.

It is taking one step at a time, one gesture at a time.

If the time has come for you to be asking where compassion has gone from our dealings with one another, if society has become so complicated that you don’t know where to start, I can tell you the place to start is HERE. It always has been. The first step is in the here and now, in truly local initiatives like Jesus washing the feet of his dearest friends, like Francis washing the feet of the prisoners in a Rome detention centre, like the nurse holding the hand of a patient who is afraid – who through that touch reaches beyond the physical condition of the patient to her heart of hearts.