The Liverpool Romero Lecture, given by Prof. David McLoughlin, took place on Wednesday 25 September 2019. It followed a Mass celebrated by Bishop John Rawsthorne in the Jesuit parish of St Francis Xavier. Many thanks to the community at SFX and Hope University for their welcome and hospitality.
Below is a response to the lecture by Steve Atherton, Justice and Peace Fieldworker for the Archdiocese of Liverpool.
Wednesday 25th September was an extraordinary day in the life of Liverpool archdiocese. Firstly there was an all-day event where the themes of the Synod were presented to Synod members setting out the course for diocesan renewal and then in the evening there was a lecture which demonstrated that current developments are rooted deeply in diocesan history, in its devotion to St Oscar Romero and in the lives of three priests who lived their prophetic witness in the archdiocese.
Under the auspices of the Romero Trust, and in the beautiful setting of Hope University’s Capstone Theatre, David McLoughlin’s title was “Prophetic Trajectories of Hope from San Salvador to Liverpool: A Celebration of the ministries of Oscar Romero, Austin Smith, Tom Cullinan and Kevin Kelly.”
In her introduction of the speaker, Pat Jones, herself a Liverpool prophet, spoke of how we had taken our three prophets for granted, assuming that what they taught and what their lives demonstrated was the norm. It seemed normal for us at the time because we saw it daily but now that they are gone it’s clear just how extraordinary they were.
Beginning with reference to Moses, one of David’s themes was that the ‘prophetic trajectories’ of all four men began with contact with the real lives of the faithful among whom they served and lived, requiring a struggle to loosen the grip of background and of training that had prepared them to have all the answers to the questions that nobody is asking. In their radicalisation, all four were deeply affected by the cry of the poor, the za’ak of scripture which is both the cry of grief and the lodging of a formal complaint.
As demonstrated by Pope Francis when he explicitly cited See-Judge-Act in ‘Laudato si’, methodology that begins with experience has different results from one which begins with theory. This change of theological methodology (doing theology) from starting with first principles to starting with lived experience, engages the heart as well as the head so that Romero’s episcopal motto ‘Sentir con la Iglesia’ expanded from merely ‘think with the mind of the church’ to include ‘feel with the heart of the church’.
Developing the insight that the Magnificat came from the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, the first prophets of the new testament, David pointed out that they were also foreshadowing God’s bias to the poor as shown in the Beatitudes. He explained that the word ‘ptochoi’ translated in the Beatitudes as ‘the poor’ actually means ‘the destitute’.
To illustrate how this changes attitudes and practice, he told the story of a poor woman telling hostile reporters that Romero was the first man who’d ever asked her what she thought and listened to her reply. He likened this to the ‘grace space’ around Jesus’ presence with those who connect with him to this day.
Then as now radical thought is a challenge to the institution. He pointed out how relevant the Liverpool three are today because, in true prophetic style, they identified the key issues ahead of the following pack; Austin Smith responded to race; Tom Cullinan to ecology; Kevin Kelly to gender; and all three to unjust structures, including structures in the church.
Does our church dare to point out the relationship between the stellar wealth of the minority super-rich and the growing poverty of the masses? Dare we give an insight and a lead on what might change things - a rediscovery and re-embracing of the vision of kinship and hospitality of Moses and the prophets so that we take the crucified people down from the cross? He quoted Austin Smith’s realisation that he must confront “any ‘not yet’ in history which blesses or spiritualises ideologies and institutions which marginalise and oppress the powerless.”
David ended with a quotation from St Oscar Romero “I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to view these things that are happening in our historical moment with a spirit of hope, generosity, and sacrifice. And let us do what we can.”
In her summing up, Pat pointed out that their questions are still live now and we are challenged to accept their prophetic mantle so that our diocese incorporates their insights into the deliberations and recommendations of the Synod.
As Pat said, there’s an ‘Ouch’ as well as delight in hearing their challenge. We are the church. Dare we engage with the prophetic imagination?