My dad has always been the kind of man who validated my opinions, even when I was a little girl. Our dinner table was a place of open communication and the exchange of ideas. I’m happy to say that that has not changed. One afternoon when I was around eight, he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without hesitation, I told him that I wanted to be a saint or a nun. He and my mom looked at each other before he chuckled and asked me “Well Vanessa, do you know what it takes to be a saint?” Being in second grade I did not, but that question never left my mind, even though I stopped wanting to be a nun sometime after third grade.
I was at a crossroads last July. I was having a crisis of faith while my husband was in the process of coming into the Church. I went to a friend to ask for his advice about whether or not I should return to the Church after fifteen years as an atheist. He grew up Catholic and we joked that our families had been Catholic since Spain colonized Mexico and Louisiana. His advice to me was to research Blessed Oscar Romero—the Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated for his dedication to ending violence and helping the poor. I’ll confess that my first bit of research involved watching the film, Romero. One point that became clear was that he was appointed to his post because he was seen as someone who would go along with the status quo. By the end of his life, he was an outspoken supporter of those who had been left behind. My faith, which had been dormant for over a decade, was reignited because of him.
There were several things that drew me to Blessed Oscar. He was not a stained-glass saint of the Middle Ages or a great theologian. His homilies were approachable and dealt with issues that average people were facing: violence, poverty, and apathy. In his final homily, he told his parishioners “We can all do something, at least have a sense of understanding and sympathy,” even when things seemed to be utterly hopeless.
In my heart, I’m an activist, though life can sometimes get in the way. For years, I’ve tried to educate myself on the ways that race and poverty can affect one’s access to education and opportunities. The fact that Blessed Oscar’s life’s work was to help the poor and end the violence in El Salvador made me aware of the Church’s deep devotion to the cause of human rights. It was the first step in my path towards belief. It was more than Blessed Oscar’s activism that stood out to me. His very life serves as an example of what we Catholics should strive for. He found his calling as a young boy (his siblings say he used to play priest with them) and was always aware of the plight of the poor. As Archbishop, he lived in very humble lodgings and used his position of power to speak for those who were voiceless. In addition to this, he didn’t stop speaking, even when he was threatened with death. He sacrificed his life so that the poor and disregarded of El Salvador could live with dignity. His life and death showed me that even the most ordinary among us can do extraordinary things. We just need to listen when God speaks to us.
I’m not ashamed to say that my faith journey has been difficult. For a while, I had a hard time letting go and recognizing God’s presence in my life. I used to think that if I admitted that I was a believer, I would somehow lose a part of my identity that I had had for over half my life. That part of Catholicism can be hard to accept, but as I was reminded time and time again: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” My faith has grown by leaps and bounds in the last year. I’ve learned that living my faith requires much more work than getting up early on Sunday mornings. It requires constant pruning and asking God for help in difficult times. It also means having the strength to hold tight to my faith in the good times. I’ll confide in you, brothers in sisters: I’m terrified of losing my faith. Those years of living without faith were like driving a car without breaks. Going back to that is a risk I’m not willing to take. I've learned to trust in Him when before I would have despaired. This has helped me when I've turned on the radio in recent weeks.
Blessed Oscar has been at the forefront of my mind once again. The current zero-tolerance policy for amnesty-seekers has caused a crisis at our southern border. This crisis resulted in children being taken from their parents and many were held in detention centers. A federal court has ordered an end to the separations. The children must also be reunited with their families, but that process is slow and may take many months. Most of these people are seeking asylum in order to escape violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The fact that Salvadorans are seeking asylum in the US doesn’t surprise me in the least. Blessed Oscar was assassinated as he was consecrating the Eucharist in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. He will be canonized in the same year that many of his countrymen are fleeing from violence, poverty, and political oppression. We need to see this as a moment to live our faith as Blessed Oscar would have--especially if it makes us uncomfortable.