By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez looked quickly at the faces of the students assembled in the gym at Cristo Rey High School March 8 and told them he was throwing out his prepared remarks.
Instead, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, visiting again as he had three years ago to help Kansas City celebrate the life and legacy of Archbishop Oscar Romero as the 33rd anniversary of the archbishop’s assassination approached, laid out a very specific challenge.
“I see that you are a special group who can change the world,” Bishop Rosa Chavez said through student interpreters Will Medina and Claudia Uribe.
He spoke, not only of Archbishop Romero, but of another Latin American champion of the poor, Brazilian Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara, who died in 1999 and is famous for saying, “When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
The Brazilian archbishop was once asked by a group of skeptical youth what they could possibly do to change the world.
“A group of youth once asked him, ‘What can we do to change the world?’ He answered them, ‘Do you really want to change the world? Then change yourself. And change Brazil. If you can’t change yourself and your own country, you can’t change anything else,’” Bishop Rosa Chavez said.
“You want to give your life meaning. You want to leave a legacy,” he told the Cristo Rey students. “I will give you some ideas how to do that.”
The first is education, but not just a diploma or a college degree. Bishop Rosa Chavez urged the students to learn how people throughout the world are living.
“Education does not mean you learn how to exploit other people,” he said.
“It means that you learn how to become people living in solidarity, and people who can change the reality around them,” he said.
Bishop Rosa Chavez also told of meeting a group of German youths when he was in that country to accept an award for his peace and justice work in El Salvador.
“The young there told me that they have everything, but they were not happy,” he said. “They said that the leaders answer questions they do not ask, and do not answer the questions that we do ask.”
Bishop Rosa Chavez said that Archbishop Romero listened — carefully — to the people, especially the poor.
“Then he responded, not just with his words, but with his actions,” Bishop Rosa Chavez said.
Those words and those actions in defense of the poor eventually led to his death at the hands of a military death squad assassin as Archbishop Romero celebrated Mass in March 1980.
“He gave his life for his people, and that is a prophet,” Bishop Rosa Chavez said.
“A prophet is one who speaks in the name of God. It is someone who tells us what God wants to tell us, even if we don’t like it, even if it costs him his life,” the bishop said.
“They told him he was a communist, a revolutionary, a subversive. He knew they were going to kill him, but he offered his life,” Bishop Rosa Chavez said.
In that way, it was fitting that Archbishop Romero would die while celebrating Mass.
“In Mass, who is the victim we offer to God? Jesus. At that Mass, the victim was also Oscar Romero,” the bishop said.
But it is not enough to have prophets and martyrs if the world isn’t listening, he said.
“Here in the United States, we have people from different parts of the world, and we are not one family,” he told the students.
“When we realize we are one family, then we will live in solidarity,” Bishop Rosa Chavez said.
“Solidarity is not a passive feeling. It is the deep belief in which we feel responsibility for one another,” he said.
Solidarity is also not just charity, Bishop Rosa Chavez said, using the world’s outpouring to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.
“We sent money and clothing, but that is not solidarity,” he said. “What are we doing for Haiti to make life better? That is solidarity.”
True solidarity means sharing not only what we have, but who we are and what we believe, Bishop Rosa Chavez said.
“But what is being taught to young people today? To be more or to have more? That is the problem today,” he said.
“We consume and consume and consume, but we do not become more,” he said.
“Education should mean becoming more than you are, more spiritual, more courageous, more honest,” he said.
“That’s how you change the world, not with more help from others, not with more discussions, but by giving your life, and who you are,” Bishop Rosa Chavez said.
“The future can be different only if you are different people,” he said. “Those who give themselves are those who change the world. And you must change the world, or it will never change.”