So, what did Jesus really look like, what kind of person was he? This question still surfaces occasionally in the Q/A columns of a few Catholic periodicals. People in the Middle East, of course would simply say, “Well, he probably looked like any one of us; he had Arab-like features; such basic characteristics do not change appreciably over the centuries. Issue closed.
Interestingly, however, even Jesus himself seemed interested in knowing what people thought of him.
Rather than wondering what Jesus looked like, it might be more beneficial to try and name someone in our age that would remind us of Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously, there are many, but let me suggest one person who, for me, stands out very clearly.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador. By the way, his beatification was celebrated on May 23, 2015, not in Rome but in El Salvador, which means “the city of the Savior.”
Why does Archbishop Romero stand out as a saint in the minds of many today? Well, simply because the people of El Salvador recognized in him a good shepherd. Pat Marrin, a columnist for Celebration Publications, recently wrote the following: “Romero gave his life as a good shepherd for his flock in a time of persecution. He modeled what a bishop looks like in a church committed to justice for the poor.”
Those who know the story of Archbishop Romero’s death will remember that his blood was literally spilled on the altar while he was celebrating Mass at a convent of nuns. The people of El Salvador themselves, of course, had endured a baptism of blood during the long 12-year civil war (1980-1992).
Mr. Marrin points out further that Archbishop Romero was chosen because he was thought to be a safe, conservative leader who would not challenge the status quo in that small Central American nation run by a few wealthy families backed by the military. However when one of his pastors was murdered along with many peasants in rural villages, Archbishop Romero knew that he could not stand by any longer. He became a devoted shepherd for the poor even if it might threaten his own life. He literally went to villages and helped bury the slain poor. When a reporter asked him what he did as an archbishop, he said, “I pick up bodies.”
The model of Archbishop Romero naturally brings up the question of what leadership in the Catholic Church should look like today. Pope Francis’ leadership of the church of the 21st century immediately comes to mind. When asked about his vision for the church, he answered, “How I would like a church that is poor and is for the poor.”
In a real sense, Pope Francis’ sense of church models the leadership of Archbishop Romero who literally immersed himself in the life and death of his people. “The image of a shepherd,” Pope Francis said, “is one who is not afraid to smell like his sheep!”
The question of Jesus’ identity should continue to concern Christians well into our times. What sort of leader should the people of God insist upon today? The answer must always be: provide us with a shepherd that knows us from the inside out, someone who knows the smell of our society and is willing to engage the age in which we live: the smell of Ferguson, St. Louis, Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York City. It is in such leaders that we will readily recognize Jesus, a poor shepherd for a poor church.
Scriptures for Sept. 13
Isaiah 50: 5-9
James 2: 14-18
Mark 8: 27-35
The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives in Notre Dame, Indiana.