Romero personally greeted by Pope Francis during Vatican visit
Much of the inspiration behind the faith and scholarship of Dr. Miguel Romero, assistant professor in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies, is drawn out of reverence for his older brother, Vicente Romero.
This devotion has resulted in the Salve professor becoming one of the most respected modern-day scholars concerning the church and its relationship with the disabled. It also led to Romero being one of about a dozen from around the world invited to present on “Catechesis and Disability” during a major international conference last October at the Vatican.
So when Pope Francis personally greeted Romero following his presentation and accepted some of his most recent writings on the topic, the pope expressed one magical word of gratitude – “Vicente.”
Romero was instantly moved to tears.
“The Holy Father said my brother’s name,” Romero said. “If I could choose one word I wanted to hear, it would be my brother’s name. I was grateful for that. It’s why I do this. Everything I write, I thank my brother. I am particularly indebted to Vicente Romero, to his kindness and support.”
Vicente, who has a profound cognitive impairment, lives with the Romero family in their Bristol, Rhode Island home. Raised in a Catholic family in the American Southwest, Vicente has always lived at home; he cannot walk, speak or feed himself. Everything related to his well-being depends entirely on the care he receives from others. Vicente was baptized Catholic and has received the Holy Eucharist but, Romero said, he has also been denied the Eucharist and still hasn’t had all his sacraments.
“I think part of what my journey has been as a Christian and also a theologian is not to argue for [Vicente’s] place,” Romero said, “but rather to help understand that those who are oppressed, who are weakest and most vulnerable, have a place of privilege and honor within Christianity. And if they don’t, then we are confused about what it means to be a Christian.”
While Romero’s view is certainly emotional, it is also grounded in a rich tradition of Catholic orthodoxy, including in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Two of his scholarly writings presented to Pope Francis draw on this doctrine, including, “The Happiness of Those Who Lack the Use of Reason,” published in the January 2016 issue of The Thomist; and “The Goodness and Beauty of Our Fragile Flesh: Moral Theologians and Our Engagement with Disability,” published in a 2017 special issue that he edited on the topic in the Journal of Moral Theology.
“If I have understood the tradition and teaching correctly, [Vicente] is the one whose membership and participation is not questioned,” Romero said.
Yet, Romero points to significant failures today among ordinary Catholics and churches everywhere in their service to the disabled. Beyond many of the mundane issues such as providing basic access, Romero said deeper problems contribute to faithful Catholics being denied the Eucharist and the Sacraments. He cites a statistic that some 80-85 percent of all those born deaf who are baptized Catholic eventually abandon the church.
“We are failing,” he said. “We haven’t fully received the good news. This is a problem that belongs to ordinary Catholics. There’s a profound failure of the church in these counts.”
Romero, who serves on the board of directors for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, is working to change that. The partnership brought Romero’s name and his scholarship to the Vatican’s attention after the pope asked the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization to address the church’s failures with regard to the disabled.
October’s major international conference on “Catechesis and Disability” was the first opportunity to follow through on the pope’s commission, and Romero was invited to speak in Rome on the topic. Attending the conference were pastors, bishops, cardinals, theologians and ministers (both lay and ordained) from around the world, and many of the 450 in the audience were those who felt alienated from the church for one reason or another.
“I gave an honest account of our ordinary vulnerability to impairment and illness,” he said. “Our bodies break. If something so ordinary is not understood and recognized as part of what it means to be a human being to live well, to flourish, to live a good life, to live a life of holiness, a life of virtue, and is just bracketed out in these descriptions of Christian life, then that description of Christian life is skewed. It’s problematic. It might be a beautiful account, but it’s not us. We are born in a state of vulnerability. Some of us are profoundly impaired and injured. Thinking about those themes led me to the heart of what I am today.”
At the end of the conference, Pope Francis, who will typically host a private audience with the guest speakers, decided on this occasion that he wanted to meet with everyone in attendance. “Which was shocking and amazing,” Romero said. “It was one of the most marvelous and beautiful experiences I’ve ever seen. We were a stumbling, tripping, clumsy procession – wheelchairs and crutches, deaf folks signing. It was marvelous. It was wonderful and beautiful to be in that room, where folks were free.”
When it was Romero’s time to step forward to meet with the pope, his words had been carefully chosen. “I had thought about what I would say,” he recalled. “I asked my students if I could say anything to Pope Francis what would it be? I asked my wife and kids.”
Presenting his hands to Pope Francis, Romero said simply, “Holy Father, thank you for remembering the poor. Here are things that I wrote for my brother. His name is Vicente. He has a profound disability.”
A Salve Regina moment
Romero was invited to Rome by Archbishop Reno Fisichella, who, during his own remarks at the conference, referenced the hymn, “Salve Regina” (Hail Holy Queen), which was written by Hermann of Riechenau, a paralyzed and blind 11th century Benedictine monk who was also known to be called “Hermann the Cripple.”
The archbishop suggested that Hermann’s “Salve Regina” hymn is a long-term agenda to address these concerns of the church and the disabled, a sentiment that struck Romero profoundly given his presence there to offer his scholarship on the topic, not to mention his personal connection to Salve Regina.
“[Hermann] could not stand up and not even sit down because of the deformation of his body, and he also suffered greatly in the bed; he could not write because his fingers were too weak, and the words came out of his lips incomprehensibly,” the archbishop told the congregation. “Yet, he was able to study Latin, Greek, Arabic, mathematics and music. To him, however, according to tradition, the composition of the Salve Regina, which has become the patrimony of the Church and which we sing to this day, must be.”
Needless to say, when the entire gathering started singing the Salve Regina, Romero was especially impacted.
“This is why I feel at home at Salve,” Romero said. “I love the charism of the Sisters of Mercy. Mercy is not merely a slogan here. It’s the only way that makes sense to move through a world that is broken and wounded, where people feel alienated. And you get to decide if you’re going to be an agent of mercy.”