Commemoration of Óscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, and the Martyrs of El Salvador
If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent, or more human qualities.
Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted on to Christ's life, his cross and resurrection.
That is a person's measure. - Óscar Romero
He stood behind the altar, lifting his eyes to the element held above his head. The prayer stopped suddenly when a shot pierced his heart and quelled the devotion to the crucified and resurrected one present in his hands. It was not only a death in the most sacred moment of the mass but a political assassination against a man who preached peace, justice and equality in a country where dictatorship, political power and terror among the people was the norm. He was a hero to the common people of his native land but had come to be viewed as an enemy, a communist and a turncoat by the rich and powerful, even those in the church he so faithfully served.
I don't think Óscar Romero sought to be a martyr, yet he became one in the space of a single heartbeat. He studied theology first in his San Salvador, then completed his studies and was ordained a priest in Rome. He then returned to El Salvador where he was seen to be quiet, bookish, conservative and a friend of the elite who supported the military government. After his elevation to Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 and the assassination of a Jesuit friend who was an early practitioner of liberation theology, Romero became more and more aware of the misery and suffering of the oppressed poor who did most of the labor but reaped none of the rewards. He began to speak against the injustices, disappearances, terror campaigns and murders occurring every day across the country. Romero had no illusions of his safety, and not even his position in the Roman Catholic Church could provide a shield against the military. He stated, "If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
He became a voice of the people, an annoyance to the elite, including some of the bishops of his own church who supported the status quo, and a thorn in the side of the military government. On the day after an address imploring the army to cease killing innocents and follow the laws of God which would lead to peace, Óscar Romero was murdered as he said mass in the chapel of the hospital in which he lived. In less than a year, four Maryknoll sisters and nine Jesuits would be dead at the hands of the same army, and the slaughter continued until 1992. Romero's name, words and examples served as inspiration through those tumultuous years and continues today far beyond the borders of El Salvador. Romero's death and that of the Maryknolls and Jesuits finally caused the world to pay attention to the civil rights violations and the need for reform, including the proper allocation of aid from outside countries, including the United States.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to open the eyes to something that is badly in need of fixing. That's what it took for Romero, but once he made the decision that he could no longer stand by and watch, he pressed forward with every ounce of faith he had. It is easy to stand by and watch when something happens, but so much harder to stand up and do something, particularly if that action could get you thrown in prison, tortured or even murdered. In his last breath, Romero said, "May God have mercy on the assassins." I wonder, would I have the grace to say that in a similar circumstance?
I didn't know a lot about Óscar Romero when I started reading the lessons for today, but after reading about his life and ministry, he is more than a name on a textbook page about liberation theology. His is a story of growth, something that is sometimes hard to recognize until viewed in the rear-view mirror. Growth has to begin somewhere, and in Romero's case it began with personal and professional sorrow. The result of that growth was a voice for voiceless people, a model of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and a grace in the face of death.
Monseñor Romero, las gracias estén a Dios para su vida y al testigo. Ora por nosotros. (Monsignor Romero, thanks be to God for your life and witness. Pray for us.).
Originally published on Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café under the title "Looking Through the Rear View Mirror" on Saturday, March 24, 2011.