St. Oscar Romero

This is a bit belated, but:  I was at the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh this past weekend giving an Ignatian retreat for women.  As is the practice there, I offered the reflection at the closing Mass.  Since I had already spoken during the course of the retreat on Sunday’s Gospel (sell all you have and give to the poor), since Romero was being canonized that day, I decided to speak about him.  This is a shortened version of what I said:

Romero was a wonderful person to end our retreat with, first becuase he is an example of the fact that conversion is a process and we can grow into our “yes”s to God; and second, because he demonstrated a firm commitment to carrying out God’s work, even when the cost becomes enormously high.

For those not familiar with El Salvador’s history, for many years, repression, torture and murder were carried on in El Salvador by dictators installed and supported by the United States government, a matter given virtually no coverage here in the U.S.   In the 1930s and 1940s there was brutal suppression of rural resistance in El Salvador.  The most notable event was the government retaliation to a1932 Salvadoran peasant uprising, commonly referred to as La Matanza (the ‘slaughter’), which followed after the days of protest. In this ‘Matanza’, approximately 40,000 indigenous people and political opponents were murdered, imprisoned or exiled. Until 1980, all but one Salvadoran temporary president was an army officer. Periodic presidential elections were seldom free or fair.  From the 1930s to the 1970s, authoritarian governments employed political repression and limited reform to maintain power, despite the trappings of democracy.

It is into this backdrop that Oscar Romero became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977.  I call him an example of conversion as process because he was not expected to rock the boat when he took his position.  He was a compromise candidate elected by conservative fellow bishops.  He was an academic and a somewhat timid and shy person.  In fact, many rich people in El Salvador were happy when he took that position because they thought he would stop priests from helping the poor to stand up for their basic rights.  One commentator described Romero as “predictable, an orthodox, pious bookworm who was known to criticize the progressive liberation theology clergy so aligned with impoverished farmers.”

In the beginning, Romero was the darling of the right and he spoke little or only tentatively about the army’s violence.  That changed when his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande, who had been active in standing up for the poor of ElSalvador was assassinated. Romero drove out of the capital to view Grande’s body, along with the old man and a seven year old boy who were killed with him.  Romero said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’

Romero’s demand for a government investigation into Grande’s death was denied, his plea for international intervention was ignored.  But he began to speak out against poverty, social injustice and government-sanctioned torture, offering faith and hope to his people.. Over and over again.  He expressed his goal clearly:

we want to be the voice of the voiceless, to cry out against so many violations of human rights.  Let justice be done, let there not be so many criminals staining the fabric of the country, of the army.  Let us recognize who the criminals are and gie just recompense to the families left unprotected.

Romero’s view of Christianity is summed up in these words of his – great works with which to end an Ignatian retreat weekend:

If you live out a Christianity that is good but that is not sufficient for our times, that doesn’t denounce injustice, that doesn’t proclaim the kingdom of God courageously, that doesn’t reject the sins humankind commits, that consents to the sins of certain classes so as to be accepted by those classes, then you are not doing your duty, you are sinning, you are betraying your mission.  The church was put here to convert humankind, not to tell people that everything that they do is all right.

Romero continued to speak out, even when it became clear that his words would lead to his death.  Every Sunday his sermons were broadcast by radio around the country, even as he started receiving death threats.

In his sermon on March 23, he ordered the army to stop killing people; he begged them in the name of God not to kill their fellow countrypeople.  The next day, while he was saying Mass, he was killed.  Moments before he was shot, he said in his homily, “One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”

We talked during the retreat about standing firmly with Christ in the face of everything in our world that counsels against that.  While none of us are likely to pay with our lives, will we show his same commitment to a Christianity that “proclaims the kingdom of God courageously.”

St. Oscar Romero, pray for us.

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