This week Oscar Romero will become Saint, a life that gave tremendous witness to the poor and vulnerable people from South America. Archbishop Romero was assassinated in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, in March 1980 by a right-wing death squad because he refused to be silenced in condemning the murder and torture of the people by the country’s regime as well as the poverty and injustices being inflicted on them.
His murder had about it something of vengeance inspired by the sense of betrayal felt by authorities of church and state in El Salvador who had expected Romero would be an altogether more compliant archbishop based on his track record. Romero had been a very careful, orthodox, safe (where the status quo was concerned) pair of hands up to then. But he became isolated by a deed, the murder three years beforehand of his friend, Jesuit priest Father Rutilio Grande by security forces of El Salvador. The priest was an outspoken critic of injustices perpetrated by El Salvador’s government and had organised impoverished rural farmers to demand their rights. This displeased local landowners, to say the least.
Later Archbishop 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”.
Born in eastern El Salvador on August 15th, 1917, Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez was one of eight children. After school he was training to be an apprentice carpenter with his father when he felt the call to priesthood and entered the junior seminary in the city of San Miguel at the age of 13. Later he attended the national seminary in San Salvador and completed his studies for the priesthood in Rome where he was ordained in April 1942. Returning home in 1943 he worked in San Miguel for 25 years. He lived a simple life and was a popular preacher who responded warmly to the poor. In 1966, suffering from exhaustion, he went on retreat and also visited a psychiatrist who told him he suffered from an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Fellow priests told him he suffered with scrupulosity (a spiritual equivalent of obsessive compulsive disorder).
There followed seven years in the capital city San Salvador as an ecclesiastical bureaucrat. He became secretary to the Bishops Conference of El Salvador and also director of the diocesan newspaper Orientación. Under his editorship it was very conservative, faithfully following the line from Rome. In 1970 he was ordained Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of San Salvador, an appointment welcomed by El Salvador’s government but a disappointment to many priests who believed his conservativism would frustrate their commitment to the poor, so central to the liberation theology they espoused.
Archbishop Óscar Romero spoke out vehemently against poverty, social wrongs, torture and murder. His reputation was as a reactionary prelate who was seemingly unsympathetic to social justice issues. He was believed to be suspicious of those priests and communities in the archdiocese which were working with the rural poor and promoting social organisations as well as land reform.
A period in rural El Salvador as Bishop of Santiago de Maria opened his eyes to the misery and hardship of the people. It was there he witnessed murders and the repression they suffered at the hands of security forces.
To everyone’s surprise he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977.
The following month his friend Fr Grande was murdered. Archbishop Romero called on the government to investigate the murder but was ignored. A censored media also remained silent. The die was cast. He was filled with a radical embrace of Gospel values and courageously befriended and championed the plight of the poor and vulnerable. As he celebrated Holy Mass he was brutally murdered. His death caused international outrage. His name is synonymous with millions of people who continue to be enslaved by injustice across the world. The following reflection written by Romero is a hope filled reflection on how in the long term good will always prevail…
Prophets of a future not our own
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realising that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.