As readers here may have gathered from recent posts, my parish, St. Clare’s in Berea, Kentucky is about to celebrate the beatification of Oscar Romero. The celebration will take place a week from tomorrow.
It’s an extraordinary event, because our new bishop, John Stowe, will be in attendance as one of the first acts of his new episcopate. The bishop has a special devotion to San Romero. That says volumes about his commitment to social justice – a welcome change from his predecessor.
So I’ve been asked to say some words about Archbishop Romero at an ecumenical paraliturgy. What follows are the ones I plan to share.
I will greatly appreciate any feedback. I’m worried about alienating conservatives in my parish – although Archbishop Romero eventually left aside such concerns, even incurring the wrath of his fellow bishops and the displeasure of Rome.
Please tell me what you think.
Bishop Stowe, Father Michael, honored guests, and my fellow parishioners.
I’m very grateful for this opportunity to speak about Oscar Romero who has been such an influence on my own life over these last 35 years especially as I’ve worked in Central America off and on since 1985.
Father John Dear, the great Jesuit peace activist calls Archbishop Romero perhaps the most important bishop in the history of the church. Certainly he’s one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century – on a par with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa.
But more than that Archbishop Romero is encouraging to each of us because, like Jesus himself, he achieved his greatness in just three years. He shows that it is possible for any of us to become a saint in a very short time if we follow Romero’s example of peacemaking in the face of war and oppression.
Like most of us – I speak for myself – Oscar Romero started out uncritical and unquestioningly patriotic. Until he was 60 he supported a system that had 1% of El Salvador’s population controlling 90% of its wealth. He sided with his county’s police and military which were at war with its own people to keep things that way.
He bought the line that those opposing the system were communists. So his sermons addressed the usual banalities: the afterlife, heaven, hell, and individual salvation.
The United States supported El Salvador’s government too. All during the 1980s, it gave its military more than one million dollars a day to fund what was called “the El Salvador option” for defeating the country’s insurgency. It was a “death squad” solution which killed everyone who might be connected with the insurgency – teachers, union organizers, social workers, priests and nuns. The slogan of the military’s “White Hand” death squad was, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”
That slogan took on new meaning for Archbishop Romero when his good friend, the Jesuit, Rutilio Grande, was martyred by the White Hand. Grande was killed because El Salvador’s government saw how he lived among and served peasants and slum dwellers sympathetic to the insurgents. So they considered him a terrorist.
In reality, Father Grande was entirely motivated by the Gospel. He had come to see the world from the viewpoint of the poor. That was the essence of Jesus’ message, he said – good news for the poor. In the gospels, Grande found, Jesus not only saw the world from the viewpoint of the poor, he identified with them becoming one of them. He shared the values and characteristics of the poor that the country’s rich despised.
Jesus’ skin was black or brown, not white like the elite of El Salvador. Jesus was dirt poor. He was conceived out-of-wedlock by an unwed teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He belonged to the working class. His hands were calloused; his clothes were sweat-stained. Jesus liked fiestas and was accused of being a drunkard and friend of whores. He was harassed constantly by the police and died a victim of torture and capital punishment, because the occupation forces of Rome considered him a terrorist.
That was the Jesus Rutilio Grande worshipped and preached – a Jesus completely like the people he served.
And so the White Hand killed him – along with 70,000 other El Salvadorans.
Grande’s death profoundly changed Oscar Romero. He said, “When I saw Rutilio lying there dead, I knew I had to follow his path.” And he did.
Archbishop Romero began speaking out against the government. He saw that the soldiers fighting against peasants and poor people weren’t heroes, but misled and brainwashed victims. Just before his death, he fairly shouted at them in a final homily: “No soldier is bound to follow orders that contradict the law of God. Don’t you see; you are killing your own brothers and sisters . . . I beg you; I implore you; I order you: stop the repression!”
Those words sealed San Romero’s fate. The next evening while celebrating Mass for nuns in a hospital chapel, a sniper got him too. He became the first bishop to be murdered at the altar since Thomas Beckett at the beginning of the 12th century.
The thing was, the archbishop was killed by good Catholics. And there were fireworks and celebrations in the elite neighborhoods when those good Catholics learned of his death. The celebrators were friends of the Vatican who went to church every Sunday and believed all the right things about abortion, contraception and homosexuality.
Ultimately, that’s what blocked Romero’s path to sainthood. I mean, by definition martyrs are Catholics killed “for the faith” by non-believers. Even Pope St. John Paul II was unenthusiastic about Romero’s cause. When the archbishop had come to see him about El Salvador’s plight, the pope said he was exaggerating.
Today our country, like El Salvador in the ‘70s and ‘80s is at war against poor people everywhere, both at home and abroad. Our 1% has more wealth than the GNPs of the 48 poorest countries combined. Three hundred and fifty men are wealthier than 3.5 billion people – half the world. When clergymen, like Jeremiah Wright denounce our wars against the poor, we accuse them of “hating America.” When Muslim clergy side with the poor, we call them terrorists too. Our drones kill them sometimes even in their mosques.
I hope you see how Oscar Romero is completely relevant to us and our country. This evening, please listen carefully to his words which will be centralized in our celebration of his status as a saint. See how they relate to us as followers of the impoverished Jesus living in country at war against the world’s poor. His words call us and our church to radical conversion – political conversion – like his own
It’s never too late.