Please Help Me with My Reflections about Oscar Romero

Romero's Beatification

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.

Oscar Romero

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.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

14 thoughts on “Please Help Me with My Reflections about Oscar Romero”

  1. Well stated Michael. I would suggest that anyone who recoils at this message will do so because they will latch on to your calling Jesus a drunkard. I don’t believe that a necessary element in the presentation and, question if something that easy for people to use fro dismissing the essence of your speech should be served up to the doubters.
    Cheers,
    Craig

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  2. Mike,
    My two cents.
    First if all, I agree with Craig. I do not feel the awakening comes around Jesus; credential as poor Whether he was a drunkard or not is not the point. The point was that he could be with people and be comfortable – centered, if you will – among folks who were drunkards. And on down the list: whether or not he was the son of a rape victim makes the case for his compassion for unwed mothers and rape victims. And the point is missed if we get into an exegetical argument. Etc.

    The issue for me – the place of awakening = is around the awareness of the repression here and now and our complicity in it. The audience you are preaching to is middle class Americans, by and large, and in the middle we are both repressors and repressed. and to a very real extent are not conscientized to either side of that equation. Religiously what we are aware of is that if we follow orders or dogma, or good behavior, we will be saved – safe.

    “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!”

    May I be so bold as to rift on this Romero text:
    “No soldier is bound to follow orders that contradict the law of God.”
    No Christian is bound to follow orders that contradict the law”
    No Christian is bound to follow the orders not to practice contraception when it contradicts “law of God – love God and love thy neighbor.

    No American is bound to follow the orders to kill by drone
    to send ones children off to war for oil
    or the cultural mandate to do what it takes to beat back the competition in business
    or to enhance my career at all costs
    or maximize the profits to the point of destroying the land
    No American is bound to follow those laws and mandates if they contradict the love of God or the love of neighbor.

    Don’t you see; you are killing your own brothers and sisters
    not only the Iraqui children; but our own children – wracked by PTSD, alcoholism, addiction
    Don’t you see; you are killing your own brothers and sisters – marriages wrecked, brothers and sisters unable to maintain a relationship

    And so, I beg you; I implore you; I order you: stop the repression!”
    We do not have to be that way no matter what they tell us.
    We can stop the repression
    We can refuse the orders
    we can survive the death
    Because we are held by the poor, landless disenfranchised, unpowerful Mother who holds us in her arms and looks us in our eye and gives us her breast to drink.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I so value this comment, John. I wish I could share these ideas in my little talk. But everyone is advising me to tone things down. When I get back to Berea, we have to get together and discuss all of this. Will you be at the Romero celebration on the 3rd?

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  3. Hi Michael,

    Romero’s motto was “Sentire cum Ecclesia” (Think with the Church), as befits his Opus Dei experience. On the death of his friend, it appears he found the Church in service to the poor, where the founder of his Church also found it.

    Hank

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  4. Mike, I agree with Craig and John’s assessment that attaching alcohol to Jesus’ character is a distraction. I would further add that emphasis on prostitution is also a distraction from your message.

    Is it possible that you are responding to someone from your earlier life who is not necessarily the same as your current audience? Considerable media effort has already gone towards making prostitution more open and respectable (Klute, Heidi Fleiss, Pretty Baby, Pretty Woman, etc.) We’re taught to be non-judgmental, but most of us, if honest, would not want prostitution in our neighborhoods or in the lives of our children. Prostitution is a dangerous, brutal business with connections to slavery, violence, and all too often, outright murder.

    We are all well-advised to think kindly of other people and to see God in ourselves and others. Younger naive people should also be kindly advised about real risks of misery connected to alcohol and prostitution. “Attachment Parenting” author Katie Granju suffered a horrible loss in 2012 when her beloved son Henry became involved with local outlaws who entice teens, trade drugs for sexual access, and poor Henry was beaten into coma and later died as a result. While I did not know either Henry or his mother personally, I’m guessing that both had a gentle mindset that did not fully comprehend their risks when Henry associated with people who hurt and killed him. I don’t judge Henry or his mom, and am fully cognizant that but for the grace of God, there go I — but I’d like backup on a message to avoid misery associated with intoxicants and prostitution, especially directing that message to vulnerable minors.

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    1. I don’t know, Mary. It just seems that Jesus was quite open to women forced by poverty (the usual reason) into sex work. He preferred their chances of entering what he called God’s Kingdom over those of religious professionals. Straight-laced people need to wonder why his enemies associated him with the drunks and sex workers our culture usually despises. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

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      1. Came across something funny in “News of the Weird” 5/29/15 and will share it as Exhibit B of “How U.S. Culture Has Changed Since 1968” (especially in regard to attitudes towards prostitution –emphasis added)

        “British scientist Dr. Brooke Magnanti, 39, has written two best-selling books and inspired a TV series based on her life, but she recently filed a lawsuit accusing her ex-boyfriend of libeling her — by telling people that she was NOT formerly a prostitute. A major part of Magnanti’s biography is how she paid for university studies through prostitution–which has supposedly enhanced her marketability”.

        Just sayin’. We’re not in our parents’ United States anymore, and if anything, there is over-compensation for past “straight-laced” mores (which were hypocritical in many instances, but is this necessarily an improvement?!)

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  5. There is a heady intoxication that many people feel when directing contempt at other people (“The Other”). You mentioned a tiny ruling elite in El Salvador that “despised” the general impoverished population.

    What is our understanding of good leadership? What makes a good leader (and good laws?)

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  6. Excellent Mike
    As usual courageous.
    Romero would be proud of you.
    It is what our church lacks and needs most. Unambiguity – in its honesty. Clarity not waffle.
    I however would not put the present pope in the same league as Romero.
    I too think your comments re Jesus’s birth legitimacy needs a second look. Whether what you say is likely or not I feel is irrelevant as a matter of belief, but as to the historical supported accuracy I feel it is at very best a theory and may be very hurtful to some….gratuitously and unnecessarily.
    I would go easy on the reference to canonization as it has no real significance in today’s world.
    It is just a part of the Roman money making propaganda machine. It also can be seen as being elitist and separatist – and the miracles test phony. Real miracles as you well know take place in in the heart not in good heatth or longevity.
    I cant understand why we seem to have such fear of death, especially when the church preach so much about the wonder and glory of heaven. Bring it on!
    Jim

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    1. Love your comments, Jim. With that legitimacy thing, I’m just trying to make the point that it seems significant that (according to orthodox belief anyway) God chose to make God’s fullest revelation at a social site that most believers despise. And I don’t know about the miracle thing either. Is that required for martyrs? That Catholics (and not non-believers) were the agents of Romero’s martyrdom is confounding.

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