Thirty-eight years ago today Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while offering the Eucharist in the chapel of the Divine Providencia at the hospital where he lived. Many of us know something of his strong desire to ensure that the church express its concern for the poor through more direct accompaniment of them in their needs and by implementing the changes that their cries for justice require. But Romero was not always a prophetic person. He grew into the Christian vocation to be a voice for the voiceless through a genuine conversion—a conversion brought about by his accompaniment of the crucified Christ in the poor of El Salvador. Prior to discovering Jesus in the midst of the suffering poor, no one would have predicted that he would become one of Christianity’s great modern prophets. In fact, Romero was originally named archbishop because he was seen as reserved and introspective. Perhaps the most remarkable element of his Christian witness is its testimony to the God who continually works in and with us, calling us to grow and to change.
Romero grew to understand his pastoral responsibility in very specific ways: he was to listen, to understand the lived experience of his people, to help them to see the Christ in their midst, and to exhort all to fidelity to the gospel’s call to dignity, equality, and love. His homilies became central to the theological, ethical and spiritual formation of the people of El Salvador. He had a keen sense of Christ’s presence in the poor and a profound gift for articulating the demands of the gospel for justice, tenderness and right living. He preached by word and example, listening to the stories of the poor, founding a center for families whose loved ones had been disappeared by paramilitary forces, living simply, and becoming a voice for the voiceless. Romero denounced his country’s social, political and economic injustices, the indifference of so many to those injustices, and the growing spiral of violence intended to maintain the status quo.
Strengthened by his deepening awareness of the presence of God in the community around him, the only way Romero could make sense of the darkness around him was by intensifying his dedication to showing love in action. As I look to his example, I see someone capable of showing us how to see past the darknesses of our days and commit ourselves to bringing greater light and presence into our world.
In his final homily, 38 years ago, Romero spoke of hope as what enlightens all of our longings for justice, peace and well-being:
“We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us… We know that no one can go on forever, but those who have put into their work a sense of very great faith, of love of God, of hope among human beings, find it all results in the splendors of a crown that is the sure reward of those who labor to cultivate truth, justice, love and goodness on earth.”
The recent declaration of Pope Francis that Romero will be canonized this year brings us both joy and an increased responsibility to understand his challenging message for us today.
You can find a wealth of information about Romero, including copies of all of his homilies, in English and Spanish at http://www.romerotrust.org.uk