Oscar Romero and the Poor
“We know that every effort to improve society, especially when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us”. This is how, on 24 March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of San Salvador ended his homily during the evening Mass. Minutes later, as he raised the chalice, a hired assassin entered the tiny chapel in the Hospital of Divine Providence, shot and killed him.
Arnulfo Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, on 15 August 1917. He entered the seminary at age 12, and continued his studies for several years in Rome, where he was ordained a priest in 1942. He then returned to his homeland and became the first parish priest in Anamorós, later relocating to San Miguel, where he remained until being appointed Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador. In 1974 he became Bishop of Santiago de María, one of the poorest dioceses in the South American country. This was the occasion to learn first-hand the poverty of the Salvadoran people and the injustices they suffered. He was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, at a time of extreme social and political repression in the country.
Initially the appointment of Archbishop Romero did not trouble the authorities: he appeared more as an intellectual unprepared for civic and social affairs, a bishop whose pastoral ministry was oriented away from the life and history of the Central American country.
Within days of his appointment, however, one of his best and most loyal priests, the Jesuit Fr Rutilio Grande, was assassinated. Archbishop Romero spent the entire night near his body, and ordered that there would be a single mass of suffrage celebrated throughout the diocese. It would be the blood of this priest — Romero himself said later — that directed him toward social justice and solidarity in favour of the poorest. In his first pastoral letter he openly declared his willingness to align with them.
Every Sunday the people would anxiously listen to Romero’s words spoken during the celebrations in the cathedral and disseminated throughout the country by radio. The Archbishop spoke plainly: he wanted redemption for a people forcibly subjected to violence and injustice. His voice became la voz de los que no tienen voz (voice of the voiceless), a free voice invoking peace. Peace, according to Archbishop Romero, also means having the opportunity to speak, criticize and express one’s opinion publicly.
If his Sunday homilies were highly applauded, it is because applause is the only way the Salvadoran people were able to exercise their right to speak. A right which the regime regularly denied.
Thus Romero became dangerous. Four other priests met the same fate as Fr Rutilio, and the Archbishop understood the direction of his path. “In the name of God, in the name of the suffering people he said obstinately the day before his assassination, ‘I ask you, I order you in the name of God, stop the repression”. Not long before, after all, he had called on the soldiers and national guardsmen to disobey unjust orders to kill.
Archbishop Romero was the priest who, together with his people, suffered injustice, repression, exploitation. He knew it was the poor and the oppressed who had to signal the path of the Church: this was his great choice. This is his greatest teaching.
Yet over the years there have been countless misunderstandings. His voice, which became that of his people, was not always understood. Nor was it even listened to when he said it is the Good Samaritan who fights in the name of peace, detesting violence, on behalf of the poor, the needy, the neglected.
“It is inconceivable”, said Romero in a homily on 9 September 1979, “that someone is called ‘Christian’ and does not give preference to the poor as Christ did. It is a scandal when today’s Christians criticize the Church because she is concerned with the poor. This is not Christianity!”. He continued: “Many believe, dear brothers and sisters, that when the Church says ‘for the poor’ she is becoming communist, she is being political, she is opportunistic. This is not the case, for this has always been the teaching. Today’s Reading was not written in 1979, St James wrote it 20 centuries ago. What happens, however, is that we Christians today have always forgotten which readings may be summoned to support and guide the life of Christians”. And he concluded: “Let’s say to everyone: we must take the cause of the poor seriously, as if it were our own cause, or even more, for it is indeed the very cause of Jesus Christ”.
And on the occasion of the honorary degree conferred on him by the University of Leuven on 2 February 1980, Archbishop Romero said: “It is a truth of our people that today the poor see the Church as a source of hope and support in their noble struggle for liberation. The hope the Church sustains is neither naïve nor passive”. He continued: “The hope we preach to the poor is in order that dignity be restored to them, and to give them the courage to be themselves, the authors of their destiny. In a word, the Church has not only turned toward the poor person, but makes of them the privileged recipients of her mission [...]. The Church has not only embodied herself in the world of the poor, giving them hope, but she is firmly committed to their defence [...]. There exist among us those who sell the righteous for money and the poor for a pair of sandals [(cf. Amos 2:6)]; those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds [(cf. Amos 3:10)]; those who crush the poor [(cf. Amos 4:1)]; those who build a kingdom of violence, lying upon beds of ivory [(cf. Amos 6:3- 4)]; those who join house to house and add field to field, until they occupy all the room and dwell alone in their land [(cf. Is 5:8)]”.
“These texts of the Prophets Amos and Isaiah”, Romero concluded, “are not faraway voices of centuries long past, they are not simply texts that we read with reverence in the liturgy. They are mundane realities, whose cruelty and intensity we experience every day”.
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6 February 2015, page 16
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