Oscar Romero: Archbishop of El Salvador
Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was born in 1917 to a large rural family in a time when electricity and running water and beds for the children to sleep on were uncommon. Oscar was apprenticed to a carpenter at age 12, as his family could not afford to send him further in school. Always feeling drawn to the church, he entered seminary at 14 and was ordained at age 25. He was a parish priest for many years. Quiet, introverted and a serious theologian, Oscar was moved up the church ladder to become an auxiliary bishop in San Salvador and then bishop of his home diocese.
At a time when there was much ferment in Catholic theology from priests who worked among the poor and organized local communities into home Bible studies, Oscar was not a fan of the Liberation Theology those priests espoused. His dear friend. Fr Rutilio Grande, who lived and served in Aguileres, outside of the capitol, was a leader in the Liberation movement, living among the poor, and asking the Church to side with those who were denied basic human rights and an avenue to literacy and economic progress by repressive governments.
Romero seemed a safe choice for archbishop in 1977. He had become aware of the dire poverty and lack of opportunity of the country people when he worked there, but still did not want to confront either the political hierarchy or the church hierarchy to change it. As the military government became more and more
repressive it was also more threatened by the influence of the priests on the people. His dear friend, Fr. Grande was murdered with some of his parishioners in the same year that Oscar was installed as Archbishop of San Salvador. Oscar closed all the country churches on Sunday to bring the people into the cathedral for the funeral for Grande, the boy, and the old man who had died with him.
As teachers, priests and others who demanded justice continued to be persecuted and murdered, Romero became more and more confrontational, seeing himself in a privileged position to be the voice of the voiceless. As he had always used radio to preach to the countryside, he spoke out more and more strongly against the violence of the government and of the guerillas.
On March 24, 1980, in his morning sermon, Archbishop Romero denounced the government, knowing the danger, and challenged soldiers to side with their people. He was murdered that evening celebrating the Mass in a small chapel in the hospital where he lived. The Civil War in El Salvador began in 1979 and lasted until 1992, when the Chapultepec Peace Agreement was signed on June 16.
October 25, 2015
John 8: 31-36
Reformation is tricky business. The line between reformation and revolution is hard to pin down. Through the centuries God has sent reformers to keep God’s people on track, because it’s just as hard for the church to live at the heart of God as it is for us, the people of the church. In the Hebrew Bible there were the prophets, who agonized over the heartlessness of God’s people who were busy building houses and buying and selling instead of welcoming the stranger and providing for widows and orphans. And people didn’t like it very much. Jeremiah was thrown into the bottom of a cistern and left for dead. Elijah lived for years in a foreign country.
Jesus had the same problem. He was happy to call out the religious authorities of his day who were so caught up in their tradition that they failed to see the misery of the people around them. Jesus’ healing and welcome and teaching about the generosity of God’s kingdom was meant to convert them, but instead they killed him for threatening the marginal stability of their occupied country.
Every reformer is called a traitor and a rabble rouser, and many of them live under the threat of death. We’ve talked about Martin Luther, whose travel was always restricted by the bounty on his head from the Holy Roman Empire. We’ve also talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was arrested and hanged by the Nazis for standing up to the National Socialist Church and for participating in a plot to kill Hitler. Today we’re talking about Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered while celebrating the Mass in 1980.
These reformers were ordinary people, believers who felt inadequate when faced with the terrible offenses against ordinary believers that they saw in their day. They were afraid, they were flawed, they were dragged out of their ordinary lives almost against their will by a God they learned to trust. And in their willingness to let God use them they re-formed the church. They asked the question of whether people are here to serve the church or if the church is here to serve God’s people. The men and women who changed the church in every age were the same as you and I, facing tragedy and circumstances they did not choose, and summoning up the courage to trust God to be at work in the midst of it all. Like you and I, that is when they met Jesus again, and let him lead them.
When you go to Latin America, you don’t need to use Romero’s name, he is the Monseñor. Like the other reformers, he became convinced that the church had lost it’s way and was more interested in pleasing itself and making peace with the political system than it was about preaching the radical love of God for all people.
Torn between his friendships with the elite and his friendships with radical priests, Romero experienced a conversion as the repression of the native peoples became more intense. When his own friend Rutilio Grande, was brutally murdered, and Grande’s church in Aguilares taken over by the army, Romero stood up to the government and the national guard. In marching with the people into the church, he said, “it has become my job to tend the wounds produced by the persecution of the church – to record the abuses and pick up the bodies.” He began to participate in the organization of Base Communities, which put the Bible in the hands of working poor. As persecution of the indigenous people became more and more harsh, Romero spoke more and more against it, showing up in prisons, at the homes of his rich friends, and bargaining with guerillas. “Thus the poor have shown the church the way to go. A church that does not join the poor in order to speak out from the side of the poor against injustices committed against them is not the true church of Jesus Christ.”
He saw Jesus in the abused and disappeared, imprisoned and murdered. He claimed that Jesus said whatever is done to those who hunger or are imprisoned is done to him. “The bloodshed, the deaths are beyond all politics,” he said, “They touch the very heart of God.”
It is Romero’s conversion from his own comfort as an intellectual and practicing servant of the church to one who sees Jesus in those who have been victimized and abused that makes him a reformer of the church. He saw the Gospel as real. He saw the story of Jesus, rescuing the church from its heartless rigid practices to telling people of God’s overflowing love, no matter who or what they were, as his own story and his own call to serve God’s people.
It wasn’t safe, but it saved his people from hopelessness and gave them his own voice when they had none. The conversion of Romero’s heart through the Gospel he experienced, changed the world in ways he would never have imagined. “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you as a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed I will rise again in the Salvadoran people…you may say if they succeed in killing me that I pardon and bless these who would do it…a bishop may die, but God’s church, which is the people, will never perish.”
Pray with me: Jesus, you send reformers and prophets to lift the brokenhearted and call us back to your undeserved love for all people. When I am too comfortable, re-form me to see where I am called to serve, and when I am abused, send your servants to heal my wounds. Open my eyes to your presence around me and use to change the world. Amen.