By Rick Jones
“I may be an atheist, but Monseñor Romero was a saint.”
Why do you say that, Don Chepe?
“He defended us, the poor Salvadorans, when no one else was willing to risk it. He gave us a voice, a place in the world, dignity. And they killed him for it.”
Don Chepe, a Salvadoran peasant farmer, shared that with me in 1994. It was the eve of the first democratic elections since the end of the bloody 12-year civil war, and hope filled the air. The peace accords had been signed just two years earlier. I was speaking with him and several other Salvadoran men and women who had been inspired by Archbishop Oscar Romero to struggle for a more just society. Monseñor Romero said he would rise in the Salvadoran people, and I felt I was witnessing that resurrection among these humble men and women.
Twenty one years later, on May 23, 2015, the Church will beatify Archbishop Romero, essentially ratifying what so many of El Salvador’s poor have sensed for years: Romero was a saint. Not a saint of miracles and magic, but a person who found the courage to defend human rights, uphold human dignity and be faithful to the gospel in the face of death threats and ferocious opposition from brother bishops in the Church he loved. For me and many of my colleagues, his life continues to inspire us to work for more profound social change despite opposition.
At the time, many powerful people inside and outside the Church considered Romero´s support for human rights and the poor to be radical and too political. In his personal diary, Romero admitted to being saddened and hurt by these accusations, yet he remained steadfast.
Where did that courage to defend the poor come from? According to Monseñor Ricardo Urioste, who worked closely with him when he was archbishop, and is now the president of the Romero Foundation, Romero drew inspiration from his contact with the poor and his contact with God in prayer. When, in 1974, he was named bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de Maria, he opened up the rectory to give migrant coffee pickers, who had been forced to sleep outdoors, a place to spend the night during the harvest. As more peasants were being killed and disappeared, Monseñor Romero increased his actions to defend them.
Some claim that Romero underwent a “conversion” after the killing of Rutilio Grande, a close friend and Jesuit priest. But Urioste says that Romero’s change was more of an evolution, a deepening of compassion and of faithfulness to God´s action in his life.
Urioste recalls an occasion in 1979 when Romero got up and left in the middle of a meeting with high-level officials. “After 10 minutes I went to look for him. I found him in the chapel, praying. I said, ’Monseñor, those men are waiting for you.’ He said, ’They can wait. I´m praying about what to say to them.’” Romero was in touch with the poor and in touch with God.
In my own experience over the past 25 years in El Salvador, standing with the poor and oppressed has been a privilege and a gift. As Sr. Pat Farrel, O.S.F describes it, “… the poor have given us the gifts they have learned in order to survive: resiliency, creativity, solidarity, the energy of resistance and joy.” Romero surely experienced this. Romero´s rootedness in God allowed him to be humble but not submissive, to speak the truth without being self-righteous, gentle but absolutely fearless.
Recently on the anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs a U.S. college professor said to me with sadness, “But given the levels of violence and impunity today, I can´t help but feel Romero´s death and that of the other martyrs was all for nothing.” “Although his death did not stop the war,” I responded, “ or resolve all the social ills of El Salvador, his life is still a beacon, shedding light on how to respond in troubled times. His voice still echoes today.”
Romero is often remembered as the “voice of the voiceless.” At a time when those who spoke out were often killed, he denounced human rights abuses, torture, assassinations and forced disappearances in Sunday homilies, which, broadcast live on the archdiocesan radio station, were the most widely listened to program in the country. On March 23, 1980, in a sermon given at Sacred Heart Basilica, he told soldiers that they were not bound by unjust orders to kill; standard textbook theology, but if applied in the concrete, usually considered treasonous. “I beg you,” he said to the soldiers, “I implore you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression.” The following day he was murdered by a death squad while saying mass.
Although the assassin´s bullet silenced his voice, it could not stifle his message of good news for the poor, and his call for a new and just society, which would defend human rights.
Thirty-five years later, that message is as relevant and necessary as ever. With El Salvador ranked as the fourth most violent country in the world, thousands of young people continue to flee. Changing repressive policies, calling on gangs and organized criminal groups to stop the killing, denouncing human rights abuses and caring for the victims is as urgent today as when Romero was archbishop. By beatifying him, the Church is recognizing that speaking out on behalf of the poor, marginalized and excluded is at the heart of the gospel. Speaking recently at the ministry of Foreign Affairs, Urioste reminded us that we are all called to follow the teachings and actions of Romero. As his beatification nears and we reflect on his example, may we not only speak about Romero, but find the courage to act like him.
Rick Jones is deputy regional director for Global Solidarity and Justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is based in San Salvador, El Salvador.
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