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Posted by on Oct 14, 2018

Mercy in the Life of St. Oscar Romero

Mercy in the Life of St. Oscar Romero

Archbishop Oscar Romero came from modest circumstances in a village in El Salvador. His family did have somewhat greater financial circumstances than most others, but they were still poor. He attended a school in the village which only went to the third grade and then was tutored at home. During those years he worked as a carpenter with his father who had taught him the trade. After he decided he wanted to be a priest, he went to the seminary from age thirteen on. At one point he left the seminary for three months when his mother became ill. While he was home, Oscar worked in a gold mine with his brothers.

After he was ordained, Fr. Oscar Romero worked in a village parish for 20 years. Eventually his superiors saw his talent with administration and his high level of pastoral care. Ordination to bishop followed and he was the Secretary-General for the Catholic Episcopal Secretariat of Central America. By the time he was appointed as Archbishop of San Salvador, he had had broad exposure to the repressive policies and actions of a number of national governments against the poor. But he remained traditional and conservative.

As Archbishop, Oscar was aware of the poverty and terrorizing of the poor by the military in his country. He was also aware that a number of the priests under him were organizing protests, teaching organizational skills to their parishioners, and some were advocating violence. For a number of years he advocated the unity and interior conversion of all as a way to remedy the injustices and bring forth mercy. Archbishop Romero was well loved by many families of the ruling class. He tried not to “rock the boat.” He was worried that would bring on more repression.

After a close priest friend, Rutilio Grande, was assassinated, Archbishop Romero stepped forward much more strongly. His homilies and weekly radio broadcasts then emphatically identified the marginalization and injustices and even ordered the perpetrators to put down their arms and refuse to take orders from their superiors. Romero visited and ate with both the rich and the poor. He baptized the babies of both social classes, often in the same groups, which infuriated the elite. He had very little support, including from church officials.

He was a loving and very pious man. He wrote in his diary that he examined his conscience every day and strove constantly to be a son of the Church. This was very difficult because many of the church hierarchy were of the wealthy class in power. They knew there was injustice and torture, but the official policy was tolerance. Active mercy was the last thing on their minds.

Archbishop Romero was suspected of being an extremist or at least of backing them. He was no such thing. In fact, he ordered the extremists, priests and laity, not to confront the governmental violence with violence. He further did not subscribe to the Latin American versions of Marxism, although he was accused of this. His entire focus was on the suffering of the poor and the peril of the souls of the perpetrators. On March 24, 1980, after attending a day of recollection for priests, Romero celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. As he raised the consecrated Host, he was shot.

This was an unlikely man, called to something which was foreign to his background, personality, and his superiors. Romero did not go looking for controversy or seek to be famous. Rather, in his diary he wrote of his desire to follow Jesus and for holiness. He saw Jesus particularly in the faces of those suffering. His willingness to be available to God opened his heart to mercy.

Today he is recognized as St. Oscar Romero.

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Posted by on Mar 24, 2012

Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Martyr in Our Own Time – One of Too Many

Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Martyr in Our Own Time – One of Too Many

March 24 is the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador in 1980. Archbishop Romero for most of his life was a pious, retiring, conservative priest and bishop. Nevertheless, he proved to be a man who could grow in response to the injustice of the social structure of his country, a structure that treated peasants and other poor people as less than human. When his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J. was assassinated shortly after Romero had become archbishop, he came to see more clearly the systemic nature of the oppression and to speak on behalf of the voiceless poor. As he said, “A Church that does not unite itself to the poor … is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Romero’s words and actions on behalf of the poor were not welcomed by many of his friends and colleagues, let alone by the rich and powerful of his nation. In the face of threats against his life, he declared, “If God accepts the sacrifice of  my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty. … A bishop will die, but the church of God — the people — will never die.” Ultimately, a day after his plea to the military, “I  beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression,” he was shot as he celebrated Mass.

A young Salvadoran agronomist was living with us at the time. She had been working in the countryside and had had the audacity to believe that peasants were human too. After one of her co-workers had been taken away by the death squads, her parents sent her to the United States, ostensibly to study English, but actually to save her life. When she heard the news of Archbishop Romero’s death, she was astounded and appalled. “If they would do that to the Archbishop, then none of us is safe!”

Blessedly, the civil war in El Salvador came to an end, and the death squads stopped spreading terror. Our friend was able to return home safely and resume her life. However, the oppression of the poor in countries around the world has not ended. The assassinations of Christians who work on behalf of the poor continue. Persecution of believers, not just in Islamic countries, but also in Latin America, Africa, and Asia continues. Real persecution. Not a difference of opinion about social policy and how to implement it. Persecution in which churches are bombed and people are killed. Those doing the “dirty work” are not only religious fanatics, they are representatives of business interests who would prefer not to have to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. Some are drug traffickers who will brook no opposition to their trade. Others are members of religious groups, including Christians, who are convinced theirs is the only true faith — others have no right to their own beliefs or lives.

As Christians, we are called to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Witnesses such as Archbishop Romero speak to us from the past. Yet the violence continues today. Will we open our eyes and ears to notice it? What will we do to support those against whom it is directed?

For more information on persecution of religious believers in our times, please see this workshop by John Allen, Jr. at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress (2012).

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