If you have not yet been introduced to Oscar Romero, I feel it is my sacred duty to be sure that you are acquainted with him. His names has been in the news lately: as some good news involving the Good News (how about that?). The Catholic church last week officially made Oscar Romero a saint (however it is they do that). But he’s been a saint in the hearts of his Salvadoran people for decades, since his assassination in 1980. (Romero served as the Archbishop of El Salvador from 1977-1980). This is a tremendous moment for them, to have their saint recognized as such. But this doesn’t just have to do with Salvadoran or with Catholics: It’s important for us, as North American Christians of every stripe, to take this opportunity to encounter Oscar Romero.
It’s important for couple reasons: One, he is truly someone close to God – he is an inspiring and challenging example of a humble, devoted, courageous follower of Jesus, servant of God, servant of his people. He’s the kind of soul that brings other souls to God – when we learn about his life, and hear his words this can deepen our own experience of God in our lives and can strengthen our own allegiance to the Way of Jesus as a way that brings new life from situations of death.
The second reason that, as North Americans, we have a duty to learn about this Salvadoran saint is because it is a way into encountering more of the lived reality and history of Central Americans. Our fates are intertwined – and this isn’t anything new – the fates have been intertwined for a long time, between North America and Latin America. Intertwined fates does not mean shared fates: the appetites of some have often meant the despoilment of the other, the triumph of some has often come through tragedy for the other. North America has a long and living history of forceful and reckless intervention in Latin America – we must be honest with ourselves about that.
Romero was known as “the voice for the voiceless.” And we need to hear that voice, and hear those voices. As Christians, hearing a voice for the voiceless, well, that’s part of how we listen to the voice of Jesus – Matthew 25, right? This is part of how we can be convicted and converted into ever deeper allegiance to the Way of Jesus in our time and place.
What I’m doing here instead of a proper sermon is simply setting the stage for hearing some words from Romero’s sermons. Helping us hear that voice.
For most of his life, Oscar Romero did not speak with such a strong and bold voice as what you will hear. He was a humble, pious, cautious person by nature, from humble beginnings. And as a priest and then as the bishop for a state in El Salvador, he was humble, pious, and cautious keeper of the faith.
These traits were the reason he was chosen in 1977 to then become the Archbishop for the whole country of El Salvador. He was chosen because he wasn’t going to cause trouble. The church authorities got together with the political authorities to pick their man who will keep the party line and not cause trouble. Why was this important? There was a whole lot of trouble brewing. The country was on the brink of what did erupt into a civil war.
El Salvador was a severely unequal place with a severely undemocratic government. There were just a handful of families with all the power, the power of money and the power of government and law. They defended this power with violence when necessary.
The vast majority of Salvadorans were poor. And they were taken advantage of. And whenever they would organize to try to change their lot, or just to not get taken advantage of, they were met with really horrific violence. This is important, because things did escalate into a civil war with guerrillas and paramilitaries and the army, with money and arms pouring in from abroad, especially from the United States. Before this escalation, there were decades of peaceful attempts at demonstrations and organizations to advocate for the interests of the peasants, which the Salvadoran government answered with bullets.
Now, throughout Latin America at the time there was a tremendously vital religious movement often called Liberation Theology. Part of this movement were nuns and priests, but the real core of it was communities of lay Catholics, most of whom were poor. Liberation theology understands that the salvation we find through Christ has a spiritual dimension but also a physical and social dimension that has everything to do with difficult things like money and work and violence and power – the stuff of justice. The testimony of our scriptures, the testimonies of our Christian faith is that God’s activity in history liberates people from the forces of sin. This liberation can transform individuals but it also transforms societies. And the poor of a society are the litmus test for how “Your Kingdom come, your will be done – On earth, as in heaven.” “The Spirit of the Sovereign God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to announce good news to the poor. God has sent me to heal the brokenhearted; to proclaim freedom to the captives, to let out into light those bound in the dark; to proclaim the year of the favor of Lord.” Liberation theology movement took this testimony to heart, this proclamation of Isaiah, which Jesus himself set as his purpose. They said that God’s liberating activity in history has a preferential option for the poor.
This of course was controversial. This was a troubling and troublemaking movement. And Oscar Romero was among the majority who didn’t like it. He spoke against rebellious nuns and priests who were getting too deeply involved in the struggles of the poor communities they served. The job of the church is to save souls, to administer the sacraments, and to keep the doctrines of the faith, not to get involved in politics and economics. That’s what Romero said. And the political and economic powers in El Salvador liked that, so they anointed him to be Archbishop of the country.
The problem for them was that Romero knew that he had been ordained by God, not by the powerful of this world. And Romero actually loved God. And Romero loved people. Romero loved and followed Jesus. Romero’s piety really was just pure. And when he became Archbishop, Romero saw himself as the priest of his people, so he set about caring as a priest for his people. He went out and spent time with folks. He listened to them and he cared about them. During coffee harvest in one place he was visiting he found that many, many of the workers who came to town to work the harvest had to sleep on the streets – there was no place for them to stay that they could afford. So, Romero opened up a parish building that was empty and invited them in. And he listened to them. What he heard was lots of stories about how the finca boses cheated them and took advantage of them. He didn’t believe it. But he investigated and found that it was true. There were lots of these kinds of experiences where the scales began to fall from Romero’s eyes and he saw and felt the level of suffering and injustice that regular Salvadorans were enduring.
And then there was a crucifixion.
Romero’s dear friend and fellow priest, Fr. Rutilio Grande, was assassinated. Some death squad killed him. Fr. Grande was one of these liberation priests working with poor communities. And Romero knew his friend’s heart and knew he was a good man who loved God and loved people, and it wasn’t like he was some diabolical Communist agent like the military said they were cleansing from society. For Romero the mask had fallen from the monstrous level of sin. The Archbishop had converted.
There is so much to say about the three years after that, how Romero used the office of the Archbishop to amplify the voices of his people that were being trampled over and silenced. I encourage you to go out and learn more.
For now, let’s hear some of his words. As you hear this, I invite you to imagine them going out through the radio across mountains through little villages. His homilies every week broadcast on the radio served as lifelines to reality for the campesinos. He’d preach and teach, but also would report on the things that the Salvadoran government and the media, and the U.S. government and military said wasn’t happening. Romero would tell the stories about the people who were disappeared by the death squads. He would encourage the people who trembled in fear. He would call on the very soldiers to obey God alone and stand down:
“A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?” (Oscar Romero)
“When we struggle for human rights, for freedom, for dignity, when we feel that it is a ministry of the church to concern itself for those who are hungry, for those who have no schools, for those who are deprived, we are not departing from God’s promise. He comes to free us from sin, and the church knows that sin’s consequences are all such injustices and abuses. The church knows it is saving the world when it undertakes to speak also of such things.” (Oscar Romero)
“I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.” (Oscar Romero)
“A Gospel that doesn’t take into account the rights of human beings, a Christianity that doesn’t make a positive contribution to the history of the world, is not the authentic doctrine of Christ, but rather simply an instrument of power. We . . . don’t want to be a plaything of the worldly powers, rather we want to be the Church that carries the authentic, courageous Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when it might become necessary to die like he did, on a cross.” (Oscar Romero)
When the sniper shot Romero – I should say, when the child of God with a gun killed the saint, Romero was consecrating the Eucharist at the altar of a chapel in a hospital. Romero’s blood, when it ran, mingled with the blood of his Lord and Savior.
San Romero once preached: “As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.“ I urge you to see how this is true, to this day.
“Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world.” (Oscar Romero).
(Delivered October 21, 2018, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)