Oscar Arnulfo Romero Goldamez was born in 1917 in the town of Ciudad Barrios, in the mountains of El Salvador near the border with Honduras. Leaving school at twelve he began an apprenticeship as a carpenter, showing promise as a craftsman, but soon thought about ordination, against the desires of his family.
Fr. Romero served as a country priest before taking charge of two seminaries. He was appointed in 1967 as Secretary General of the El Salvador National Bishops’ Conference. He earned a reputation as an energetic administrator and his inspirational sermons were broadcast across the city of San Miguel by five radio stations.
Oscar became bishop in 1970, serving first as assistant to the aged Archbishop of San Salvador. Within three years he was Archbishop of San Salvador. At that time there was growing unrest in the country, as many became more aware of the great social injustices of the peasant economy. His pulpit became a font of truth when the government censored news. He risked his own life as he defended the poor and oppressed. He walked among the people and listened. "I am a shepherd," he said, "who, with his people, has begun to learn a beautiful and difficult truth: our Christian faith requires that we submerge ourselves in this world."
Killed by an assassin’s bullet as he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980, his last words in the sermon just minutes before his death reminded his congregation of the parable of the wheat. "Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies…” He is buried in the Cathedral of San Salvador where he preached justice and defended the faith fearlessly, with boldness and courage. The spirituality and faith behind Romero's struggle for life flows from his belief in the God of the living who enters into human history to destroy the forces of death and allow the forces of life to heal, reconcile, and lift up those who walk in the valley of death. Poverty and death go together.
His powerful words still ring out loudly today:
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master-builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master-builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own!"
Oscar Romero did not finish the celebration of the Eucharist. Neither was the Eucharist of his funeral Mass finished. Gunfire and death were again present, and people had to rush into the cathedral for cover. Many see the "unfinished Eucharist" of Romero as symbolic of what yet needs to be done in El Salvador, in Central and South America, and in every place that people suffer in their struggle for liberation.
Who will finish the Eucharist? The Eucharist is the re-enactment of the drama of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What Romero was doing when he was killed was re-living the Paschal Mystery. He was doing in ritual what he had done throughout his life: offering himself with Christ as a peace offering, so that the earth might be reconciled with its creator, and sins be forgiven. The life and death of Romero will be as fruitful as we choose to make it.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Television Network
Image: Stained glass of Archbishop Romero at University of Toronto's Newman Centre, photo by Bill Wittman