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A Reflection on Blessed Oscar Romero

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

March 22, 2018
People carry a banner of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 22, 2014. CNS photo/Roberto Escobar, EPA
Who will Finish the Eucharist? A reflection on Blessed Oscar Romero
By: Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
The Catholic Church recognizes martyrs as people who were killed for refusing to renounce their faith, often during bouts of anti-Christian persecution. The declaration of martyrdom exempts the candidate for sainthood from the beatification requirement that the Vatican confirm a miracle attributed to his or her intercession. A second miracle is usually required for canonization. Martyrdom assumes that the killer intended to kill out of hatred for the person's belief in Christ, such as the many Christian martyrs who were killed in Latin America and those being killed today in the Mideast at the hands of Islamic extremists. If in the past the term 'in odium fidei' (hatred of the faith) was strictly linked to the faith, today it is filled with the great themes of charity, justice and peace.
One of the most significant examples of Christian martyrdom in recent history is that of Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Goldamez, born in 1917 in the town of Ciudad Barrios, in the mountains of El Salvador near the border with Honduras. As a newly ordained priest, Fr. Romero served in a country parish before taking charge of two seminaries. He was appointed in 1967 as Secretary General of the El Salvador National Bishops’ Conference.
Oscar became bishop in 1970, serving first as assistant to the then-elderly Archbishop of San Salvador. Within three years he was Archbishop of San Salvador. Just one month after his inauguration as Archbishop, Fr. Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit who headed a rural parish, and who was one of Romero’s closest friends, was killed by state agents. This tragic event would leave a deep and lasting mark on Oscar’s life and ministry.
Romero poses for a photo in this undated photo.
CNS photo/Octavio Duran
There was growing unrest in the country, as many became more aware of the great social injustices of the peasant economy. Romero’s 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.”
Oscar Romero was brutally killed on March 24, 1980 by right-wing death squads—while celebrating mass. He was murdered because every week he told the truth about the violence endured by the poorest: who had been arrested, who had disappeared, who had been assassinated. His killers were presumably baptized Catholics from overwhelmingly Roman Catholic El Salvador—who vehemently opposed his preaching against the repression of the poor by the army at the start of the country's 1980-1992 civil war. Romero’s last words in the homily 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…”
Oscar Romero was not a theologian and never considered himself part of Liberation Theology, a radical Catholic movement born of Vatican II. But he shared with the liberationists a vision of a Gospel meant to protect the poor. “Between the powerful and the wealthy, the poor and the vulnerable, who should a pastor side with?” he asked himself. “I have no doubts. A pastor should stay with his people.” It was a wise, pastoral and political decision, but justified theologically.
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 fundamental moral choice was between dialogue and violence. Dialogue is not about making compromises. It is not about negotiation but transformation. The deepest truths are only attainable through patient exchange, building friendship, transforming our hearts and minds. It is the very opposite of violence.
For Romero meditation on the Word of God involves a much more disturbing experience. It subverts our shallow and narrow identity, and sets us free for friendship with God and unexpected people. Romero said: “I always wanted to follow the gospel but I did not know where it would take me.”
On May 23, 2015, thirty-five years after his assassination, Oscar Romero was proclaimed blessed in a ceremony in San Salvador. His cause for beatification and sainthood was delayed for years by the Vatican, primarily due to opposition from conservative Latin American churchmen who feared his perceived association with liberation theology would strengthen the movement that holds that Jesus' teachings require followers to fight for social and economic justice. It was also delayed over related questions about whether Romero was killed out of hatred for his faith or his politics. If killed for his politics, it was argued, he couldn't be declared a martyr of the faith.
Tomb of Blessed Romero at the metropolitan cathedral in San Salvador.                      CNS photo/Luis Galdamez, Reuters
In the final moments of his pontificate, Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI gave the go ahead to proceed with Romero’s cause. But it was a Latin American Pontiff, Francis of Argentina, who decreed that Romero was killed as a martyr out of hatred for the faith, or "in odium fidei." Such a decree confirmed the acceptance of a new understanding that martyrs can be killed, even by church-going Catholics, out of hatred for their Gospel-inspired work in favor of the poor and disenfranchised. Oscar Romero’s life was rooted in the Word of God, a word of friendship. It invites us to go out from our cocoons, from our imaginary spiritual bubbles and hermetically sealed theological constructs—to be liberated from self-obsession. It calls us to flourish and find true happiness in a love that knows no bounds. Is this not the essence of Gospel joy of which Romero modeled and which the current Latino Bishop of Rome so powerfully embodies for the entire world?
Archbishop 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. Romero’s blood continues to cry out today wherever women and men are tortured, belittled, humiliated and killed, especially for the faith. 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. Oscar Romero 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. Blessed Oscar Romero gives hope and consolation to the new wave of martyrs today, and to all those who stand up for the truth. The beatification process has also begun for his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ—the inspiration for his ministry in favor of the poor. Let us hope and pray that Romero's beatification has now paved the way for similar martyrs from Latin America and from many other parts of the world.
Blessed Oscar Romeo’s own words in The Violence of Love sum up very well what his beatification is all about:
“For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty, and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that in each person is found the Creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God. As holy defender of God’s rights and of his images, the church must cry out. It takes as spittle in its face, as lashes on its back, as the cross in its passion, all that human beings suffer, even though they be unbelievers. They suffer as God’s images. There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being abuses God’s image, and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom.”
Blessed Oscar Romero and Servant of God, Rutilio Grande, SJ, pray for us.
This post was an excerpt from Salt+Light’s Winter 2015 Magazine