Remembering Oscar Romero

Throughout history, the voice of the prophet is one of the vehicles through which God speaks to the community and to the world. Today, we commemorate one of these prophets. On this day, 34 years ago, evil men in El Salvador tried to silence the voice of a prophet. I claim this date as being special to my life story because it was the month and the year that I was to grace the world. However God had another plan and I arrived a little earlier on January 24th. It continues to be a day where I remember Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

Knowing himself to be on the government’s “hit list,” Romero went to the hills to prepare himself for his final confrontation with evil. He telephoned his farewell message to Exclesior, Mexico’s premier newspaper, insisting that like the Good Shepherd, a pastor must give his life for those he loves. Romero was shot while celebrating an anniverary Mass of a  friend’s mother at the local convent. The asassin escaped in the hubbub and has never been found. 250,000 thronged the Cathedral Square for his funeral but sadly even that was not without bloodshed. A bomb exploded. Panic-stricken people stampeded. Forty died. In the next two years 35,000 Salvadorans perished. Fifteen per cent of the population was driven into exile. Two thousand simply “disappeared.” In 1983 Pope John Paul II prayed at Romero’s grave, and then appointed as national archbishop the only Salvadoran bishop to attend Romero’s funeral. The message was plain. The pope had given his imprimatur to all that Romero had exemplified.

My personal admiration for Romero goes back to a discernment weekend which was held in our community in Dublin back in 1997. I remember it vividly because that weekend we watched the movie ‘Romero’. The story of this heroic pastor was life changing. At a certain point of his journey, Romero is shown literally at a crossroads. We see him fall to his knees and he utters a simple prayer: “I can’t, You must, I’m Yours, lead me!” It was the prayer from a heart that didn’t know what to do in the face of such injustice, death and despair. He was the pastor and the sheep continued to be slaughtered and torn from his grasp. I found myself in tears because I realised that that simple prayer echoed the sentiments of my own heart. I had been rebelling against the Lord for such a long time in responding to the call to religious life and I was tired. Romero’s prayer had become my prayer. If I was to embark upon the journey of trying consecrated life, it had to be upon fully surrendering to the guidance of the Shepherd. This simple prayer has been my lifeline on many occasions, a call back to reality and to see that I need to be guided and that I can’t do this on my own. It is a prayer which I whisper often each day when words fail me in prayer or don’t seem to carry me as they usually do.

Pope Francis when he was bishop in Argentina
washes feet on Holy Thursday

When Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Square over a year ago, my first thought was ‘he reminds me of Oscar Romero’, with those thick rimmed glasses and defined jawline and his South America background. In these past ten days, the Pope’s message has been very clear: our Church must remember the poor, the afflicted, the forgotten, the marginalised. Our message must be one of life. Even this morning during his homily for Palm Sunday, he called us to remember the power of the Cross: “Jesus enters Jerusalem in order to die on the Cross. And it is here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross! I think of what Benedict XVI said to the cardinals, 'You are princes, but of a crucified King.' That is Jesus' throne. Jesus takes it upon himself... Why the Cross? Because Jesus takes upon himself the evil, the filth, the sin of the world, including our own sin—all of us—and he cleanses it, he cleanses it with his blood, with the mercy and the love of God. Let us look around: how many wounds are inflicted upon humanity by evil! Wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest, greed for money, which none of us can take with us, it must be left behind.”

Again, I think of Romero: “A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth—beware!—is not the true church of Jesus Christ.
(Homily, March 11th,1979.)  Archbishop Romero, faced with the urgency of his historical moment in El Salvador, calls us to look at the urgency of our own. And he calls his church, including himself, to the highest standard in confronting our moment in history—to name sin, to uproot sin, to be Christ in the world, redeeming it, building up within it the reign of God. Pope Francis, through his ministry as successor of Peter, of Benedict XVI and of all the other popes before him, is a prophet for today. Let us pray then, in the midst of our Lenten fast, our Lent of repentance and redemption, for our Church, and for ourselves who are that church. We are called to repent the failings of our Church, the sin within it. This day, we reflect especially on the failings of our church to confront the sin of injustice and its causes. We hear the voice of the prophet enjoining us to uproot this sin from our church, to uproot this sin from the hearts of those of us who make up this Church. We are also called to prophesy—for our Church, and we who are church, to be prophets, Christ's voice, Christ's hands in a world deeply mired in injustice, violence and fear.

A free ebook called ‘The Violence of Love’ by Archbishop Romero is available here and the link to the movie 'Romero' is above. The book is really worth a read and the movie worth a viewing especially as we begin the journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, to Calvary and beyond. Buen cammino!