A contemporary icon of Oscar Romero by William Hart McNichols. Romero protects a young Salvadoran child, so frightened by the hovering gunships that his sandal falls loose. The work is an homage to the ancient Marian image of ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Succour’. There, the child Jesus in Mary’s arms is similarly shocked by angels holding the instruments of his Passion and his sandal, too, falls from his feet.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit gets to work in the Church when we least expect it. It happened once when Pope John XXIII was elected. The Cardinals in the 1958 conclave could not decide whom to elect, so they settled on a compromise candidate, someone who would not rock the boat, a caretaker Pope to ‘mind the shop’ for a couple of years before he died and then they would elect a real leader. And what happened? They elected John XXIII, the Pope from the peasant class, who called the Second Vatican Council and ushered in the most significant renewal of the Church in centuries. Who would have predicted it? But God’s Spirit will not be thwarted. Archbishop Oscar Romero was another such surprise. This week Romero House, new addition to the College’s family of Houses, celebrated its first House Mass and Dinner. Just a few weeks short of the 35th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom.
Oscar Romero was born during the First World War. At 13, he was an apprentice carpenter but then entered the minor seminary to become a priest. By the time the Second World War broke out, he was studying theology at the Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome. Romero became a good reliable parish priest and was eventually made Bishop in a poor rural region of El Salvador.
By this time, his nation had experienced a rigged election. There followed repression, suspension of civil liberties and the systematic use of torture, death squads, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killing of anyone standing in opposition.
When Romero was then appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital, the government was happy as were most of his fellow bishops. This timid, conservative man would not be expected to challenge the status quo. But many of his priests were disappointed. They feared that his appointment would negatively affect the movement of liberation theology, that is, a theological understanding which holds that a commitment to the poor was a Gospel mandate. An obligation.
But there was a turning point when Romero’s close friend, Fr Rutilio Grande SJ, the local Jesuit superior who worked closely with the poor, was murdered by government agents. This had a profound effect on the Archbishop, who later stated, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path'”. So the lamb became a lion. His bold outspokenness surprised many. And not only at home. He told President Jimmy Carter that US military aid given to the Salvadoran junta would inflict injustice and repression on his people and deny them basic human rights. He was making many powerful enemies.
Romero took the Gospel seriously. Gospel, as we know, means ‘Good News’. News that liberates. And if it liberates some, it has a sting in its tail for others. For Romero, the Church was not to be a kind of cosy club. Its Gospel was not crafted as a collection of warm fuzzy fairy tales for the young. No. He once wrote:
“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under one’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that?”
Those were provocative words, especially to a corrupt government, especially to vested interests, and especially to a Church hierarchy aligning itself to the powerful out of self-interest.
In March 1980, Romero delivered possibly his most stirring and provocative sermon. It was to be his last. It concluded with an address to the military:
“I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”
Telling the militia to use their consciences was the last straw. The next day he was dead. Murdered by a government hit squad while celebrating Mass for sisters at a small hospital chapel. He was just 62.
Even though Pope John Paul II later declared Romero a Servant of God – the first step on the way to sainthood – and the fact that other Christian traditions (like the Anglicans and Lutherans) honour him, there were many conservatives in Rome with long memories. They held that the liberation theology, which Romero proclaimed and practised, was but thinly veiled Marxism. Beatification and canonisation therefore seemed distant prospects. Last year though, Pope Francis said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had blocked the process for ‘prudential reasons’. “But now it is unblocked”, he said, “and it is important for the process to move quickly.” True to his word, he declared Romero a martyr last month, and it has just been announced that he will be beatified on 23 May in El Salvador.
Oscar Romero is such a fitting House Patron for us. He was a great ally of the Jesuits – in his formation and in his friendships. He even chose for his own Bishop’s motto a line from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises: sentire cum ecclesia. Now it is the boys’ House motto. It means “to think and feel with the Church”, as former General of the Society, Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach would say. It means to be prophetic and to challenge as well as being loyal. And it means to be at one with all the members of the Church, not just the hierarchy, but also one with the least, the ones with no advocate, the ones with the greatest claim on the Church to take their side. As Romero himself interpreted it, “being one with the Church incarnated in this people which stands in need of liberation”.
And isn’t that all of us?