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Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

Obscure archbishop, living in his people, still causes mighty to tremble


As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s death, let’s take a moment to indulge the cynic (maybe within ourselves) who might ask, Why should the life (or death) of the shortest-serving archbishop of one of the smallest countries in the world a quarter century ago matter to us at all? Why should we take time from our busy lives to reflect on a footnote to somebody else’s past?

The answer -- the reason why I think the mythos of Romero endures and should endure -- can be digested into 10 easy components of his legacy that are palpable and urgent to the world.

1) He told the marginalized, “You are important.”

When I was in San Salvador on March 24, 2000, for the 20th anniversary celebration, a reporter who was roving through the crowd asked me why I cared enough about this man to have flown from Los Angeles to be there, and I told him that, in my childhood, Romero was the first authority figure to address me (indirectly) to say: “You matter; you are important.” This encapsulates Romero’s love for the poor and the marginalized exactly.

Here was a clergyman who had reached the pinnacle of his career. He had reached the archbishop’s palace and was, as far as anyone could tell, headed straight for a cardinal’s hat. If he had dedicated his energies to diplomats and presidents, to wine and cheese affairs in the house of the papal nuncio, no one would have batted an eye or thought any less of him. Yet he was choosing to spend his time with the mothers of the disappeared, and consoling persecuted peasants. That message -- love -- might not get you very far in this day and age. But, for an idealistic little boy growing up in the outskirts of San Salvador, it was priceless.

2) He was a Christian martyr.

Even though the church has not completed its glacial machinations about the question of Romero’s martyrdom, which is muddied by political considerations and Vatican intrigue, the Christian world sees Romero as one of the premier martyrs of the 20th century, and the delay in his beatification only underscores his martyr’s suffering. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Italy, was asked to name the three most important cardinals, and he included Romero because, he reasoned, his blood had earned him the scarlet colors of a cardinal. Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has called him “the most beloved martyr” of the 20th century, and the Anglican church gave him a central position in the western façade of Westminster Abbey. Pope John Paul II himself repeatedly said, “He was a martyr.”

Tertullian famously declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” and Romero’s blood is shoring up the church where sex abuse scandals are eating away at its lacy garments. From a theological standpoint, martyrs are given such force that they are even invoked to scare away the devil in the Roman ritual for exorcisms. Martyrs echo and renew the sacrifice of Christ and, for that reason, Romero’s martyrdom is a revelation to our world of modernity.

3) He was a prophet.

In his famous poem, “San Romero de America,” Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga says of Romero: “You knew how to drink from the double chalice of the Altar and of the People, with one single hand, consecrated to service.” Casaldaliga encapsulates in that one phrase more than I could say about Romero’s prophetic ministry in an entire book, but I will try to add just a little hue.

Prophetic preaching could be defined as preaching that converts the ordinary time of our daily, mundane lives to Gospel time. Cardinal Rodríguez also says that Romero made his church an “Easter church,” and this is part of the prophetic process to which I am referring. Romero took the history unfolding around him and used it to preach the same message that is revealed in the Bible. Just like the parables and the psalms, the day’s headlines became the medium by which he preached the Gospel, leaving us mesmerized with the grandiose feeling that God walked right along with us, in our valleys, in our troughs and in our bitter places. That is a prophetic ministry if there ever was one! Romero’s awakening the moral righteousness of the Old Testament was a much-needed challenge to the sleepy, dormant role to which religion had been relegated.

4) His “conversion” makes him a compelling hero.

Romero’s biographic profile presents a puzzle to people of conscience, the essence of which is, “Did Romero undergo a Paul on the road to Damascus-style conversion, and if so, what is its meaning for us?”

Romero was 60 when he became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. He had been a conservative, bookish cleric up to that point, and he was chosen, in fact, to quash a church style emerging in Latin America at the time that made the hierarchy squirm. It was a time of military dictatorships in Latin America, and of social movements striving to topple these tyrants, with brutal oppression and civil wars as the reaction. Whether or not the “conversion” model of Romero’s life fits with the salient facts, it makes a compelling narrative that forces us to answer: What would we do? What would we do if it paid to go with the flow, and it could mean your death to do the right thing? It is the stuff that myths are made of, and it is at the heart of this hero’s tale.

5) He gave hope to his people.

Romero was a leader in Salvadoran life who rose to the occasion and the exigencies of his time. As a matter of fact, Romero was the only leader in El Salvador’s history who has ever done so. People outside El Salvador don’t appreciate this, but Romero first appeared on the national radar for his powerful eulogies. He had to give quite a few. Six of his own priests were killed during his tenure as archbishop, and he set the tone for their funeral Masses after the assassination of Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande a month into his term. Romero canceled all Masses in the archdiocese and led one single Mass that everyone followed on the radio.

Thereafter, Romero’s sermon broadcasts became a powerful, transforming phenomenon. People say that you could walk across San Salvador to the cathedral and Romero’s voice would always be within earshot, from radios in people’s homes and in grocery store windows, taxis, buses, and even people sitting outside with little transistor radios. Romero was a voice of consolation, a voice of denunciation, “a voice that cried out in the wilderness” and “the voice of the voiceless.” By showing that ministry is a profession of hope, Romero became a model for other pastors.

6) His assassination tainted the dictatorship.

When King Henry II ordered the assassination of St. Thomas Becket in 1171, his infamous words (“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”) came back to haunt him and led to political reforms that culminated in the Magna Carta. Likewise, the assassination of Romero shocked the conscience of the world and revealed that the lambs had fangs: that the governments of Central America were vicious killers who did not hesitate to kill a 62-year-old bishop in a chapel in a cancer hospital presiding over the Eucharist.

“Old men forget,” wrote Shakespeare, “yet all shall be forgot” -- especially by revisionists who would try to recast history in rosier colors, but they will have a hard time explaining away or rationalizing the dead archbishop being carried out by nuns; the casket fired on at the funeral; the bullet hole through the archbishop’s portrait nine years later at the scene of the massacre at the University of Central America. The Romero assassination was the last straw for a government accustomed to slaughtering its own people. U.N. Truth Commission, investigations of the Organization of American States, and now a U.S. federal court have all identified the blood on the hands of the killers.

7) He preached a torrent of Gospel truth.

Once again, Casaldaliga has said it, in San Salvador in March 2000: Romero announced “the word of God in a raging torrent” (“chorro fuerte”). That is absolutely so, and if you ever doubt it, then take a look at the texts of Romero’s speeches. You don’t even need to understand Spanish to see the sheer volume. He was an indefatigable preacher.

Romero was a dynamic orator, speaking about urgent themes with urgent and colorful language, speaking powerfully, from the heart, and with great eloquence and clarity. His outspokenness was a firebrand that streaked the firmament of an increasingly noisy world to focus world attention on an overlooked and neglected corner of the globe, “whose laments rose to heaven each day more tumultuously.”

8) He energized ecumenism and solidarity.

In order to focus world attention on persecutions and oppression, Romero invited religious figures from abroad to visit El Salvador, engaging and inspiring young missionaries like Jean Donovan and countless others to come to El Salvador to serve. Romero even opened the podium to Protestant ministers (a leap of faith, given his previous stern outlook on the subject), paving the way to the broad community of conscience and solidarity today.

9) He rose in the Salvadoran people.

Romero said, “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.” It is hard to talk about the insignificance of a long-dead bishop if he is not really dead. A tribute song by Yolocamba Yta questions, “If you are dead, why haven’t they buried you? If you are dead, why are you screaming in my ear?” Travel around El Salvador and Romero’s image is ubiquitous. Travel around the world and the countless institutions and groups bearing his name proclaim his relevance.

10) He appeals to us to humanize globalization.

Finally, even though the conflict that caused Romero to rise to challenge the state of the world he knew is gone, we are faced with a landscape that continues to call for Romero’s message of solidarity and conscience. The globalization of markets, as Bishop Gregorio Rosa of San Salvador likes to say, calls for the globalization of hope, of love and of solidarity. Whether we are talking about Third World debt, enforcing humane labor standards, or the old challenge of simply eradicating hunger and poverty, Romero’s appeal to each of us is even more urgent today than it was when he was here. It is more urgent because he isn’t here to bear the burden, and now we have to do it in his memory.

Carlos X. Colorado is an attorney living in California. A native Salvadoran who emigrated to the United States in 1978 at age 10, as a child he met Romero. He is currently the moderator of an online discussion group about the archbishop.

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

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