“We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us".
These words were spoken by Archbishop Oscar Romero moments before he was shot while saying Mass in the Church of the Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador on the 24th March 1980. His homily was halted by the bullet that killed him.
The news of his murder was shocking, but perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, many priests and nuns had been murdered in El Salvador in the years leading up to Romero’s death and his own ministry was galvanised by the murder of his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande. Romero knew he was a target, having received many death threats in the months before he died.
Responding to one of those threats he said,
“I will not abandon my people, rather I will run the same risks with them that my ministry requires.”
So what had Archbishop Romero done that was felt to be so dangerous, so challenging to his assassins?
As a parish priest he was dedicated to pastoral work, visiting prisons and working with Caritas to provide food to the poor. In 1967 he was made a Monsignor and moved to San Salvador where he met Fr. Rutilio Grande, an outspoken champion of the poor and oppressed. In spite of their differences in approach, the two men become close friends.
In June 1970 Monsignor Romero was appointed Bishop. In 1974 the army killed three villagers in his diocese and Romero protested to the President. Worse was to come - the violence escalated and priests and other religious were targeted.
When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 he was still seen as someone happy to maintain the status quo - but only a month after he became Archbishop, his close friend Fr. Grande and two others were killed in an ambush.
In his homily after Fr Grande’s death, Archbishop Romero said:
”The liberation that Fr. Grande preached was inspired by faith. A faith that speaks to us of eternal life. The liberation that ends in the happiness of God. The liberation that comes from repentance from sin. The liberation that is founded on Christ, the only force of salvation.”
From that moment Archbishop Romero became an outspoken voice for the oppressed and the poor. His weekly radio homilies were listened to by thousands of people and his message began to be heard outside his country.
Death threats increased as he became a rallying point for the poor people of his country.
On the 23rd March 1980, the day before he died, Archbishop Romero denounced the government and the army, saying,
“In the name of God, and in the name of his suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I beg you, I implore you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!”
As he said Mass next day, Archbishop Romero was gunned down. His last words were, “May God have mercy on the assassin.” Needless to say no one was ever charged with the murder of Archbishop Romero.
On the 23rd May 2015, Oscar Romero was beatified at a ceremony in San Salvador attended by 250,000 people. Cardinal Angelo Amato spoke in his homily that day of the life and legacy of a man revered throughout the world for his courage, commitment and faith.
“The beatification today of Mgr. Romero is a feast of joy, of peace, of brotherhood, of welcome, of forgiveness. Romero is not a symbol of division, but of peace, of harmony, of fraternity.”
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Blessed Oscar Romero’s birth on 15th August 2017, and SCIAF adopts him as a patron, let us remember his care for the poor and his bravery in defending his faith. Let us pray that he will soon join the ranks of those recognised by the Church as saints.