Today marks the 34th anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was killed by government forces while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel in San Salvador, because he had become too dangerous to those in power.
I didn’t know about Oscar Romero in 1980, when I was a junior in high school, nor did I pay much attention to the turmoil in Central America. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned of this courageous man and his martyrdom. When I “returned” to the church, his bravery, dedication and sacrifice, as an ordained priest, impressed me even more.
We hear so many negative comments, many rightly deserved, about the Roman Catholic Church, and priests in particular. The pedophilia, the shame, the guilt, the hypocrisy. It’s hard to remember that the church is run by men, mere humans who are as prone to sin as anyone else, no matter how they try and pass themselves off. The damage, perpetrated by an institution established by Christ himself, is hard to fathom or forgive. Yes, the church has failed many people. Oftentimes the church seems to take the easy way out, condemning abortion with a strong voice, but speaking more softly about the violence of poverty and the suffering it inflicts on children and adults alike. It’s difficult to forgive the church its reticence, its focus on what sometimes seems to matter the least in the lives of modern Catholics.
During Mass, we acknowledge our sin and pray for forgiveness. This prayer also applies to those men who run the institution, even those blind to the destruction they create.
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
But there are also those in the church, the majority, I think, who quietly do God’s work with His flock. They live out their vocations in our parishes; they marry us, baptize our children, preside over funerals, comfort us.
Sometimes a few rise even higher, fight for us, give the voiceless a voice, make our struggles their struggles.
Oscar Romero was one of those men. A mild-mannered pedantic priest, he was made Archbishop with the understanding he wouldn’t cause any more problems in a country beset by turmoil. But after seeing all that his flock was subjected to, he found his voice, his courage to speak truth to power.
“The church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the gospel if it stopped being . . . a defender of the nights of the poor . . . a humanizer of every legitimate struggle to achieve a more just society . . . that prepares the way for the true reign of God in history.”
“I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.”
After three years, he knew there was a bullet with his name on it, ready to strike at any moment. But he accepted his fate, because to die for a just cause, ending the suffering of his people, was to die for Christ himself.
“I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me.”
We, as church, are called to be witnesses to the suffering in the world, and to work to alleviate it. This is what Christ himself commands in Matthew 25:31-46. Unfortunately, sometimes those who run the church are the cause of some of that suffering, which makes our work that much more difficult.
But sometimes, leaders rise and proclaim a truth so powerful and raw that we are given strength for the task at hand. And we know that the church is not defined by the few bad leaders, because the church is bigger than that: we, the people, are the church. And we, like Oscar Romero, should go forth with courage and conviction.