Oscar Romero: Presente!
March 25, 2013
March 24, 1980. San Salvador. On that horrific day, in the middle of saying Mass, Archbishop Oscar Romero – a humble priest who dared to fight oppression from the pulpit – was murdered by the Salvadoran army. Now, thirty-three years later, Servant of God Oscar Romero (considered the unofficial patron saint of the Americas) continues to inspire those who seek peace and justice throughout the world.
It is often said that Romero’s brief ministry shares much in common with that of his Lord. Like Jesus, Romero led a relatively uneventful life for many years before beginning his mission. (When elected archbishop of San Salvador, he was considered a bookish intellectual who would make no waves in a time of political turmoil and struggles between the wealthy landowners and the exploited campesinos). Like Jesus, he lived most deeply and fully in the last three years of his life and became a champion of the poor and marginalized.
Initially moderate in his opinions, Romero was inspired by his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande (who was also murdered by government forces) to take up the cause of the poor. In his weekly sermons – heard throughout El Salvador and beyond by radio – he regularly denounced the government with his death squads, disappearances, and general reign of terror it was enacting on the country. Like Jesus, he ultimately paid with his life for his beliefs and commitment to justice. And, like Jesus, Romero is still very much alive in the minds and hearts of millions – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – who would seek to follow his example in standing up for the poor and oppressed.
The recent election of Pope Francis does not initially invite comparisons with Romero. As much of the media has eagerly pointed out, Cardinal Bergoglio also lived through a dictatorship, and he did not respond as Romero did. While some sources report his attempts to protect the lives of those in danger, others note his links with the dictator Videla. While this issue is certainly complex, I find myself in agreement with Brazilian theologian Leonard Boff’s statement that “What matters is not Bergoglio and his past, but Francis and his future”:
Francis is not perfect, and he is no hero…But then, neither was Romero when he became Archbishop. I am not sure what Bergoglio thinks of Romero, but in advocating a “Church of the Poor” he is certainly expressing the spirit of his continent’s unofficial patron. And while I know better than to place too many expectations on a pope – especially in the troubled Catholic Church of today – I hope that the Latin American church will be inspired to look at its richly progressive past, perhaps revisiting the theology of liberation and breathing new life into it for our twenty-first century world.
Meanwhile, I know I join my voice with millions when joyfully I cry out, “Oscar Romero…Presente!”