“A bishop will die, but the Church which is the people will never perish.” Those words of Archbishop Oscar Romero proved prophetic. He was shot to death on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass at a chapel near his cathedral. The previous day he had preached a sermon calling on soldiers to disobey orders that violated human rights. Almost nine months after Romero’s assassination, four Maryknoll nuns were killed by the El Salvadoran army. Similarly, in November 1989 nine Jesuit priests were murdered.
This year is the 34th anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s martrydom. He was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. Radicals distrusted Romero’s conservative sympathies. This would, however, quickly change for them and Romero. Following Romero’s appointment a Jesuit friend of his, Rutilio Grande, was assassinated. Romero began protesting the government’s injustice to the poor and its policies of torture. He met with Pope John Paul II in 1980 to complain that the leaders of El Salvador engaged in terror and assassinations. He pleaded with the United States to discontinue military aid to El Salvador. This request was, however, denied.
We often focus on the circumstances of a martyr’s death and rightly so. Before there can be a martyr’s death, however, there is first a martyr’s life. It is a life of learning to die. Martyrs die before they die. This first death is what frees them to live a martyr’s life, to offer all that they are and all that they have. The second death confirms and points to the first. Isn’t that the way of Christ, the way of the cross? Isn’t that what we see in the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero? He was assassinated in 1980 but he started dying in 1977 following Rutilio Grande’s murder. In life and death his blood was “a seed of freedom.”
To learn more about Archbishop Romero’s life and martyrdom watch the movie entitled Romero or read the biography by James Brockman entitled Romero – A Life. The following quotations from Archbishop Romero come from a book entitled The Violence of Love:
- “The world does not say: blessed are the poor. The world says: blessed are the rich. You are worth as much as you have. But Christ says: wrong. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, because they do not put their trust in what is so transitory” (33).
- The guarantee of one’s prayer is not in saying a lot of words. The guarantee of one’s petition is very easy to know: how do you treat the poor? Because that is where God is. The degree to which you approach them and the love with which you approach them, or the scorn with which you approach them – that is how you approach your God. What you do to them, you do to God. The way you look at them is the way you look at God” (35).
- “Some want to keep the gospel so disembodied that it doesn’t get involved at all in the world it must save. Christ is in history. Christ is in the womb of the people. Christ is now bringing about the new heavens and the new earth” (102).
- “If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent or more human qualities. Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted onto Christ’s life, his cross and resurrection. That is a person’s measure” (124).
- “A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth – beware! – is not the true church of Jesus Christ” (125).
- “God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection. That is the hope that inspires Christians. 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” (206).
Almighty God, you called your servant Oscar Romero to be a voice for the voiceless poor, and to give his life as a seed of freedom and a sign of hope: Grant that, inspired by his sacrifice and the example of the martyrs of El Salvador, we may without fear or favor witness to your Word who abides, your Word who is Life, even Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be praise and glory now and for ever. Amen.