Oscar Romero: Saint for the Poorest
I was at the service in York Minster today to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the assassination and martyrdom of Bishop Romero in El Salvador. It was a brilliant service not least because it brought together such a diverse mix of Christians, including a Catholic Cardinal and the Archbishop of York. But Romero was a voice of the established church where he lived; instead he was a fighter and inspiration for the poorest in the society he served. He’s definitely one of my “Hero’s of the Faith”.Archbishop Romero was very much the face of pacifist liberation theology, even though he was selected for the role of Archbishop as a result of lobbying by the richest families in his deeply divided country. Seeing the rise in paramilitary violence, he began to speak out weekly in his sermons, or ‘homilies’, which were then broadcast by a radio station, rebuilt three times by money from CAFOD in the UK after it was burnt down to prevent him being heard. Although I usually think of a homily as a ‘short reflection’, his were anything but – often they went on for over an hour and conveyed lists of those recently killed.
Romero was moved by the sufferings of those around him, and appealed to the government and elites who ruled the country and repressed the poor, whilst always faithful to Christianity. He rejected the idea that a good priest or bishop should remind the poorest that God had put them in poverty for whatever reason; he refused to preach some kind of “created hierarchy” of society. Instead he recognised that Jesus’ message was meant to comfort, but also to liberate, the poor.
But he also realised that that message was meant to challenge, and liberate the rich. It might seem odd to talk about liberating the rich, but when the rich are resorting to violence to maintain their wealth, they too are demunised by the experience. These might be two separate experiences, but they result in the same dehumanising outcome. Indeed, that violence might not be perpetrated physically in our society, but where Romero served, it was very physical, and it ultimately took his life. And in one sense, this is why he is inspiring, why he stands out, but in another sense, why he was so humble: the challenge was bigger than him, and he didn’t hide away and protect himself.
This isn’t to say that we should all go out and get ourselves killed or even injured. His death was very definitely a tragedy, and one can only wonder at the great speeches and writing that we might have if he had been allowed to continue. But it is a reminder of the sacrifices that must be made when standing up to the self-interests of power, and the important of not only challenging poverty, but also the wealth that accompanies and feeds off of it.
Romero was seen as a threat not because of his violence, but because he acted peacefully – he couldn’t be easily dismissed. Whilst many in the church have used the violent actions of some involved in liberation theology to dismiss the whole movement, it has been clear to myself and others that what they really feared was the message of liberation from oppression. To tell someone they are redeemed is a huge privillege, but it changes only past experiences. To tell someone they are liberated means their future can be truly different; they can be free of their afflictions. Liberation without redemption is pointless, but redemption without liberation is meaningless.
It was because of this that Romero came to be understood and respected as a hero by many. Today’s service in York was attended by western Catholics (a group who were divided over his actions), Anglicans, Quakers and Methodists, all of whom are inspired by his work. It was also attended by diplomats from El Salvador, a sign of Romero’s ongoing effect there. When, as many hope, he is officially recognised as a Saint, he will be a Saint for all the poor, and especially for all those in Latin America. But he also serves as a reminder that the Church can and should lead the movement for change and for justice in our societies and our world.