Blessed Oscar Romero - a faith that does justice

POST BY JFilochowski

Blessed Oscar Romero

On Monday 24 March 1980 at 6.26pm, Oscar Arnulfo Romero was shot dead at the altar with a single marksman’s bullet in the middle of a Mass he was celebrating in the chapel of the cancer hospital where he lived.

The next day an urgent telegram was received from London: “Supreme sacrifice of Archbishop Romero is climax of his peaceful struggle for poor and oppressed.  Will inspire all to continue his Christian witness.  Grieve with Church of El Salvador on loss of incomparable pastor. Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster.”

Cardinal Hume had captured the essence of Romero - Defender of the Poor, Prophet of Peace, Incomparable Pastor. And a week later, with great foresight, he predicted Romero’s eventual recognition as a saint of the Church – ‘an inspiration to all'!

On Saturday 23 May 2015, Monseñor Romero will be raised to the altars in a beatification ceremony in the Salvador del Mundo square in San Salvador, scarcely a mile from where his martyrdom took place. 35 years of waiting are over. This was an event intensely prayed for and longed for throughout the universal Church. As time passed, the affection and admiration and the yearning for Romero’s recognition grew and grew. One could discern a palpable sensus fidelium that he should be proclaimed a holy martyr of the Church.

Enter Pope Francis. “For me Romero is a man of God” he said bluntly. In February, he confirmed that the archbishop had been a martyr - killed out of ‘hatred of the faith’ - and announced that he would be beatified on the eve of Pentecost.

Utterly orthodox and yet utterly radical, a 24 carat Gaudium et Spes bishop, Oscar Romero embodies a faith commitment that is inseparable from the pursuit of justice. So we could say that the Jesuit slogan, ‘the Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice’, which pithily encapsulates Romero’s ministry, has been beatified too - in Romero!

Perhaps the most memorable Jesuit verdict on Romero came a few days after Romero’s assassination in a tribute from Ignacio Ellacuria - who himself subsequently joined the gallery of El Salvador’s martyrs. “With Archbishop Romero, God passed through El Salvador”. What Ellacuria was saying is that Romero was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, a model and an example to be sure; but much more. That Romero was sent by God; he was a grace from God; he was a presence of God for those three years that he led the Church in San Salvador. 

Theology of the Beatitudes

But let’s think back to remember some of the colossal problems that Archbishop Romero had to confront over those three years. Besides the extreme and pervasive poverty, he responded to paramilitary killings of community leaders, peasant massacres and the indiscriminate shooting of urban demonstrators by the security forces; the torture and disappearance of political prisoners; the decapitation and mutilation of death squad victims; the assassination of six of his priests and dozens of catechists; the desecration of churches and their tabernacles; the death squad threat to exterminate all the Jesuits in the country; the bombings of the diocesan radio station and printing press; the disapproval of the nuncio and four fellow bishops; a military-civilian junta installed by military coup; the kidnapping and execution by armed leftist groups of foreign businessmen; the occupations of churches by radical popular movements; continuous campaigns of slander and defamation in the press; and death threats from both the right and the left.

He preached and he spoke out trying to find the words to convey the horror of what was happening in a deeply Catholic country which he said had come to resemble the dominion of hell. Each week, he spoke the unvarnished truth in the setting of the homily of the Mass. And they killed him for it.

Romero’s theology is best-described as the theology of the beatitudes. Romero contended that only if we put the Beatitudes into practice can we begin to build that civilisation of love to which we all aspire.

‘A civilisation of love is not sentimentality, it is justice and truth.  A civilisation of love that did not demand justice for people would not be true civilisation …..Because of this, it is only a caricature of love when we try to patch up with charity what is owed in justice, when we cover with an appearance of benevolence what we are failing in social justice. True love means demanding what is just.’

A Contemplative in Action

Romero was not a Jesuit but he was trained by Jesuits in the seminary. He chose as his episcopal motto a phrase from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius ‘Sentire cum Ecclesia’ - ‘To Think and Feel with the Church’. Nevertheless, as Auxiliary Bishop, he more than once quarrelled publically with the Jesuits. Jesuit Rutilio Grande was a close friend and his assassination in 1977 triggered a dramatic change in Romero’s outlook and pastoral approach. As archbishop, he looked to a number Jesuits for advice and assistance. In Rome, Pedro Arrupe, the Jesuit Superior General, gave Romero comfort and guidance to navigate the stormy waters of the Vatican.

There was undoubtedly great Ignatian influence in Romero but he was in no sense manipulated by the Jesuits, as his critics constantly claimed. This ‘contemplative in action’ was also close to the charisms of the Carmelites, the Franciscans and the Dominicans and he maintained cordial relations with Opus Dei right up to the day of his death. The testimony of his Vicar General, Msgr Ricardo Urioste, is unequivocal: the only person who manipulated Romero was God!

As Cardinal Hume predicted back in 1980, Romero’s courageous Christian witness has been recognised and continues to inspire the People of God. A martyr for the Social Teaching of the Church, he gave his life defending and advocating for the poor. As they say, ‘he talked the talk and he walked the walk’. And the message to us today? A faith that does justice is no easy ride but brings integrity to our spiritual lives; and an authentic option for the poor is full of risks but is both possible and coherent in our divided world.  Te Deum Laudamus.

Julian Filochowski, Chair of the Oscar Romero Trust