March 24th, as Palm Sunday and we passed the 33rd anniversary of the death of Oscar Romero, archbishop of El Salvador.
El Salvador, which has a population of 5.5million people, is the smallest country in Central America. In the sixties it was said that 14 families owned the whole place and the vast majority of people lived in poverty. Although nominally a democracy El Salvador is still full of corruption and social injustice but it is making progress towards becoming a modern nation.
In the late sixties and seventies Marxist guerrillas began a long fight against the right wing dictatorship that ran the country. The reaction of the right wing was swift and brutal. Summary executions, torture and people disappearing were the order of the day.
Into the middle of all this social unrest, on the 23rd of February 1977, Oscar Romero was made Archbishop of the country. His appointment was a big letdown for those priests and social radicals who wanted change.
Up to this point Romero was remarkable for one thing, keeping his nose clean and keeping a low profile. All this was to change a month after his appointment.
Rutilio Grande was a social activist Jesuit priest who was also a close friend of Romero. A month after Romero was made archbishop, Grande was summarily executed by right wing militia men. The death of his friend had a profound effect on Romero. He found that he could no longer sit on the fence.
Romero later wrote “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”
The right wing regime had made a new and powerful enemy. For the next three years Romero worked with the poor and helped them organize themselves into cooperatives and other self help groups. In 1978 he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize although many hold that politics prevented him from receiving it.
The United States were giving military aid to the right wing government because they were afraid that El Salvador would become another communist state. Romero wrote to Jimmy Carter and begged him to stop supplying guns to the people who were killing the opposition. He read the letter out at Mass two weeks before he was murdered.
Archbishop Romero denounced the persecution of members of the Catholic Church who had worked on behalf of the poor:
In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs -- they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled from the country. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed. Several parish communities have been raided. If all this has happened to persons who are the most evident representatives of the Church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands....
But it is important to note why the Church has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people's defence. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”
Romero made this speech in Belgium a month before he died.
It is said that the group of men who decided to kill Romero drew lots to decide who would shoot him. On the 24th March 1980, while he was saying Mass in the Chapel of Divine Providence, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was shot with one bullet through the heart.
As he lay dying, wine from the chalice mixing with the blood from his chest, Oscar Romero said to those who were trying to help him, “May God have mercy on the soul of my assassin.”
On another occasion Romero was heard to say, “As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”
Any man who sides with the poor is taking his life in his hands. The Pharisees and chief priests had a cushy number running the affairs of the province of Palestine in the Roman Empire. No one challenged their authority and survived, so when a wandering Jewish rabbi from Nazareth began to get too big for his boots he had to be done away with.
This week we come to the greatest feast of the Church when we celebrate the passion death and resurrection of the Lord.
Jesus and Oscar Romero both walked openly to death, both knew their lives would only have one conclusion. Jesus embraced the cross because it was the will of his Father that he do so. He died in obedience to his Father’s wishes and it was in response to this obedience that the Father raised him again on the third day.
Oscar Romero knew the story; he knew it and he believed it. It was the believing of this story that made all the difference. Up until his friend Rutilio Grande was shot, Romero never had any occasion in his life to put his belief to the test. When the test came he was not found wanting.
Our faith is built on the resurrection of Jesus. If there is no resurrection then the whole Christian message is nonsense.
But that is what is important about men like Romero. They prove 2000 years later that the resurrection is not some story from history but a living fact that guarantees us that this life is not the end and that there is no such thing as death without resurrection.
Christians have nothing to fear in this world, not even death itself. The Pharisees and chief priests carried out the greatest act of violence ever; they tried to kill God.
But the resurrection proves that you cannot kill God and you cannot kill goodness.
That’s why Romero was always going to win.
Published in Mid-Ulster Observer Newspapers, N.I.
28th March 2013