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A martyr for his people - Peter Hosking SJ

On 24 March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot while celebrating the Eucharist at the chapel of the Divine Providence hospital, in San Salvador.  He was 62 years old.  Twenty years ago I visited his simple room near the chapel and asked him to watch over me.  The connection of that prayer has been a source of strength since.

Romero was born in a small town in El Salvador in 1917.  He worked as a parish priest for 20 years and as rector of the seminary in San Salvador.  In 1966 he was asked to be secretary of his country’s bishops conference.  By the age of 50 he was settled in an ecclesiastical career, somewhat unaffected by Vatican II, and part of a church which kept the people uncritical and passive, while the upper classes, with the connivance of the military, subjugated the poor.

He was made a bishop in 1975.  After the military conducted a raid on a village in his diocese, he was affected.  At the funeral of the villagers who were killed he condemned this violation of human rights.  He watched as activist priests were deported.  It was an awakening for him.  In 1977 he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador.  He was a compromise candidate and not expected to challenge the élite.

One of his first tasks was to bury a number of protestors who were gunned down by the military. Soon after, a personal friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, was ambushed and murdered.  Rutilio had helped groups organise cooperatives and was a source of encouragement for change.  Another priest, Alfonso Navarro, was killed two months later. 

The new archbishop watched with growing trepidation.  He saw poor people facing mounting terror.  He listened to their stories and was moved by their endurance.  Gradually he was awakened and made himself available.  He offered his leadership to the people, becoming a companion in their struggle and a powerful voice for the truth.  A subjugated people found a voice and opposition rallied.  But the reprisals were brutal.

Romero’s spirituality was deep and his commitment determined.  He was a person of prayer even as he picked up corpses and offered comfort to a terrorised people.  This was after all God’s work not his own.  Jesus was able to heal because he had known suffering and had been wounded.

He listened and accompanied the poor.  He discovered the church of God as a church of the poor who needed liberation. Romero knew the burden that went with good leadership.  Bishops are shepherds of the people, and Romero was one who knew his flock intimately.  The people knew his voice from his compassionate kindness and from his cogent preaching.  He was not going to run from danger and was willing to lay down his life for his people. 

What did his death 30 years ago achieve?  As his body was laid to rest on 30 March, gunfire strafed the crowd.  In the decade that followed some 60,000 people died.  Even today, while the death squads are gone, the roots of injustice linger.  There are a great number of people living in poverty; unemployment and insecurity remain. 

Romero’s life touched people. He loved his people and was loved in return. Up to 200,000 people came to his funeral - the largest gathering in Salvadoran history. The people he loved in life did not feel forsaken by him at his death. His spirit was resurrected in the struggle of the Salvadoran people. He is called Monseñor with a reverential devotion. The church has given him the title ‘Servant of God’. It is a fitting title, for his was a ministry of service. His life and death is also a ministry of hope. Life, not death, has the last word. His example remains for us all, saying that if one is to die, more will rise. The harvest comes from the grain of wheat that dies.

(From an article in Province Express, 17 March 2010)