On the 24th March 1980, 35 years ago on Tuesday, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while celebrating mass. He was a champion of the poor and a fearless protector of their rights. To the Vatican he was too progressive and therefore the cause for his beatification was stalled for many years. Pope Benedict, however, did kick start the cause again and now Pope Frances has fast-tracked it. The latter has officially declared him a martyr of the Catholic faith. Archbishop Romero will be beatified in San Salvador on the 23rd of May this year, much to the joy of the people of San Salvador who have always recognised their beloved Bishop as a saint.
Archbishop Romero was always a deeply spiritual man but he wasn’t always a progressive. I remember watching a movie about him, where, in his early days he was quite conservative and was fond of mixing with the rich and attending their functions. Meanwhile he was out of touch with the poor. He had a very close friend, however, Fr. Rutilio Grande, who constantly reminded him of his duties to the poor. He pointed out to him that these rich are in agreement with the military junta who are causing such havoc to the same poor. Slowly the Archbishop began to take heed of his friends advice. But it wasn’t until Fr. Rutilio was assassinated on the 12th March 1977 that he really turned a corner.
Fr. Rutilio’s death had a profound impact on the Archbishop and he later stated that, “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’. Walk the same path he did. Romero found a new voice, and spoke out relentlessly against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. His stirring homilies on Sundays were broadcast and listened to nationwide. There he listed disappearances, tortures, murders etc. but he didn’t stop there. He then gave an hour long homily inviting his nation wide flock to link their sufferings with Christ. “If we are worth anything,” he says, ‘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.’
When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, we hear these amazing words: ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying for help on account of their taskmasters. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings. And I have come down to rescue them.’ This saying comes from a deep place in God. It is as if it is written on the heart of God. Words very similar to this were inscribed on the heart of Romero. He too had seen the misery of his people, and being a man of prayer he now allowed the cries of the poor to be written on his heart and he responded with a passion.
The phrase, ‘written on the heart’ was coined by Jeremiah in today’s first reading. Jeremiah assures his people that their infidelity has not led God to abandon them, but to re-form them. Instead of giving them rules to follow, God wants to infuse their hearts with the fire of divine love, just as in the case of Romero. This is not a new covenant, but rather an offer of the grace to understand God’s will anew — from the inside out. The difference with this covenant is that it will be written on their hearts. Being rooted there in deep soil means that they will share the very passion of God.
Perhaps the key to Romero’s passionate intensity is found in Hebrews today. Just like Jesus, the Archbishop learned obedience through suffering. Does that mean that the Son of God didn’t know how to obey? No, it means that the Son of God was fully human; his obedience, like that of every other person, had to be incarnated, lived out in his own personal history. Just as Jesus had to learn how to walk and talk and socialise, so he had learn obedience to his Father in the ups and downs of everyday life. Romero walked the same path and like Jesus grew in the wisdom of dying so as to give life. I quote him again” “By contrast, whoever out of love for God gives oneself to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently… Only in undoing itself does it produce the harvest.”
There is a lovely saying in today’s Gospel. “We wish to see Jesus.” Seeing Jesus means seeing the whole Christ and demands that we centre our inner gaze on him and allow ourselves to be moved by his very presence, his deep love and compassion for all. During Holy Week our gaze will be centred on his being lifted up on the cross for our salvation. Here is the final gesture of a life given over day by day for a more human world for all – a world that finds its salvation in God. It is this same gesture that Romero learned so well. Perhaps it was most fitting then that he should die at the altar commemorating the death and resurrection of his beloved Christ.
Sunday, March 22, 2015