Óscar Arnulfo Romero (1917 -1980), a pastor, prophet, martyr, is now . . . “Saint of the Americas.” In his own words, a priest’s role is not just to celebrate Mass, administer sacraments, organize catechism classes, collaborate with Catholic relief agencies, and offer spiritual counsel and consolation to the people he shepherds, but, “A Shepherd WHO KNOWS THE SMELL OF HIS SHEEP”. The Church and her priests are called to care for society’s most vulnerable even if that means defying unjust legal, economic, and social structures that oppress them. Through sermons, radio broadcasts, processions, and the like, this once-timid archbishop began to denounce the government’s rapidly growing violence.
Romero’s pathway to God involved actively denouncing violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable, and defending the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity, and opposing all forms of violence. He was above the politics and politicking of mere mortals, and his faith was bigger than the shackles that sought to tie him down. He said, “We proclaim the Gospel to point out to people the paths of redemption”.
There is no honour for the church to be on good terms with the powerful, the oppressors. The legacy of Oscar Romero is that we can no longer be quiet against injustice and the oppressors. Taking a position in the Church does not mean remaining neutral- sitting on the couch, taking a back seat and NOT getting involved. Instead it is a call to solidarity with the poor, to be committed to the poor, not to stand by and watch from outside, but to be inside their struggles, because our own brother and sister is being affected. In the words of Pope Francis, “Romero’s ministry was distinguished by his particular attention to the most poor and marginalized.”
The poor who are gunned down on the street for their protest against injustice, the peasants massacred for seeking just wages, they are our brothers and sisters. He boldly said, “I order you in the name of God, stop this repression”. After the brutal murder of his close friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande, he became an outspoken critic of the military government of El Salvador.
In 1980, Romero was shot by an assassin while celebrating Mass. The bullets may have silenced his voice, but his words live on. “As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people”. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; when it dies, bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus is radical, He gives all, and asks for all. It is either ALL or NOTHING. “There is no greater love than this: that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends” (John 15:13). Romero embodied this call. Martyrdom is a victory, not a defeat, a loud proclamation of God’s glory, not a silencing of God’s Word, a reminder that human wickedness can never win in the end. Through the waves of violence that persist, Saint Óscar Romero remains a symbol of hope for El Salvador. Proof of their faith are the flyers pasted on the cathedral walls, pleading: “Archbishop, talk to God for El Salvador!”
The author is Research Director, Environmental Scientist, and Professor at St. Joseph’s University, Bengaluru.