A reflection by Fr. Jack Lynch, SFM, on Numbers 21.4-9 and John 8.21-30
Exactly thirty-five years ago today, on March 24th 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was cowardly assassinated by elements of the Salvadoran military while he was celebrating Mass. The day before in the cathedral his homily was broadcast on radio in El Salvador and many neighboring countries in which he adamantly appealed directly to the military, “In the name of God then and in the name of this suffering people whose screams and cries mount to heaven, and daily grow louder, I beg you, I entreat you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression.”
Last month, Romero was officially declared a martyr and will be beatified in the Cathedral Plaza in San Salvador on May 23rd this year. Romero was not a raving radical but rather a man who, like many of us, had been touched by suffering and injustice. He was a bishop who was evangelized by the poor and those on the margins and the periphery. It is significant that the beatification will take place precisely when we have a Latin American Pope who wants a poor church for the poor.
Ordained a priest in 1942, Romero became an auxiliary bishop of San Salvador in 1970, two years after the Bishops of Latin America met in Medellin where they articulated the “option for the poor.” At that point in time, Romero was theologically conservative and quite cautious about accepting the changes promulgated at Vatican II and at Medellin.
For that reason, his appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 was regarded as a good appointment by those who wanted to preserve the status quo and as a disappointment by many of the priests and laity who actively defended the poor and whose ministry was with the poor. As the Jesuit Jon Sobrino points out that before the Church made an option for the poor, the poor in Latin America had for the most part already opted for the Church as their only source of hope, as they could not trust the military, their governments, political parties or private enterprise.
Oscar Romero, a man of profound prayer, was already in the process of a very radical conversion. When appointed Archbishop, he refused the offer of the wealthy to build a new house and moved into a room beside the sacristy of the chapel where he was murdered. We know now from his own diary that his attitude began to change when in 1974 he was appointed Bishop of Santiago de Maria, a poor rural diocese where he witnessed firsthand the suffering of El Salvador’s landless poor.
The radical conversion crystallized within a short time after his installation as Archbishop on February 23rd 1977. Five days later, on Feb. 28th, there was a massacre of innocent protesters in Plaza Libertad and two weeks later on March 12th his good friend and Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande was assassinated, along with an elderly man and a young boy. On May 11th Fr. Alfonso Navarro was murdered and on May 19th in Aguilares, four Jesuits were badly beaten and then taken to the Guatemalan border and expelled from El Salvador.
I remember a few years ago meeting with Fr. Ricardo Urioste who had been Romero’s vicar-general and he told us that Romero suffered martyrdom twice. Once was the assassination, and the second at the hands of the Bishops Conference. After the death of Fr. Rutilio Grande, Romero ordered that there be only one Mass celebrated the following Sunday and it would take place in the Cathedral. The majority of the Bishops were opposed to his decision then, as they were on many other occasions. For Romero it was difficult but the call to discipleship and a prophetic stance was clear to him and he didn’t waver.
In both scripture readings today, grace-filled recognition occurs after the lifting up. The bronze serpent lifted up for all to see becomes the source of healing for the Hebrews. In the gospel Jesus says that “when you have lifted up the son of man, then you will realize that I am he and that I do nothing on my own.”
Romero was loved by the poor and since his death he has already been lifted up and canonized by many of them. Yes, it has been grace-filled recognition. I have personal memories of Salvadorans speaking fondly of Monsenor, and you know that they speak of Romero without saying his name. The Anglican Church has already installed a statue of him in the front of Westminster Abbey in London, recognizing him as a defender of the poor. March 24th has been declared by the Italian Bishops as “A Day of Prayer for Missionary Martyrs”.
Two weeks before his assassination, Romero gave witness to his profound faith in God and in his people. In his reply to a Mexican journalist, who asked him if he were afraid of death, he said, “I have often been threatened with death. I have to say, as a Christian, that I don’t believe in death without resurrection: if they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. If the threats are carried out, even now, I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God I don’t think I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon become reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”