Tribute to: Archbishop Oscar Romero
Back in 1985 during my seminary internship in the state or as they prefer, the commonwealth of Virginia, I was asked by a group of students to give a guest lecture on Liberation Theology at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. The term, Liberation Theology, refers to the religious thought which emerged in Latin America in the 1950’s and 1960’s among leaders of the Roman Catholic church. I was asked to speak because I had taken a class and heard lectures on Liberation Theology back at San Francisco Theological Seminary and at Berkeley.
The book which introduced me to the thought of Latin American liberation theology is entitled: “A Theology of Liberation” by Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru. In Gutierrez’ mind, and the mind of other liberation thinkers, true followers of Jesus must work toward building a more just society, must help bring about social and political change, must align themselves with the working class and the poor, and they must interpret scripture from the view of the poor. Why? Because Jesus was a hero of the common man. For Jesus’ ministry confronted social, religious and political injustice.
Thus, in the mind of Latin American liberation theologians, all church doctrine should grow out of the perspective of “the least of these” the poor. And the church should have at its heart, as its guiding purpose, a ministry which identifies with the poor and the oppressed.
The sack lunches put together by our youth each month, and the Von’s cards distributed to people with those lunches, is one example of liberation theology come alive. Another is your generous and enthusiastic support of the Five Cities Christian Women’s Emergency Food Ministry in Grover Beach.
Gustavo Gutierrez famously or infamously depending where you stand said to Christians everywhere: “God takes sides. There is no neutrality.” Open your Bible and you will read that God is on the side of the poor against all who would seek to further their oppression. Liberation theologians say to the followers of Christ in Latin America and around the world—whose side are you on?
Do your words and deeds, do the institutions and governments you support, the church in which you worship, further justice or injustice, violence or peace?
Does your theology build bridges of compassion which help unite people or high walls of indifference or violence which divide them?
Last Sunday tens of thousands of people from all over the world filled the ancient plaza of Vatican City, St. Peter’s Square, in order to hear Pope Francis declare Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a saint. Archbishop, Oscar Romero, was a peacemaker, a bridge builder, and, like Jesus, a champion of the common man. Saint Oscar Romero’s words and deeds called for justice and peace in the world. He followed in the footsteps of Jesus, the Prince of peace, in standing up for the rights of the poor and oppressed.
Yes, Oscar Romero was a liberation theologian.
He lived, worked, preached and died in service to, and among, the poor and he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ even in the face of on-going death threats and the awareness that those threats would ultimately be carried out by men who wanted and had the power to silence him.
Yet, Romero’s life was a testament to the truth that “You can kill the dreamer--but you can’t kill the dream”—for that dream stays alive in the people.
Last March I read an article in the Los Angeles Times which discussed the Catholic Church’s decision to convey sainthood upon Romero this year. Something the poor of El Salvador and around the world did unofficially many years ago. It just took a while for the church to get its act together. The journalist gave this brief summary of Oscar Romero’s life and ministry:
“Born in 1917, Oscar Romero began his career in the [Roman Catholic] church as a relative conservative. [He hadn’t developed eyes to see and the heart to feel the suffering of his people. Romero didn’t take seriously the plight of the working class and the poor. He thought injustices were exaggerated—fake news, if you will.] “But years of seeing how El Salvador's poor were mistreated by a handful of rich oligarchs ultimately turned Romero against the Salvadorian government.
“Father Romero was spurred to social action a few weeks after being appointed archbishop, when a fellow priest, a dear friend who had called for worker rights was slain.
“It was the early days of the country's civil war, which pitted rebels against a right-wing government backed by the United States. [Not one of our country’s finer moments]
“In homilies and widely broadcast radio shows, Archbishop Romero implored the government of El Salvador to do more for the poor and criticized the repressive tactics of the military.
“And he gained international recognition when he wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter asking that the U.S. stop military aid to El Salvador.
The day before his death on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero, just 62-years-old, delivered a sermon begging army soldiers to not obey orders to kill civilians. Said Romero to the military: "In the name of God … I beg you, I beseech you, I order you to stop the repression."
The very next evening, while Archbishop Romero was leading a Mass at a chapel in a hospital, an unknown assassin approached the altar and shot Oscar Romero through the heart. Yes, he died as he led a communion service.
Chaos ensued at Romero's funeral a few days later, and dozens of people were killed. The left and the right blamed each other for sparking the violence. That violent incident and Romero's death were seen as key events at the start of the 12-year civil war in El Salvador—a war in which 75,000 people were killed and thousands disappeared.
Interestingly, conservatives within the Roman Catholic church long blocked efforts to name Romero a saint, arguing he was slain for his politics, not his religion. As if the two can be separated—they cannot. Jesus didn’t die on a cross because of his theology or religion—he died because he confronted social and political injustices among the Jewish and Roman elite.
The case for Romero's canonization stalled at the Vatican under the papacy of John Paul II, he, part of a generation of clergy who disliked Romero's associations with liberation theology, a movement that argued that while clergy members should care for the poor—caring is not enough-- they should also push for political changes to end poverty. Funny, isn’t it, how when members of the clergy call for political changes in society, they end up dead.
That list of martyrs includes Oscar Romero…and, years before him, Martin Luther King Jr….and years before him, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and yes, Jesus of Nazareth.
Thank you Archbishop Romero for having the courage to love—the courage to be a peacemaker, the courage to stand up for the rights of those who have no voice.
Thank you for “taking up your own cross and following” as Jesus invited you to do.
As we celebrate Peace Sunday, this morning, let us remember Archbishop Romero’s stirring words: “Peace is dynamism, peace is generosity, peace is right and it is duty.”