Saint Oscar Romero of El Salvador
Last Sunday, Oct. 14, or 38 years after his assassination on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was declared a canonized saint of the Catholic Church, one of six individuals “raised to the altar” in solemn rites attended by tens of thousands in Rome. Pope Francis, who presided at the Mass along with hundreds of priests and bishops, wore the bloodied cincture or waistband of the martyred archbishop.
In 2010, the United Nations proclaimed March 24 as the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations.
For juicy info about Romero’s canonization (slowed down but later fast-tracked), Google “What Oscar Romero’s canonization says about Pope Francis” by Paul Elie in The Atlantic Daily.
Although I had known much about Romero (his death in 1980 caused a stir among Church activists in the Philippines, then groveling under the Marcos dictatorship), it was different watching his character come alive in the movie “Romero” (Raul Julia in the lead role), which I watched in 1990 and reviewed.
Who was Romero that the forces of evil sought to destroy him?
Movie producer Fr. Ellwood Kieser described Romero as “a mouse of a man, a deeply flawed, traditional churchman, rigid, frightened… He was a man whom few of his fellow priests wanted, and more than a few detested, yet who — when he was appointed—was transformed by the responsibilities and grace of office into a fierce tiger of a man.”
Yes, there is such a grace as the “grace of office.”
El Salvador in the 1980s was one of several Central American nations under US-supported dictatorships. It bore similarities to the Philippines then — arbitrary killings, disappearances, assassination of church people, the institutional Church waking up, people taking up arms, the poor finding their voices, activists being branded as communists.
In the movie, Romero begins as a bookish guy in an ivory tower. The shy Romero is contrasted with his close friend, the warm and charismatic Fr. Rutilio Grande. But, slowly, Romero’s character gains color and strength when seen in the context of the Salvadoran situation.
Romero is appointed archbishop at a time of political turmoil. But Rome’s choice is not met with much rejoicing. What could this man do? In him the rich and powerful have a friend and supporter. He will not rock the boat, or so many thought.
But Romero metamorphoses into a defender of human rights, champion of the poor and those who could not speak for themselves. In a scene from real life, Romero booms from the pulpit: “This past week, I wrote a letter to the president of the United States not to send any more arms to this country. They are only being used to kill our people.”
And then Father Grande, along with an old man and a boy, is killed by agents of the state. At the funeral Mass, a grief-stricken Romero cries out: “They are equal and they are us, and they were murdered and we must not let it happen again.” The tragedy unleashes in Romero a holy rage. The archbishop is never the same again.
But he must also deal with the violence from the leftist guerrillas, as when they kidnap the minister of agriculture. When the man’s wife tells Romero, “You are sympathetic only to the poor,” he replies, “I must minister to everyone.”
This episode leads to more abuses. A young priest is taken by the military and accused of aiding the guerrillas. Romero comes to the rescue and finds the priest a broken man, a victim of torture by electrocution.
At some point, Romero takes a perilous stance when he refuses to officiate at the inauguration of Gen. Humberto Romero as president. “How can I bless a situation in which innocent people disappear night after night; when men like Grande are murdered?”
He continued to speak even while death awaited: “The political dimension of faith is nothing else but the response of the Church to the exigencies of the sociopolitical world in which it lives… It means something more profound and evangelic, it means a true option for the poor, an incarnation into the world… the Church lives in a political world and realizes itself in politics insofar as a Church can do. It cannot be otherwise if, like Jesus, it wants to address itself to the poor.”
A month later, an assassin was on his way. At the altar offering Mass, Romero had just cried out “Thou shall not kill!” when a bullet felled him, the echo of his cry clashing with the burst of gunfire, the Sacred Wine spilled and blended with his blood. He was 62.
(Similar scenes played out in real life several times recently in the Philippines.)
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