On March 24, 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero was celebrating the Mass at a hospital chapel in El Salvador when he was shot and killed. Audio recordings indicate that he was shot at the moment that he raised the cup over Holy Communion.
Just one day earlier Romero had preached a sermon where he had called upon the soldiers of El Salvador’s army to disobey orders to kill the people of El Salvador, citing the Ten Commandments and suggesting that they need not obey an order that violated God’s law.
“Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. …In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.” – Archbishop Oscar Romero, March 23, 1980
In spite of the fact that he lived and died during my own lifetime, I suspect that I had never heard of this great man until I was graduate school because he was a Roman Catholic. In my evangelical and Pentecostal circles we didn’t talk about Catholic saints very often (Romero has not yet been declared a saint but the process has started within the Roman Catholic church).
But that is to our detriment. During the brutal killings by their own government, which would eventually lead to civil war in El Salvador, Romero found a Christ-like third way. The Catholic church had often been accused in being complicit with the government just as many Sadducees had been accused of complicity with Rome. Romero spoke out against the killings and the government relentlessly, becoming the voice of the people. He had appealed to even the Pope and to President Jimmy Carter.
Many of the priests of El Salvador had called for a Marxist liberation theology and even for violence, not unlike the Zealots that called for violent overthrow of Rome in Jesus’ day. Romero decried the failures of Marxism, citing the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Romero argued that liberation had less to do with economics and more to do with the kingdom of God. He taught resistance to violence and the virtues of Catholic just war theory that violence can only be used as a last resort.
In the midst of choices that failed to get to the heart of the Gospel, Romero proclaimed the good news of Jesus and his coming Kingdom.
“And so, brothers and sisters, I repeat again what I have said here so often, addressing by radio those who perhaps have caused so many injustices and acts of violence, those who have brought tears to so many homes, those who have stained themselves with the blood of so many murders, those who have hands soiled with tortures, those who have calloused their consciences, who are unmoved to see under their boots a person abased, suffering, perhaps ready to die. To all of them I say: no matter your crimes. They are ugly and horrible, and you have abased the highest dignity of a human person, but God calls you and forgives you. And here perhaps arises the aversion of those who feel they are laborers from the first hour. How can I be in heaven with those criminals? Brothers and sisters, in heaven there are no criminals. The greatest criminal, once he has repented of his sins, is now a child of God.” – Archbishop Oscar Romero
Saints are those people who so lived the Gospel well that they inspire others to live as God has called them. All kinds of Christians would do well to follow Archbishop Romero as he followed Christ.
For those that want to learn more about Romero, James Brockman wrote a well-respected biography.
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