Friday, March 19, 2010

Romero – witness of love of God and justice for the poor

Thirty years ago this coming Wednesday, March 24, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the voice of the voiceless in El Salvador, was killed by forces related to the military and the death squads. They hope to silence his voice.

Tens of thousands are gathering in San Salvador to celebrate his life. I’d love to be with them but decided to stay here.

In January I was in El Salvador to meet an Iowa State University student visiting here for a short time. We went to the hospital where he lived and the chapel there where he was killed.

I have visited the chapel many times, but I remember the visit I made in January 1986, a few weeks before my mother died, of cancer. It struck me then – and having learned more – strikes me still that he lived at a hospital for poor terminal cancer patients.

He used to visit the hospital and consecrated the chapel in July 1964. When he was bishop of Santiago de María, he would stay at the chapel when he came in for bishops meetings.

When he became archbishop of San Salvador, he insisted on staying in the sacristy of the chapel instead of a nice residence that some of his rich friends might have build for them.

Only later, after the sisters insisted, did he move from the chapel to a small three room house on the hospital grounds.

Romero’s compassion for the weak, for the poor, for terminal cancer patients, predated his prophetic years as archbishop of San Salvador and I believe shaped his life, in preparation for his later prophetic mission as archbishop. Something in the depths of his being called him to listen to their pleas, even as a young priest.

But when his good friend, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, was killed travelling between Aguilares and El Paisnal while fulfilling his pastoral ministry, something struck the archbishop and he began to see the need to face the structures of oppression.

The witness of Rutilio Grande, not really a radical priest but a priest committed to the poor and their rights, moved Monseñor Romero to deepen his commitment and to add another dimension to his ministry.

Not only did he feel called to preach the Gospel, but he was called to live the Gospel in the midst of the poor, listening to their voices, advocating for them, encouraging them in their struggles for life.

He combined what I think is essential for a Christian life – prayer and a deep relationship with Jesus, compassion and a personal contact with the poor, courage a willingness to face injustice and call it by name.

That’s a message we all need to try to live.

Today, Friday, March 19, I took the Iowa State University/St. Thomas Aquinas Church group that is here to the Hogar San José, a home for malnourished kids. We were there last Saturday and had hoped to spend more time with the kids. But, being the feast of St. Joseph, there was a special Mass at 3:00 pm, celebrated with Father Rudy Mejía, the pastor of the parish next door.

We decided to stay for Mass. As Mass was beginning one of the women who works there handed me one of the infants to hold. As I prayer during the Mass and as I listened to Father Rudy’s homily, I held this beautiful little girl. Beautiful despite the prickly heat sores and insect bites on her body. But, as Father Rudy said, one human person is worth more than the entire universe.

Carrying that baby made that Mass one of the most prayerful I’ve had for some time. It awakened my love for God and for others.

As I write this I recall our meeting earlier this week with Edgar, one of the coordinators of a maternal and infant health program in Caritas. The area where he’s working includes parts of the parish of Dulce Nombre. He mentioned that in the villages where the program is set up the malnutrition rate is 64%, higher than the 38% average for the whole country. I have to check with him whether this is just the child malnutrition rate or the general rate. But either way, it’s scandalous.

So tonight I think and pray for those children, the innocent victims of injustice, an injustice that appears to be engrained into the system here.

But I also remember the witness of Romero – and the challenge he calls us to, a challenge reflected in the words of the prophet Micah (6:8)
I have told you, oh human, what is good and what the Lord demands of you – only this: to act justly, to love tenderly, and walk humbly with our God.

NOTE: There’s a nice extended BBC report on Romero at their Heart and Soul web page.


Anonymous said...

Amen to a good sermon, Brother John.

Romero's story is really moving, especially knowing that he began as a stuffy small-c conservative. Gradually he lost his fear of what might happen if he spoke out and just began living in the moment, as we are supposed to do. So, in the end, he was genuinely free.

Anonymous said...

BTW, Bob Parry has a memorial to Archbishop Romero.

Events in Honduras make me sometimes feel that we are trapped in a never-ending nightmare, which repeats and repeats and repeats.