Two weeks ago marked the end to Hispanic Heritage Month here in the United States. Recently, I had the opportunity to study with the other writer of this column, Rev. Hancock-Stefan about the martyrs of the church and about their stories. So, in honor of these two events I wanted to frame my column this week around the life of Father Oscar Romero, a Hispanic Roman Catholic priest who gave his life serving God and defending the poor.
Romero lived his life in El Salvador as a true man of God. He entered the priesthood and was ordained in 1942. For the rest of his days as a Catholic Priest and Archbishop he struggled within himself and outwardly with the government of his day. The government grew more steadily totalitarian, taking control of every facet of a person’s life – including what he or she could or couldn’t say about the government. At first, Romero worked within the context of government cooperation, but his life was radically changed by an assassin’s bullet. In 1977, Father Rutillo Grande, a close friend of Romero’s and a critic of the government, was gunned down on his way to perform mass.
Romero’s life changed in an instant. He began to become suspicious and even harsh toward government officials. He spoke out about the brutal treatment of the poor and the people of faith. Priests were being slaughtered for speaking out, churches were being ransacked and the ocean of poor grew steadily more oppressed by a government seeking to control everything. Romero finally could not take the horror that surrounded him any longer and began to directly preach from the pulpit that Christian soldiers in the Salvadorian army should no longer follow the brutal directives of the government officials, but follow the Christian command for peace, love, freedom, and to help the poor.
Another assassin’s bullet would end Romero’s life for this preaching. On March 24th, 1980 Romero was performing mass when his life was cut short by the gunshots of the government death squads. He was in the middle of performing the Eucharist (the Catholic portion of Mass when the bread and wine are consecrated) when he was killed. In a moment that could only symbolize the plight of the people the bullet that killed him did so as Romero had lifted up the cup (a sign of Jesus’ shed blood) and was holding it high to be blessed.
Why does this man’s life mean anything to us today? Because his bravery and his faith are an example to us all. He was not a perfect man by any means. In the beginning of his life he turned a blind eye to the suffering of people and did not speak out when he saw crimes occurring around him. But when it mattered, when it really counted, his heart shone through and his voiced boomed loud, and the whole world heard him when he spoke out again the injustices in this world. He spoke out against people oppressing people, of limiting their freedom to speak, love, work and worship. He spoke out against an order that demanded uniformity or death, obedience to man over obedience to God.
Oscar Romero is in each of us. That potential to look at our world through the eyes of compassion, love, strength, unity (without loss of diversity of opinion or personhood), and faith is within us all if we reach down to find that courage within ourselves. We are blessed that we live in a nation that allows us the freedom to have our voice heard, to worship without fear of death, and to celebrate diversity. But we need to remain vigilant that these rights are not invalidated or eroded away. We need to be conscious of the world around us and speak up to defend our faith and to defend those who cannot defend themselves.
As we stop for a moment this year to celebrate the lives of American Hispanics who have affected our lives, let us also stop to remember those who have died to set an example, who affect our lives by reminding us of our greatest freedoms, and as a people, our greatest responsibilities.
Let’s turn our hearts today.